Effective strategies for teaching migration

Author: Emily Folorunsho
Published: 30/08/2022
Exhibition showing people of different ethnicities

I have started to notice that more departments are teaching migration in KS3 or KS4. When Pearson introduced the migration thematic course, our department unanimously decided to swap crime and punishment for migration, especially after the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. We did this for many reasons, such as:

  • It provides the opportunity to explore the complex question of ‘What is Britishness?’ as well as giving students the opportunity to explore their individual identities. This is because migration provides the most resonant stories for young people to study.
  • Migration is a story of ordinary people shaping history. We tend to learn what people at the top do, but studying migration helps students to see that ordinary people are also significant.
  • It shows students that the concept of race is fluid, which is heavily seen through African Tudors.
  • It brings justice to history because it highlights most stories around our country without being too Anglocentric. Teaching migration does justice to the complexity and nuances of history, thereby providing a more accurate representation of Britain to our students.
  • Migration is the story that connects and weaves all other stories together; it can help tie your curriculum together, making it more coherent. For example, if your students study the Elizabethan period as a depth study, then migration provides the perfect opportunity to deepen students’ understanding of the period as it connects to exploration and persecution of Protestants, which caused them to seek refuge in England. These connections can also be seen in other periods such as Industrialisation, WWI, WWII and the Normans. As a result, migration helps to illuminate British history on a deeper level.

Now that I have explored the importance of teaching migration, I want to delve into the strategies that will do justice to the content being taught. These strategies will help land the rationale for the topic into the minds, understanding and souls of our students.

  1. Using enquiries

The notion of ‘enquiry’ is fundamental to the study of history. We typically frame our units under enquiries at KS3 but then at KS4 and KS5 learning is structured differently, in accordance with the textbook. However, the idea of enquiry-based learning has deep roots in progressive and constructivist conceptions of learning, and in history teaching the principle of structuring students’ learning around a series of questions or enquiries drives the historical thinking and interest of the unit of work. Furthermore, I believe shaping the unit of work under enquiries, especially at KS4, will help to get students to care more about what they are learning. Here are some ideas for enquiry questions (KS3 and KS4) that could be used to build a unit of work:

  • How was Britain shaped by migrants from c.800 to 1500?
  • How diverse were the experiences of migrants from c.1500 to c.2000?
  • To what extent was migration a positive experience from X to Y?
  • Why did migrants in the Middle Ages decide to set up home in England?
  • To what extent were migrants forced into assimilation in the X century?
  1. Learning through sources

Sources are the basis of the discipline of history. If we want to do justice to the teaching of migration and give agency to the voices/people which we are teaching about, it is important that sources feature in our teaching as much as possible. This is because sources provide an authentic window into the experiences of migrants. Looking back at my old lessons, I am ashamed to say that sources were only featured in ‘source’ enquiries or sources-assessed papers for GCSE. It was not something that featured in all our lessons. This is a target that my department and I are still working on. Nevertheless, as we have been creating lessons for migration in KS4, we have ensured that sources are featured in every lesson, despite half the paper not assessing source skills. We have done this by introducing a source before distilling the content. Therefore, before students learn about the reasons why Jews came to England in the Middle Ages, they have to work out the reasons from the source. Not only are they exercising their inference skills, but they are also ‘thinking hard’ and becoming cognitively active. We get our sources from the migration textbooks, our migration story website or the national archives. Typical questions posed are:

  • What can you learn/infer from this source about the reasons why the Irish migrated?
  • What can you learn from this source about the experiences of X? How do you know?
  • What can you learn from this source about the impact of X?

In other words, we introduce new learning/information through the sources so that the sources can do the talking. This task also helps students to see the value of sources as a source of information rather than a means to assess utility/reliability.

  1. Individual stories

Stories help to provide a richer understanding of the imagined past. They are the micro that provides a lens into the macro. Migration is centred on many stories and, as a result, stories must be at the centre of teaching migration. Not every story can be taught, but select the story that can give your students a panoramic view into typical experiences for a certain migrant group. Again, just like using more sources, stories provide authenticity to what we teach. Teaching migration at KS4 is so vast that the big picture/narrative can sometimes become overwhelming. However, stories help the big picture/narrative to feel more accessible and manageable to students and enable them to identify themes and patterns within the course. Furthermore, the development of a sense of period is foundational in enabling students to sequence their learning chronologically; therefore, stories can help to unlock students’ sophisticated conceptual thinking. Most importantly, stories help students to connect to the past on a human level as stories help to humanise the study of history. Stories also have cognitive benefits; Daniel Willingham has shown that their use helps to aid memory. According to Willingham, stories are ‘psychologically privileged’ because they are more interesting, easier to understand and easier to remember.

An example of one of our lesson titles centred on stories of individuals is:

  • What does the story of Cornelia Sorabji reveal about Asian migration in Britain in 1700–1900?

When creating your information sheet of the story, make sure you add illustration or images of sources to aid students’ imagination of the past.

The history of migration is British history; obscuring the histories of race, migration and empire from our teaching gives students an incomplete and partial understanding of the key ideas, movements and forces that have shaped modern Britain on local levels and on a national level. Exploring this history can also touch students’ own senses of identity and belonging and can provide essential context to allow critical thinking about what British citizenship means, and has meant over time. It is absolutely crucial that history teachers are provided with the space within the curriculum to make this happen, especially if they are serious about incorporating more diversity.

Download the ideas from this article as free resource in Word or PDF format: Tips for teaching migration.

To find out about teacher training sessions on teaching migration, visit the Migration Museum website.

Emily Folorunsho

Emily Folorunsho is head of KS4 history in an inner-city London school and is also a lead practitioner, SLE and governor. Emily is co-author of Collins' Black British History Teacher Resource Pack, which enables teachers to incorporate black British history into their curriculum.