History, Teaching and Britishness

I’ve just seen an interesting article on the BBC website about the debate raging in Education circles about proposed changes to the History syllabus. Having come through the full gambit of history teaching in the Britain over the past 23 or so years, I’ve got some interesting experiences to pass on.

On the whole, my experience of History teaching in schools has been pretty uninspiring. My abiding memory is of working on a particular time period or civilization – the ancient Egyptians, The Tudors, the Victorians, etc – and doing it to death for a few months. You got the feeling the teachers were doing it by rote, because its what they were told to do. Most of the worksheets were so heavily photocopied you could tell that they had been used for the past 10 years! Even as a young person in school, i enjoyed history, but what we learnt in school bored me to death. Its hard to see exactly what the point was.

I guess the problem is the national curriculum. Granted, there has to be some kind of structure involved in teaching, but I cannot help but feel that its so rigid that it leaves no space for lateral thinking from teachers. There is so much pressure in terms of getting children ready for exams and in terms of results that teachers don’t have much choice but to forcefeed children in classrooms. Theres simply very little time for an kind of innovative work, let alone taking groups out of the classroom.

I cannot help but be surprised that most people’s memories of history in school are of extreme boredom. I enjoy history, but I found it pretty boring too. How many dull and inspiring history lessons have turned people off learning about the past for life? Much like the word ‘Museum’ has a negative stigma, does ‘History’ carry the same kind of baggage?

So, History needs to be fun, it needs to be innovative, and it needs to be delivered in a young people friendly manner. But what of the subject matter itself? My parents generation will remember learning about 1066, and endless lists of Kings and Queens and the dates of their reigns. Its hard to see what exactly the point of this ‘great man’ school of history was, but an overwhelming emphasis on monarchs and grand political events suggests that it was meant to imbue children with a sense of national heritage, but also a ‘know your place’ sense of identity.

With the coming of the national curriculum things changed a bit. There was still a lot of focus on royalty and politics, but social history began to creep in. In some senses, there was almost a revisionist strand – in all my time in school we never studied wars directly, only in passing. I cannot help but feel that this was due to a naive liberal assumption that if we teach about wars then children will want to blow each others heads off – our experience shows that in fact, the opposite is true. For my GCSE History I studied Cowboys and Indians, Medicine through time, Portchester Castle and Apartheid, all of which seems to have been inspired by political correctness. The emphasis on methodology, learning lessons and cause and effect was refreshing, however.

So what do we want History to be? What is it for? Is it for imbuing children with identity, in the manner of citizenship, or as a social science? There have been calls to teach more British history, as young people know so little about World War Two for example – no doubt a result of the apparent embargo on military history. People should be able to grow up knowing where they come from, being able to understand their own heritage, and to be able to ask questions about life in general.

But kneejerk edicts from politicians about what exactly history lessons will involve are not the answer. How exactly do politicians expect teachers to transform history teaching when most schools can only afford it a few hours of lessons a week? Due to the obsession with English, Maths and Science all other subjects have become poor relations.

School history needs to tacke important issues in British history, it needs to be done in a way that is young people friendly, and teachers need to be given enough latitude to innovate, to use technology and to take children out and about – the classroom is the least suitable place to learn about the past.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “History, Teaching and Britishness

  1. Thanks James. Good word.Do you mind if I repost this on my blog?

  2. James Daly

    Hi Ken, by all means.

  3. Pingback: Teaching History « THE HISTORY FORUM

  4. Very interesting post. I found myself nodding sagely on the points you made about avoiding military history, although having said that I do vividly remember one lesson in GCSE history about the various weapons used by both sides in the Vietnam War. For GCSE History I studied the Nazis (mainly focussing on the party and the Nazi state rather than the war), America in the 20th Century and South Africa and Apartheid – a very “liberal” collection looking back on it now.

    However, I disagree about the classroom being the least suitable place to teach history – it all depends on the teacher. I had an excellent history teacher during my school and college years who always made the subject interesting, and somehow managed to get a nugget of military history in some way, even if it wasn’t necessarily “approved”. If you have someone who just reads by rote from copied sheets that’s different, but if you have a teacher with a real and evident passion for the subject, it can make a hell of a lot of difference.

  5. James Daly

    I think you’re right about the classroom. When I was involved in Youth Services, there was a temptation to fill Youth Clubs with pool tables, playstations, all kinds of gadgets. But a good youth worker should be able to work with young people in an empty room.

    What does make me sad about History teaching is that with all due respect to people that go into it, sometimes I think the enthusiasm just isnt there and that rubs off onto the kids. Too many people go into teaching as a career without thinking whether they have the skills set to work with kids. I would love to be a teacher, but I just dont think I could do it and it wouldnt be fair.

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