We’re still waiting for school history’s next big idea

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It’s 2010, and we’re still waiting for school history’s next big idea.

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I don’t think there’s been one for forty years. It isn’t that the subject hasn’t changed in all sorts of ways: it has. Most people will think instantly of computers. But information technology hasn’t really changed what’s done; it’s just changed how we do it.

You might now use PowerPoint rather than scribbling on a whiteboard [or even a blackboard, for the really aged amongst us]. But the purpose of the activity hasn’t changed. You might show a clip from YouTube, but it’s only a classier version of the film-strips I used to use 30 years ago. Pupils might look things up on Wikipedia but it’s still a form of research [this, at any rate, is what they tell me and what I pretend to believe].

But when I was training, things were different. The big new idea had just arrived. This was the sources revolution. Out would go rote learning: there would be no more lists of kings and battles and dates. These were the things that ‘research showed’ were putting students off history in droves. [Even now, incidentally, you can still sell almost any idea in education by stating firmly enough that ‘research shows’ that you’re right.] In would come the historian as detective, the pupil as inductive reasoner.

I’ve written elsewhere about what I regard as the shortcomings of this approach. Let me be clear: I’m not against having children look at historical sources. I just think that the way in which it’s actually done couldn’t be less calculated to develop critical thinking. It all reached a height of absurdity when it was suggested that you could make worthwhile deductions from previously ‘unseen’ sources, with no need whatever for contextual knowledge. I imagine it’s a form of heresy to criticise the revolution, but I’m so old that I don’t care any more.

More and more, examination questions have come to resemble the sort of thing the BBC broadcast during the war to the French Resistance. Elegiac and superficially profound, only one in a hundred phrases actually means anything, and you have to have the right code to make sense of it even then. I sometimes imagine pupils crouching over hidden transmitters as they hear:

The long sobs of autumn violins.
How accurate is this interpretation?
Languors start in monotone.
Is Source A more reliable than Source B?

I wonder, however, whether the new big new idea isn’t already amongst us. Everywhere I’m beginning to hear demands that pupils studying history should actually know something. People have talked for a long time about an information revolution, but perhaps they’re beginning to grasp that it’s really a knowledge revolution: that the person who knows something almost always has an advantage over the person who doesn’t.

I’m all in favour of it, myself. I like knowing things, and I want my pupils to know them, too. I don’t think we have to return to tedium [if indeed it was tedium]. Effective teaching, using all the methods available, and intelligent assessment might help solve the problem if so. Actually, these things would solve most of the problems in history education. Instantly.

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There’s another line from that Verlaine poem the BBC used to use: I remember the old days and weep. But that rather depends, of course, on which old days you have in mind – and what you know about them.