The right way to teach history?

In our October issue both Andrew Marr and Terry Deary expressed strong views on the state of history education in Britain. History teacher Nicolas Kinloch responds to their criticisms

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Everyone has an opinion about history in schools. Andrew Marr and Terry Deary certainly do. But it doesn’t follow that, because they have opposing views, one of them must be right. Both have interesting things to say, particularly about the importance or otherwise of subject knowledge.

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In any case, what are we to make of Terry Deary’s assumption that it doesn’t matter whether pupils know the names of dead prime ministers? Is it because they’re dead? History would be a rather thin discipline if we excluded people from study because they’re no longer living. Or does he just dislike prime ministers?

Whatever the reason, it seems a bizarre approach to studying the past, as well as a rather selfish one. I bet Terry Deary knows about Gladstone and Disraeli. It’s because he knows about them that he can so confidently assert that they don’t matter. I think our pupils have quite as much right to know about them as he does – more, indeed, if they’re studying 19th-century British history, since they’d actually find this knowledge quite useful.

Pulling up the ladder once you’ve climbed it yourself may be acceptable for positivist philosophers and bestselling authors.  I don’t think it can really be an option for history teachers.

A contempt for knowledge – I should be ashamed to admit publicly that I didn’t know where the Galapagos islands are – is actually quite widespread among educationalists. This may suggest that Terry Deary is not so different from them as he might like to imagine.

History teachers have done themselves few favours here: it’s not uncommon to hear the claim that all pupils need be given is the wherewithal to look things up. If they really believe this, they should perhaps earn their living selling computers, rather than teaching.

Personally, I’m much more sympathetic to Andrew Marr’s demand for chronology. But to demand this is to demand altogether too much, given the reality of today’s school curriculum.

Pupils can drop history at the age of 14: a recent survey by the Historical Association found that an increasing number of schools, desperate to climb the league tables, are actively discouraging all but the most able pupils from studying history, rightly perceived as a hard subject.

In addition, a “small but growing” number of schools is squeezing the National Curriculum into the first two years of secondary education, with a consequent reduction in the amount of time that can be given to history.

With so little curriculum time, demands that pupils have a good grasp of chronology inevitably conflict with demands – often from the same people – that there are certain things that everyone should know. The blunt fact is that if some things are included, others will have to be left out. Who’s to say – apart from the Daily Mail, which has never struck me as wholly devoted to historical accuracy – what those things should be?

There’s another problem with chronology, especially at A level. With the emergence of modular examinations, there’s a strong incentive to deliver bite-sized chunks: my own AS students, for example, look at only two topics during the year, and neither of these covers much more than 40 years. The old outline course may have led to superficial coverage, but at least students looked at quite a lot.

Nowadays they don’t. It’s not teachers, I might add, who have insisted on this. They are simply – as so often – doing what they’re told by the army of experts whose life mission is curriculum change.

Teachers have rather more – but far from total – responsibility for the Hitler and Henry issue. It’s all very well to bewail the fact that everyone teaches these topics, but it’s very hard not to.

For every book on the Stuarts there are ten on the Tudors. You might find textbooks on, say, Philip II, but there will only be a fraction of the number that are published on every aspect of the Hitler regime.

What are teachers to do in the madly competitive struggle that is life in our schools? They can study something relatively obscure and spend much of their time producing their own materials for it; or they can teach the same topic as everyone else and buy textbooks usually, nowadays, written by the chief examiner. You may not like what’s happened but it’s perfectly understandable, and was perfectly predictable by those of us who predicted it.

Andrew Marr does at least touch on what I tend to think of as school history’s biggest problem: the blind alley we went down on the 1970s and which is about source work. Was there ever a bigger waste of time? It’s not that I especially object to youngsters looking at sources – as long as they’re proper sources, and haven’t been chopped up, adapted or grossly simplified. It’s just that it takes so much time that could be spent more profitably.

I never swallowed the 1970s analogy that history was like detective work: I knew how the police operated, so I knew that in real life even detective work wasn’t like detective work. But had it simply stopped there not much real harm would have been done. Owing to the need to assess this new ‘skill’ for assessment purposes, however, the whole enterprise rapidly degenerated into a series of formulaic questions, perhaps even more tedious than the rote-learning it had been designed to replace.

A whole generation of pupils has been brought up to believe that the ability to decide which of two sources was the more reliable was the whole purpose of studying the past. But I don’t think anyone was ever drawn to history because the methodology of the professional historian was so interesting. I think people like history because they find the stories interesting – whether Andrew Marr’s or Terry Deary’s, or even – dare I say it – the ones about those dead prime ministers.

Nicolas Kinloch teaches history at the Netherhall School & Sixth Form College, Cambridge. His views are his own and are probably not shared by any other teacher in the country.

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