History was taught by Mr Rockell. We studied the British Empire in preparation for our 2 essay question-based O-level exam paper at the end of term. We studied British colonies in Africa and India in lessons much different to those nowadays. We learnt modern history.. which was from the 1880s onwards! The 50s method of teaching was questionable in History. He would set us reading prep (homework), generally about 30 pages of solid, standard-English "textbook" text, and then tell us to take notes on it. Most of us sat and followed the pages with our eyes.. but took nothing in from it. It was tedious, dull, strenuous work. He would then fire questions at people in the class the next lesson to test our understanding. People's heads usually began to involuntarily lower and cower away...
"Why?" I hear you ask. In the 1950s, ritual humiliation was practised every lesson. If you answered a question wrongly in front of a class nowadays, a teacher would put you out of your misery (so to speak) by simply saying "no" and moving on. Not in the 50s. It would be dragged out - embarrassing the pupil in front of their classmates, and sending the rest of the class into fits of laughter (at the pupil's expense). Moments like these were not easily forgotten, and so the class as a whole learnt when things were "wrong"!
After reading our essays on the British Empire in India, Mr Rockell called Rebecca Woodward to the map at the front of the class. "Point to where the Indian Mutiny happened," he said. Seeing her difficulty, Mr Rockell guided her finger to India. Although she claimed she knew this, he fired: "Then why were you talking about Palestine?" Rebecca was, I speak on her behalf, embarrassed when the class all burst out laughing, and returned to her seat a good while later all red-cheeked. She handled it well - I'm sure some people wouldn't have been able to keep their composure in that situation.
Continuing with the theme of ritual humiliation, this was the scene in the lesson after we handed in our first essay homework. Mr Rockell called Andy Walne, Matthew Sweeney, Alastair Unwin and Emma Pinchbeck to the front of the class. "In front of you," spoke Mr Rockell to the class "are both ends of this class' intellectual spectrum. I'll leave it to you to decide which is which." finished Mr Rockell with a sarcastic air in his voice. He always spoke with wide eyes, and he always looked like he was about to let a sly smirk out! Luckily this was not so humiliating for Walne and Sweeney as the class, themselves and Mr Rockell were laughing. He revealed their abysmal grades, as well as Unwin and Emma's top grades. "What on earth are we going to do with you?" asked Mr Rockell, all out of hope. "Sit back down."
True, most people in the class struggled with the demands which History carried. Hours of reading dense, heavy text, then learning and understanding it and applying it to a given essay title under timed regulations... it wasn't a walk in the park. One sufferer amongst many was Henrietta Haines. She would often express her misunderstandings with Mr Rockell in front of the class, (full of confidence and high spirit) as Mr Rockell talked down to her with those sarcastic eyes and that puzzled look. However, with a week to go before the History mock and final examinations, something was amusing her. Mr Rockell called her to the front of the class and instructed her: "Tell the class what you've just told me." Laughing almost to the point of crying, Tetty exclaimed: "I know stuff!" So yes - some people did blossom and come around to the old-fashioned methods of chalk & talk.
Compare our GCSE and O-Level History results here.