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History in the Classroom: A Teacher Speaks

TeachingOver the past few weeks politicians and academics have engaged in fierce debate about how the First World War should be remembered and how history itself is being taught in our schools. The most recent furore began on the 30th December 2013 when the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Start the Week’ hosted by Andrew Marr discussed this very question. The guest speakers included the Education Secretary Michael Gove and the historians Simon Schama, Margaret Macmillan and Tom Holland. So, where was the history teacher?

Having been a little perturbed that this debate was about how history is taught in mainstream education I found myself asking why there was no one on the panel to represent the people who know exactly what is going on in the classroom. Annoyed at this omission I continued to listen to the arguments with great interest. The main contention by Michael Gove was that children simply did not know enough of their history. He did not believe that history was giving pupils a sense of wonder about the past, their identity and how their identity has been shaped over time. Furthermore, he also felt that there was a sense of disconnection between topics in which pupils have no sense of chronological understanding.

Personally, I believe he is misguided in his assertion that history does not give pupils a sense of wonder. Certainly the pupils that I and my colleagues teach are enthused by their history. However, I would accept that there are legitimate concerns regarding a pupil’s sense of recall. History lessons have moved away from pupils sitting in rows regurgitating dates and when kings and queens ruled the land. This does not mean that chronological understanding is not there, it just means rote learning is no longer the dominant methodology used by today’s history teachers. Indeed, learning by rote would come in for extreme criticism by Ofsted and would in all likelihood lead to an inadequate judgment by an inspector.

Michael Gove seems to want a curriculum which places more importance on narrative and less prominence on skills which have been emphasized over the past twenty-five years in history teaching. I am glad to say that after an enormous amount of criticism regarding the draft proposals of the new history curriculum Michael Gove did relent and critical thinking skills are still there. The issue I have though is the fact that history teachers are systematically being excluded from the debate when it is a debate about them.

Following on from this radio broadcast the arguments over how history is taught has gathered pace. Michael Gove in his article published in the Daily Mail on the 2nd January claims that our understanding of the First World War has ‘been overlaid by misunderstandings and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country’. He goes on to argue that Left-wing academics even today feed myths, which are designed to belittle Britain and its leaders. He quotes the Cambridge academic Richard Evans to support his point. As a result of his comments, there are rafts of misconceptions which have become apparent in the national press and which misrepresent the history teaching profession as a whole.

Although Michael Gove on the surface appeared to be attacking a version of how the First World War has been interpreted by academics, he has implicitly suggested that teachers in schools are perpetuating these myths. Firstly, he has done this by discussing schools and history in his opening paragraphs, suggesting that changes made to the history curriculum by the Coalition Government under his leadership have been welcomed by academics. By referring to schools and then going on to attack left-wing versions of the First World War he is drawing a connection between both. Secondly, as Education Secretary he should realise that when discussing how the war has been interpreted, a direct link will be made from his words and what people think is going on in our schools. Finally, by including a picture of Tony Robinson and Rowan Atkinson in a scene from Blackadder as part of the article, when knowing the showing of Blackadder in schools is part of this contentious debate feeds the myth that history is being taught incorrectly. It is interesting to note that within his article he has made no mention of discussing the curriculum with the very people who are in the classroom. Therefore, the opinions of history teachers are again absent when reporting on this issue within the national press.

The example of how the First World War is taught has been the one frequently used to illustrate the point that left-wing versions of the past perpetuate today. The view that British Generals were bungling buffoons who led their men to a senseless slaughter has been cited as the interpretation being instilled. To reinforce this it is suggested that Blackadder is being presented by teaching professionals as fact. This is the contention that has annoyed me the most. What utter rubbish! If history teachers were given the opportunity to defend themselves in the national media instead of being side-lined to social media such as twitter it would immediately become obvious that this perception of history teaching is wrong. Yes, teachers do use Blackadder in the classroom, but they do not teach Blackadder as fact.

Certainly the way I use Blackadder is to teach pupils how to conduct an enquiry. Pupils recognise Blackadder as being satirical and furthermore recognise it as one version of history. The skill of recognising differing interpretations is one which is at the forefront of history teaching today. Whether this is testing the view that the British Generals were ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ or whether Dunkirk was a ‘Victory or Defeat’ it is important that pupils know why differing versions are given. This is what is being taught in schools.  Pupils are encouraged not to passively accept all they are told and to question evidence. They are taught to be aware of what propaganda is and having seen the enormous amount of propaganda in the press relating to the history profession I am firmly convinced that pupils being taught source skills is not only desirable, but essential. The fact that the history profession is unable to explain through the national media how history is taught is the most frustrating thing to endure. It has been left to the celebrities like Tony Robinson and academics such as Richard Evans to defend history teaching. While I am very glad of their support I think it is now right for history teachers to be allowed to engage in the debate and tell the wider public the reality of how history is being taught in our schools.

The reality of teaching in the contemporary history classroom is one that is continually looking at new innovative ways of engaging all pupils of all abilities. The range of activities used by history teachers continues to grow. These include, group work, carousel activities, role-play, individual research via text books (yes, books are still important and still used!), use of computers for research and for creating presentations, simulations, creative writing, developing literacy skills to be able to write essays, whole class debate, narrative and yes even rote learning where it is required.

Perhaps one of the most important skills in light of arguments which are current in the national press concerning the teaching of history and which version of history is being taught is the ability to debate. This is of central importance to the curriculum. It allows pupils to use the evidence in front of them and to develop their own opinions of why an event happens or why individuals are viewed in certain ways. By using a wide-range of evidence pupils are more informed and are in a position to agree or disagree with past and present interpretations. The ability for pupils to make their own justified arguments is based on them developing analytical and evaluation skills. Developing these skills is at the forefront of history teaching. This does not mean narrative has been abandoned. Narrative is needed to develop these skills. Pupils need to be able to put evidence in context, so narrative forms a key aspect of history teaching. Narrative and skills are taught side by side in secondary education. By the end of their secondary education in history these skills will have been well rehearsed and their knowledge of British history and how Britain relates to the world will be secure. They will have covered and been involved in many debates, some of the key debates are highlighted below, but there are many more:

  • 96g10/huch/3458/16Was Julius Caesar a good leader?
  • Oliver Cromwell – liberator or traitor?
  • British Empire – Good or bad?
  • To what extent has life really improved for Black Americans up to the present day?
  • Is the view that the First World War soldiers were lions led by donkeys fair?
  • Dunkirk – Victory or defeat?
  • Was Neville Chamberlain right to follow a policy of appeasement?

There are really two points to conclude with. Firstly, I wish to set the record straight.  History teachers do not impart knowledge to their pupils, which distort the past. If anything, we do entirely the opposite. If there is history teachers who do this, and I very much doubt it, I would suggest history teaching is not the profession for them. Secondly, it is important to note that it is the teacher who is the one who knows their pupils best and it is the teacher who can decide what style of learning is most appropriate for the group that is placed in front of them. What works with one class may not necessarily work with another one. The ability of the teacher to adapt is of paramount importance and it is this message that all teachers, not just teachers of history need to make the general public aware of.

If politicians, celebrities and academics are the only contributors to this debate it is in danger of giving a completely false impression of what is happening in our classrooms today. This demeans the hard work being put into educating our young people and has substantially lowered morale within the teaching profession. Of course it is important that education seeks high standards, but this should not be done by devaluing the very staff that work so hard to improve standards on a daily basis.

About Louise Birch

Louise Birch
Louise is the Head of History at St. James' Catholic High School in Cheadle Hulme. She studied History at Liverpool John Moores University, and qualified as a History Teacher in 2005. Her main historical interest is the First World War. As such, she is hoping to begin a part-time MA in First World War Studies in September. She is a married mother of two.

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