Thursday, 28 February 2013

History in schools

The purpose of the proposed changes in the National Curriculum is made very clear in its prologue:

A high-quality history education equips pupils to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgement. A knowledge of Britain's past, and our place in the world, helps us understand the challenges of our own time.

A distinction is established between History as a methodology (how do we ‘do’ history and what problems does this throw up) and as a form of Whiggish nationalism (we have to know about the past if we are to understand the challenges that face us at present).  Although students will be expected to ‘know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history’, it is clear that the focus will be on British history and that the development of understanding this should be taught chronologically.  Leaving aside the problematic questions of how history should be taught under these proposals and the  nature of historical methodology, I want to explore whether this is the right approach or not.

Should students have both knowledge and understanding of British history and why?  Few would, I suspect, disagree that students should know about the history of their own country.  While British education has long debated this question, other countries in the EU and globally have little difficulty with the proposition that their students should study the history of their own countries.  This has to do with developing a sense of individual identity within the nation state, it is part of the socialisation role of schooling.  Whether this does, in practice, result in understanding of the history of those states is questionable: research in the United States, Canada, Australia and France suggests that students do not have either knowledge about or understanding of the histories of those countries.  That may be a consequence of poor teaching rather than the general principle that students have a right to study their own histories.  If teaching and learning is, as a student commented to me on one occasion, ‘one damn event after another’, then perhaps that is hardly surprising. 

Although there is a strong argument for placing British history at the heart of the history curriculum, there are two problems with the existing proposal.  Is it about ‘British’ history or ‘English’ history with bits of Welsh, Scottish and Irish history tagged on when those histories impact of what occurred in England?  Given that there are few mentions to history beyond England – the Edwardian conquest of Wales and the failure of a similar project in Scotland, Irish plantation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Union of the Parliaments and Irish Home Rule – then using the term ‘British history’ throughout the proposal is pushing the definition somewhat.  This raises the question of what ‘British history’ actually means and what is suggested makes no attempt to do this, merely resurrecting the somewhat worn notion of ‘for British history read English history’.   I would have hoped that we would have got beyond this somewhat archaic definition of British history if only because of the work of Pocock has sought establish a methodology for understand ‘British history’ as a justifiable concept in its own right.  There is also a practical problem that will require teacher development.  The ‘modernisation’ of the history curriculum in both schools and in higher education, evident from the mid-1980s, means that many teachers have little or no experience of history before the nineteenth century and in some cases the twentieth.  Good on Hitler but who was Athelstan or Becket and what was the Heptarchy?  This is a problem especially since the broad span of pre-modern history is to be taught in KS 2 and 3 where non-specialists are more likely.  If learning is to be effective, then teachers need to be confident in their knowledge and understanding and many, I suspect, are not.  You need to be able to tell the story with verve to engage students and if teachers are not confident in their knowledge then the story will lack the bite it needs to enthral the pupils ranged before them. 

Which brings us to the issue of British history being taught chronologically.  It’s how I was taught and means that I, and my peers, are able to place events and people into their context and to see the ways in which British history developed.  Yesterday’s letter in The Times from several eminent historians in which they argued in favour of a chronological approach registered their support for the approach advocated in the National Curriculum proposals.  They complain, with justification, of the paucity of breadth and knowledge among the students they receive from schools.  I remember receiving favourable comments from university admissions tutors because my students took a course at Advanced Level that included medieval, early-modern and modern history but that this was a rare occurrence.  So the eminent historians are right in their conclusions but…These are the same historians who have seen the breadth of the university history curriculum contract so that students can simply study modern history and, though there is an element of self-interest in their pronouncements, don’t forget that the overwhelming majority of school pupils do not go on to university to study history.  So the question ought to be whether a chronological approach is appropriate for all those students who do not enter the hallowed halls of academe as well as those who do?  On balance, I think it should.  Good history is about establishing links and drawing comparisons and without a sound sense of chronology this simply does not occur and students are left with a fragmented, unconnected view of the past.  They may know about Hitler, the Holocaust and the slave trade (and they should) but history is far more than these almost classic studies of good versus evil…without context students cannot made coherent judgements about these events. 

The move away from a fragmented history curriculum in schools is a positive move and calls for a greater emphasis on British history and its place in the European and global past is a defensible one.  If the past is not to be a foreign country, then being able to place individuals in their pasts is fundamental.

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