Active Learning: Why I turned my students into Sherlock Holmes for a lesson!

My previous post was about active learning and pedagogical practice.  This is a case study for one of my recent lessons.

The Case of Emily Davison: 

I have been obsessed with the death of Emily Davison for a decade.  A hero of the Women’s Movement, Davison died under the hooves of the Kings Horse in 1913 at the Derby and became a historic martyr for her cause.

emily davison
Death at the Derby – 1913

What I have always found fascinating was the question of Davison’s intent as she ran out to the Kings Horse in June 1913.  Davison’s ‘suicide’ was the first suicide case I ever investigated as an academic.  It is in part down to her actions that I took up the mantel of Historical Suicidologist.  All because I’ve wanted to understand her death for such a long time. Skipping the long explanation of the events (but I should totally write up my research for this and post it – oh fun times ahead) the point is that Davison’s actions stand as one of the fixed points of time for the causal progression of the Women’s Movement at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  Without her sacrifice could the movement have achieved what it did?  Well, honestly the answer is an absolute yes; within a year the First World War is coming (spoilers) and with it an entire social shift in opportunity and attitude.  Yet, this does not diminish the impact of a woman who had been force-fed and physically abused whilst in prison for activism, regularly set fire to post boxes, hurled shouted protests (and rocks) at MPs, and generally caused trouble for the establishment where ever she went.   Davison was even considered an extremist by those she worked alongside, and yet she never tired, even as lived her later years in perpetual agony after falling down a set of metal stairs in prison.  In my eyes, she was an absolute legend.

A suffragette being force-fed © Creative Commons

Part of the curriculum for my first-year university history students this year was to learn about the women’s movement at the turn of the century and the fight for votes and equality.  As always post victorian culture, issues of changing social class, key figures such as the Pankhursts, and the impact of the First World War took centre stage within the discussion; yet as always, I was brought back to the death of Davison.  This year I decided to do something different.  Instead of the usual source this year my groups became apprentice detectives with myself, as lead DI, in charge.  Hours of research and preparation culminated in sources such as the following:

  • Witness statements regarding Davison’s actions during and prior to June 1913.
  • Official reports from her incarceration in 1909
  • Images of her throughout her life
  • Newspaper reports from her death and previous protests
  • Literature from the WSPU to which she contributed and supported
  • Video footage from the moment Davison ran out in front of the horse.
  • Reports on the personal effects found on Davison in June 1913.
  • Parliamentary discussions following her death in 1913-14.
  • Secondary source material on the motivations and actions of deliberate suicide for reference.

The question set was this:

Act or Accident? Did Emily Davison intend to commit suicide for the cause in 1913? 

Over the course of the lesson, my band of detectives created a timeline of Davison’s life and a profile of her character.  They learned about her injuries and previous exploits.  They debated about her importance in relation to the other factors surrounding the work of the Suffragists and Suffragettes.  They watched the video of her clash with the horse in slow motion to determine the angle of her vantage point and how much she could see in advance.  They discussed the war, the Victorians, force-feeding, and the awarding of the vote in 1918.

Emily Davison’s vantage point at the Derby 1913

Essentially, they investigated the detailed history of women’s battle for the vote and equality in Britain, simply to understand more about the death of a single historical figure – a Mischievous Martyr or an Accidental Activist?

Now let’s be honest this lesson took a fair bit more work than the usual preparation – but as the assessments came around many of my students had chosen to write their essays or exams on the subject of women’s suffrage.  I can absolutely not claim this was a direct impact of their stint as detectives, but I’d like to think it helped.   Also, this subject is a little grisly, potentially as a result of my own obsessions and expertise, so it is not for everyone.  However, the point here is that it was interesting, slightly different than usual but also used the exact same mechanics of a regular lesson – source analysis + doing the reading = debate and knowledge.

I enjoyed it.  Many of them seemed to enjoy it, and I got some lovely nominations for Teaching Excellence Awards.  It worked for me, and I am planning what next to do next year just as a way to keep things interesting and engaging.  Active learning can be a very effective tool, so as the great man himself would say, ‘why not give it a go – Try it Yourself’.

The great man himself – Neil Buchanan! CC: rights reserved.

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