Learning History

Learning History – the wrong way!

For most people, learning history isn’t a priority. They’ve had to do it at school, they found it incredibly boring (or unfathomable), and they’re glad they don’t have to have anything to do with it any more. End of story.

The storming of the Bastille. Learning history often includes the French Revolution

The storming of the Bastille during the early part of the French Revolution

I speak from experience. Learning history when I was at school was mostly about learning to recite a list of dates and events, often without understanding much of any of it. I remember, when we were learning history, we spent an inordinate amount of time ‘studying’ the French Revolution in particular, and even now I can remember details, e.g. names of important people involved, important dates. and so on.

But the subject itself, the real story of that tumultuous time in France, was never properly explained or explored. We never really learned, for example, that it was relatively very recent history – that was never really mentioned. It was just thought of as ‘in the past’. Oh, we knew when it all happened of course, in that we rote-learned all the dates, but we never really got a sense of it being just a couple of hundred years ago (which, in the great scheme of things is very, very recent). We just had to learn enough to pass exams, and whether we understood the subject in question, or even gave a damn about it, was not the issue.

The Storming of the Bastille, 14th July 1789
It was many years later that I learned that the Bastille, when it was stormed, held only seven prisoners! Seven! We were always given the impression that hordes of prisoners were released.
Another great triumph for the teaching system!

Sorry, but that’s nothing to do with learning history. Not really. It’s just learning to pass exams. Learning history should be about getting to know the important events of the time, the main characters involved, the challenges they faced and how they dealt with them, and the changes that took place as a result of what happened.

History should be fascinating. It is, actually, it’s only when a school system gets hold of it that it gets watered down and becomes a thin, tasteless gruel of a meal, with nothing to recommend it and nothing of any interest in it to remember.

Focus on learning history that interests you

The Blitz, hell on the home front in World War II. Learning history tells us so much about people's experiences.

World War II wasn’t all about men with guns in far-off lands. The reality was ordinary families caught up in the misery and horrors of the Blitz. German cities suffered a similar fate in the closing months of the war.

If you want to increase your knowledge of the past, why not start by picking some era that you find interesting. It might be the Industrial Revolution, or the First World War. It might be the American War of Independence or the Vikings, or Napoleon. It might even be the French Revolution! Whatever it is, start by reading something that paints a picture of the times with broad strokes, something that will give you a very quick overview and prepare the basis for further reading.

World War II

If, for example, you want to study World War II, start by reading something that will give you the merest outline of the whole thing, so that you at least know that the war started in 1939 and ended in 1945. Get those time markers in place and then start to fill in a few more important details. Learn a little about Hitler and his rise to power. Learn something of the causes of World War II (Germany’s abysmal economic state, the whole German nation felt cheated after the overly-punitive settlement following World War I, they felt the need for a strong leader, etc). Note down these things, and the relevant dates, on a sheet of paper. Or onscreen. Or put them in a mind map

Learning history the wrong way
I’ve known kids of school leaving age who not only couldn’t tell you the dates of WWII, but didn’t even know which century WWI took place in. Sadder still, I heard recently of a teacher reading to a class about WW11, completely ignorant of the fact that there haven’t actually been eleven world wars! Frightening level of ignorance! Must’ve been mindlessly reading (and misreading) his text, I suppose. And to think, this man is entrusted with teaching children! It simply beggars belief.


As you learn more facts about World War II, fill in the gaps in your knowledge, and fill in your mind map as you go. For example, who was the British leader at the time, and what was Parliament’s view of tackling Hitler? What was the American view of the whole thing? Did America want to get involved in what was essentially a European war? What was the French position?

Learning history online

As you fill in a few gaps, remember to make use of modern technology. Forty or fifty years ago you might have been able to get hold of a few books on World War II and not much more, but now, if you’re learning history, you can explore things in depth, right at home, through the miracle of the Web.

Buchenwald concentration camp. Learning history explains the Holocaust and its causes.

See what the Holocaust actually meant for those involved

Your first port of call might well be Wikipedia, which is no doubt stuffed to the gills with facts about World War II. Then you’ve got amazing resources like the BBC, which has, through its local radio stations, been gathering first-hand information about the War from people who lived through those terrible times. The BBC has also gathered together personal accounts of the Holocaust, and published them on the BBC site along with interviews, journals and documentaries charting the unspeakable horrors of the persecution and genocide perpetrated by the Nazi regime.

You’ll find personal accounts online of what went on from the point of view of soldiers, sailors, airmen, housewives, munitions workers, land army girls, Bevin Boys (young men conscripted to work down the mines in the UK), ambulance workers and firemen who dealt with the effects of the Blitz, and so on.

These fascinating personal accounts won’t bore you, they’ll enthrall you. You won’t have trouble building up an understanding of the War, because these accounts will create images in your mind that no amount of dates and data could ever do. Images suffused with emotion, as you read harrowing personal accounts that bring it all home as though it happened just yesterday.

Fill out the mind map with the history of World War II

As you start to get a better picture of what life was like for those young servicemen and women, and those left to make the best of things at home, start also to link it all to events that came before and after the War. Learn what precipitated World War II, what the First World War was all about and what came after it, and what became of Europe and the rest of the world after World War II finally came to an end.

Remember, fill in dates in your notes, or on your mind map, and commit them to memory as you go. Use any method you like. You can pick and choose from the various memory techniques on this site, and you can chop and change as well, using one method for one thing and then changing to a different method, perhaps completely unrelated, for another. Remember, as long as it works, it’s fine.

Create a folder for your learning history project

Create a folder on your computer for World War II, or whatever it is you’re studying. Carefully add to it as you go along, creating files on each area of study as you read about it. You don’t need to write long, rambling explanations of campaigns or events – bullet point lists will do (and they’ll be far more effective).

Remember too that there is a huge and growing body of film documentaries about WWII, and you can access them pretty easily these days, one way or another. The facts about World War II are there, ready for you, and ready for the taking. Help yourself!

You could have files on various important aspects of the War, for example:

  • The causes of World War II
  • Hitler, his rise to power
  • Hitler’s methods of controlling an entire country
  • The main characters in the Third Reich
  • The Hitler Youth, moulded to Hitler’s own warped design
  • The SS and the Gestapo
  • The Nazi propaganda machine
  • The Battle of Britain
  • D-Day and the Normandy Invasion
  • The U-boats and the Battle of the Atlantic
  • Hitler’s doomed attempt to take Russia
  • The Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s last major offensive
  • The atomic bombs dropped on Japan
  • The Holocaust
  • The Nuremberg trials

Learning history the proper way!

You don’t ever have to make this into hard slog, miserable study, the type of thing that makes you wonder why you’re doing all this. As you learn more, it becomes more and more fascinating. And putting it together is easy – you can copy-and-paste whole sections from Wikipedia, or whatever you’re reading, and put them in your files, with your own comments. This isn’t plagiarism, this is studying. You’re not doing this to publish it for anyone else and claiming it as your own work, you’re just gathering information for your project.

Street fighting during World War II. Learning history brings the past to life.Gather pictures too, pictures of the protagonists, the battles, the weaponry, the homefront. Put faces to the names. Gather together as many facts about World War II as you can. And don’t forget films. Movies that you have already seen, see them again, and this time stop the video to make brief notes, repeatedly, as often as needed. Note the dates things happened, and what caused them to happen.

Search out documentaries, such as The World at War. This is a phenomenal and ground-breaking series of gripping hour-long films, each focusing on one important aspect of the War. The World at War is such a tremendous piece of work that you could study this and nothing else and you’d know an enormous amount about the War.

Make it a project you love

Don’t feel obligated to finish learning history of this period, whichever it may be, in three months, or six months, or any number of months. This will take as long as it takes. As long as you’re learning history, it’s working. And as long as you’re enjoying learning, it’s fine. It doesn’t matter if you’re still compiling your project file a year from now, or two years from now. With a subject that’s been as well documented as World War II you could easily be studying it for years and years and still learning more about the subject all the time. Other periods, much earlier and not so well documented, will probably take not nearly as long, and still you’ll learn a lot about the subject.

And if it’s a period much earlier in history, create your own mental images for each character (or base the images on portraits, carvings, statues, or whatever is available). If you need to create mental images from scratch, why not ‘cast’ the individuals as though you’re the casting director for an upcoming film on the subject. If it’s a king, for example, and he was known to be brave and solidly built, choose an actor that fits the bill and make him the basis for your mental images of the character. If he was known to be weedy and sly, choose someone else you think would personify him better. Just remember to make a note of who represents whom so that you don’t get confused when you come to review your work months later.

Build up your knowledge store

As you go from one project to another, and link it to others you’ve already worked on, you will be creating a network of historical facts and knowledge that starts to look like an almost complete tapestry, not a threadbare old thing that leaves you confused when you look at it. Your feel for history will grow as you study it and you will start to instinctively seek out the relevant details from the tsunami of facts that are nowadays flooding in from all around us.

This is learning history the proper way! Building up an ever-growing knowledge bank of facts and data about various periods, but even more important, building up a real understanding of the people of the time and the challenges they faced. And how they dealt with them.


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