School history: what worked for me

Much has already been said about the proposed new history curriculum. This piece by David Cannadine in the TLS is a good place to start, as is the Historical Association’s forum on the topic and, of course, Richard Evans in the FT. There is not much point in my adding to all this, but I did want to share something that looking at this contents-page of a curriculum made me recall.

As many of the critics of the proposed curriculum have pointed out, it all begins promisingly enough: it should allow children to “understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance”, and “how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed”. But what follows seems specifically-designed to undermine such aims, with a chronological list of names, abstract ideas and events that kids from as young as six are supposed to get through in just an hour a week.

There is much concern that this dry list, with often often age-inappropriate topics, will be a complete turn-off and that numbers taking history at GCSE will plummet. It will now be much harder for primary teachers to make history come alive by finding their local history, talking to people who remember past events, taking advantage of local museums, or discussing topics that fit the age of the children being taught – evacuation, for example, might be a powerful topic to discuss with children young enough not to be able to imagine leaving their parents. Instead, seven-year-olds will be discussing “concepts such as civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, and war and peace”.

Thinking about what I don’t like about this curriculum got me thinking about my own experience of history at school. It didn’t make much of an impression on me at primary school: I got most of my history at home and on family trips to museums, monuments and galleries. It is this kind of thing, which many children will not have had, that Gove claims his education reforms make up for but, of course, it is never presented as a chronological ‘island story’. It involved going to places, asking questions, haphazard connections.

The little history I remember from primary school seemed equally haphazard, but that is no bad thing. You gain a sense of historical perspective not by slogging, over years, through a long chronology, but by thinking one day about Roman gladiators and then thinking about how different the world was when Henry VIII was on the throne, or when your house was built, or when aeroplanes were invented. The things that stick most in my mind had a connection to where I lived: the history of the city, the use of the buildings surrounding me. On one class visit to Edinburgh Castle, we dressed up as the French prisoners kept there during the Napoleonic Wars. We offered, as they had, our craftwork for sale and, of all things, sang the Marseillaise as we walked up to the gates.

At secondary school I started to really enjoy history, sometimes because of excellent teaching, sometimes in spite of it. Things were worst when we had to slog through a topic that covered a long period of history and when we were mostly obviously cramming in facts, people, dates and themes to prepare for exams. Things were best when we had discrete topics that we could cover in sufficient detail to get a feel for the period, the people involved and different perspectives.

Another post today from a fellow history of science curator – Charlie Connelly of the Science Museum – suggested one approach to counter that of Gove’s curriculum. This was to tell good stories, something with which many a watcher of TV documentaries and reader of popular histories would agree, not to mention many public historians and those who come to history outside the usual school and academic route. Charlie explains that it was good stories, even if ‘bad’ histories, like Sobel’s Longitude that got her to change her mind on history, having given up at 14 “finding it an unbelievably dry and tedious subject”.

I am a bit more doubtful, as readers of this blog will know, about using misleading stories as a hook. I also don’t recall “stories” being something that got me interested in history at school (although I do remember frequently getting a book called “100 Great Lives” out of the library over and again, undoubtedly a text Gove would have approved of). In fact, the thing that really excited me about history was that the more we know, the more we see that stories can be questioned. That was a powerful feeling.

Three lessons in my first year of secondary school stick out. For each of them the teacher prepared packs of images and texts and allowed us to go through them and draw our own conclusions, before class discussions and his conclusions. The first lesson was based on a fictional crime. We were given a range of evidence from the scene and about suspects and had to see if we could solve the crime. The next lesson did something similar, but with real images, newspaper reports, letters and statements, about the assassination of JFK. The final one looked at the assassination at Sarajevo.

For the real cases it became abundantly clear that the evidence we had was contradictory, that it could be very different in form and that different narratives could be created. This was exciting. We weren’t being taught facts, we were investigating, doing our own thinking and drawing our own conclusions or creating our own narratives based on the evidence we had. Aside from the fact that the evidence was given to us on coloured paper rather than our finding it ourselves in the archive, this really is a little bit like what real historians do.

It is also a little bit like what we all do, when we see the news, read newspapers, talk to friends and family and try to understand the world around us. These are the kinds of skills and the type of knowledge (not knowledge of facts but the knowledge that you are equipped to question or investigate) that school history can give to citizens and future voters. It goes without saying that they are also useful for many kinds of work. In what possible way can Gove’s curriculum compete with that?

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8 thoughts on “School history: what worked for me

  1. Excellent piece, Rebekah. I would agree with you that school history did not become truly fascinating until one teacher said that it was okay to question history. That was not until my third year of secondary school. Up until then, though (and I don’t remember when I first realised this), I KNEW that I wanted to be a historian. Since a young age, I had always loved history, and I knew I was going to end up doing it once I got to university. All I had to do was suffer through school history, (mostly) bored at the narrative way it was taught, one which offered very little beyond an already-established set of ‘facts’ which became more ‘facts’ by the time I graduated. Even children know better than to never question ANYTHING, and that’s where the curriculum runs into conflict with basic human logic. As you say, chances are that nobody first discovers history in the classroom.

    My perspective on the new English history curriculum is somewhat different than most UK-based historians. I was never school-educated in the United Kingdom, and I am still based in Scotland, where the Scottish Parliament governs education. (The SNP’s school curriculum on Scottish studies was controversial in its own right, but it was still nowhere near as divisive as this.) However, many of my professional colleagues are in England, and many jobs I apply for are at English universities, so the English school curriculum still remains relevant to professional issues in my immediate field.

    History is required throughout pre-secondary education in the state of New Jersey, where I’m from originally. It is also required for three out of four years of secondary education: that is, nine months of mostly chronological history throughout the year. I had two years of US history in secondary school (required) and one year of world (also required). I was an oddity amongst my classmates in that I never met anyone else who wanted to study history — that is, of course, until I went to university, and met fellow historians for the first time in my life. My classmates were all fed up with it by the time they got out.

    I recognise elements of Gove’s curriculum from my own educational background, and not in a good way. Narrative history is big in US schools (other American historians can feel free to disagree with me); and, by the time one graduates from high school, you’ve probably had at least three or four rounds of chronological US history in your thirteen years. It’s a story you’re tired of by the time you get out; and, when you get teachers who challenge the master narrative of American history (and you WILL get at least one), you’ll probably be back to the familiar pattern the next year.

    That one third year of secondary school was one of the few times in my school history education where I was actually asked to think critically about how history was written and presented. This year, on the other hand, was sandwiched in between years where the narrative approach was dominant, Tests in class would typically focus on the memorisation of names and dates. Even essay questions would ask you to explain what happened during certain events in history, NOT the gap in different sources’ accounts of what happened. This contrasted heavily with my English literature education, which was brilliant, and VERY critical. It included the use of literary criticism; we NEVER saw scholarly articles in history courses.

    The other element of the Gove curriculum I recognise is its insularity. The ‘US’ and ‘them’ dichotomy of US and world history inevitably isolates US history from wider trends. University education taught me that there was considerable overlap between US and Canadian history, but Canada is never mentioned in US history. Mexico and the Caribbean are mentioned in connection solely with war; and, to not discuss Mexican and Caribbean history in the context of US history is Titanic without the iceberg. The Atlantic world is a broad church, one that involves ‘England’, ‘Africa’, and the US. Average first-year uni history students could dissect the shallowness of something this simplistic — slavery, immigration and trades which relate to them really cannot be glossed over so easily.

    The danger is that this approach has worked in teaching a certain conservative kind of history, one that passes as apolitical to politicians like Gove. History of this kind not only repels possible recruits to university history, but serves as the abiding memory of a nation’s narrative to those who choose not to partake education any further past graduation. Most of my classmates seemed sufficiently sick of the story by the time they got out of high school, whereas a more critical approach would have appealed to their own deconstructive (dare I say scientific?) instincts. I know I certainly didn’t want to do US history any more, no matter how much the reality of academic US history differed from my chronological high school textbooks. That, and one of history’s greatest strengths is that it offers its students the chance to learn critical skills useful far beyond the academy. As far as I can see, Gove’s curriculum offers none of that.

    • Thanks for the long comment! I remember finding the long stories of the agricultural revolution or 19th-century politics a bit hard work – possibly also because they were taught by a different teacher. First World War, rise of Fascism and Russian Revolution were good as more defined topics, which also took you into different mind sets, different countries, real debates and core ideologies. I liked that at university in 1st year we were made to study at least one medieval, one early modern and one modern topic; one British, one European and one extra-European. Really important for gaining perspective and understanding difference. I actually chose to do two American history courses, 1775-1975 – well taught and fascinating (slightly depressing: Enlightenment to Nixon!) story that was quite foreign to this Scottish-educated student.

      I usually enjoyed English at school over History because it did allow you to think critically, personally and be creative. History did too often fall back on the memorising and list of facts. However, as you can see, we started out the right way and by the time we got to Higher and A Level we were being encouraged to read a range of history books, not just the textbook. This made it hard to get through the curriculum (especially as we did the A Level one in one year having also done Scottish Highers) but opened our minds to the range of opinion and approaches involved. It also made my transition to doing history at university considerably easier than that of many of my peers who had been much more spoon-fed at school.

      • Definitely agree that the skills I learned in English were more apropos. It was a shame that, for history, I felt that my fellow classmates and I were all playing catch-up. My first year of university rhetoric was a rough one, as I never really was taught how to construct an argument based on evidence. This is perhaps not just an American thing, though: it’s a similar learning curve for Scottish and English students that I see.

  2. What worked for me was a) an enlightened teacher in 1972 allowing me to do a 5th form project on the San Francisco rock scene in 1967; b) being given the Oxford History of England volume covering the late 12th century and discovering there was all this stuff (Stephen, Matilda) that I had never heard of.

  3. Only just catching up with this excellent blog – very interesting! I’m amazed, and envious, that anyone finds anything that happened in school inspiring or interesting; I hated school, and everything connected therewith. Only two things do I remember about school history. One is of being taught, at the age of about 12, by Julian Ayer, who may still at that time have believed himself to be the son of Sir Freddie Ayer, but whose father was actually Sir Stuart Hampshire. When as an adult Julian was eventually told this interesting fact he apparently flew into an hysterical rage and broke all the glass in the house, which it is strange to imagine one’s history teacher doing. He was one of the few civilised masters at school, but was obsessed by the organisation of topic headings – a reflection of Sir Freddie’s philosophy, perhaps? Many hours were spent in exchanges like this:

    Me – Sir, sir, please sir, please, does the Statute of Merton have to be indented twice?
    Ayer – No, of course not, you indent it once and underline it, like Magna Carta.
    Second Child – Sir, I’ve underlined Magna Carta twice. Is that correct?
    Ayer – Of course it isn’t! Magna Carta and the Statute of Merton should be underlined once.
    Me – Like the Constitutions of Clarendon?
    Ayer – Give me strength! The Constitutions of Clarendon is main sub-heading E, so you don’t indent it at all, but underline it with a pecked line!
    Etc etc

    The consequence of this regime was that at the end of the year I was 29th out of 30 in history, and Mr Ayer’s comment on my report was ‘He has a long way to go if he wants to become a historian.’ My mother, bless her, loved history and was very disappointed by this result, but thought the comment remarkably silly, as did I. Mr Ayer died saving his wife in the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004.

    The other memory is of being accused by my history teacher (not Mr Ayer), in front of the whole class, of cheating in the history mock O-level. I was in danger of being barred from taking the O-level itself, but very fortunately I was able to make him look stupid (which wasn’t difficult) and prove my innocence by repeating the answers from memory there and then; I really had revised well, and got my best O-level pass in history.

    History bascially meant British history, which suited me, and it was taught in a totally chronological fashion. By the time primary school was over you should have been up to speed on the Anglo-Saxons, villeins, the feudal system, strip farming and King Alfred. Then you progressed towards O-level at roughly two centuries a year, running into the buffers of the First World War about five years later. From what little I know of the present proposals, it seems as if the history I was taught was history a la Gove! Unfortunately we also had to do American history as a special subject, and I heartily disliked it, not least because it was too recent; I was firmly convinced that proper history (a) was British, and (b) had more or less ended with Queen Anne.

    • That dates you, John, if you were at school in Gove’s halcyon days! 😉

      I recall plenty of poor and not-so-good as well as the good at school. This history teacher had a thing about writing titles in small caps, I seem to recall… He was also convinced that girls/women did not make good historians – apparently they can’t see the wood for the trees, or something.

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