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Seán Lang

Historical Association Curriculum Project

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Thank you very much for inviting me to address you today, to help launch the 16th annual Schools History Project Conference. It is a long overdue pleasure. This year actually marks my twentieth year in history education, yet this is my first visit to the SHP conference. I am here at the kind invitation of Chris Culpin to tell you something about the Historical Association’s own Curriculum Project and where it might be heading.

However, before I go into detail about that, I want to look back. That should not be a strange thing for a historian to do, and certainly not in a gathering like this. Yet I think that as a profession we – paradoxically – often don’t look back anything like enough. We tell our pupils - rightly, I think – that the past can help illumine the present but we often don’t apply that lesson to our own field of history teaching. Or if we do, we couch past practice in crude caricature, which does a disservice to those who came before us, and teaches us nothing. So let me take you back moment to 1972. Edward Heath was in Downing Street and the country was deeply divided over whether or not it wanted to be in Europe; there were protests against foreign asylum seekers as Idi Amin expelled Uganda’s Asian community; the country had to eat by candlelight because the miners’ strike had hit the nation’s power supply; and here in Leeds a team headed y David Sylvester launched the Schools Council project: History 11-13 on an unsuspecting world.

Why? Mary Price in 1968 had declared “History in Danger” – in danger of disappearing from the curriculum, buried under its own irrelevance and the innate tedium of its teaching. The SCHP was an attempt to save school history form oblivion, from being forced off the curriculum by Social Studies or Sociology, or from being completely subsumed within courses of Integrated Humanities. But it was always more than that. In his Evaluation Study of the Project, Denis Shemilt called it a revolution in the way history was taught to the young, and so indeed it was. It placed critical analysis of source material at the heart of the subject, it helped children share in the pleasures and thrills that can be found in careful investigation of the past through the evidence it ahs left behind. It aimed to replace, or at least to move on from, what David Sylvester called the “Great Tradition” of British history teaching, memorably described and characterised by Professor John Slater:

Content was largely British, or rather Southern English; Celts looked in to starve, emigrate or rebel; the North to invent looms or work in mills; abroad was of no interest once it was part of the Empire; foreigners were either, sensibly, allies, or, rightly, defeated. Skills – did we even use the word? – were mainly those of recalling accepted facts about famous dead Englishmen, and communicated in a very eccentric literary form, the examination-length essay. It was an inherited consensus, based largely on hidden assumptions, rarely identified let alone publicly debated.

Is this unfair on those history teachers – I suppose we ought to call them history masters and mistresses – who taught the previous generations? Almost certainly yes.

Calls to make history more active and lively did not start in the 1960s; you find them in the 1920s, the 1910s, even in the 1880s. It is a great irony that R.J. Unstead, who has generally been taken to epitomise the approach the SCHP was designed to move away from, actually started writing textbooks because he thought history books had become so turgid. Soon he was being stigmatised as the epitome of all he in fact rejected.

So it is in no spirit of caricature that I say that school history now stands in need of a fundamental rethink as far-reaching as the one that the SCHP undertook thirty two years ago.

Why? Firstly, because change is coming whether we like it or not. Change in education does not usually come from teachers; it comes from those with power and influence in the quarters where it matters: MPs, journalists, public commentators, and so on. In this case, the watershed was the A level controversy of 2002. That shattered the popular image of A level as the “Gold Standard” of the education system. From 2002 onwards it was open season on examinations and on examination boards. It is no coincidence that no sooner had Mike Tomlinson completed his report on what went wrong in 2002 than he was commissioned to work on a reform of the entire 14-19 system.

This is by no means necessarily a bad thing. There had been many schemes for reform of 16-19 education, including the Q and F, and N and F proposals of the 1970s, the 1988 Higginson Report, proposals for a baccalaureate from the Institute of Public Policy Research and an actual baccalaureate up and running in Wales; with the exception of the last, all foundered on the “Gold Standard” mantra. Once that was removed from the equation, reform became possible. Particularly pleasing is its scope over the whole 14-19. The cut-off at 14 has had a pernicious effect on history teaching; no other European country requires pupils to make such important curricular decisions so young. Of course Tomlinson might not happen in full, but there is enough support for the general thrust of his proposals from the voices that really matter – the old universities and the employers’ organisations - to create a groundswell behind it. It seems unlikely that a change of government would affect this – the Conservatives are even more inclined to listen to these voices than Labour.

Secondly, things have gone badly wrong in school history, and the people who matter – the journalists and politicians - are alive to it. This is not, of course, necessarily a welcome message, but just because we may not like the people pointing it out, does not mean that what they say is necessarily wrong.

There is an essential paradox here. On the one hand, there is an enormous public appetite for history, on television, in books, with “telly dons” bridging the two, to the point of its being regularly sent on Dead Ringers, and an entire new spoof history show, We Are History. Secondly, history is in robust health in the classroom. OFSTED data and language may not be a perfect medium, but they have consistently shown history to be one of the best taught of secondary school subjects, vying with art for the top position. Even the numbers of pupils taking the subject at GCSE and A level have rallied in recent years, with a significant upsurge in numbers since the introduction of AS.

Yet there are major problems with the content and structure of school history. Let me give you a couple of small illustrations of the sort of problem I am referring. Recently I was talking with someone – a product of 1990s schooling – who said she had always understood that she had “covered” the Second World War at school, yet when she came across a diary from a Prisoner of war in the Far East she discovered there was a whole story of the war she had never covered. She had not in fact “covered” the war at all. She used a significant word to describe her feelings about the history teaching she had had received: she said she felt Cheated.

Or there are the A level essays I saw a couple of years ago – I will spare the Awarding Body’s blushes – which were well written, showing careful reading and research, but which had been penalised in the application of the mark scheme because they had actually written up the findings of that research. And a particularly telling moment: I was in full flow in front of an AS class last year when a student interrupted me to ask “One moment. Why are we doing this bit? Do we need it? Is it going to be in the exam?”

That question brings me to the point. We are trying to cope within a system which has gone mad on assessment. You don’t need me to tell you about the stress this produces, and the obsession with results and League Tables which it produces. The effect on individual subjects like history are virtually criminal. I heard recently of one school not far form here where the history department is under pressure to fit the whole the Key Stage 3 Programme of Study into Years 7 and 8. The obsession with assessment has now penetrated to all levels, from the student who only wanted to learn what was going to be on the exam paper to the sorry state of GCSE, excoriated by Chris Culpin as “doomed”, and ripe for “euthanasia … before it implodes, causing collateral damage to too many students.” If there is one moment which convinced me that a new curriculum project is needed it came in the coffee break at the Historical Assocation’s “Past Forward” Conference held at the Cherwell School, Oxford, when the history subject officer of an A level Awarding Body drily noted that the examples of excellent classroom practice which Christine Counsell had just delineated in her opening address were all very well, but that they did not fit the assessment criteria.

Specifically, what has the obsession with assessment done to our subject? Firstly, it continues to make it hard for many students, especially for lower-attainers, to get to do the subject in the first place, because they will not score highly enough for the purposes of the League Tables. Secondly, it reduces history to a set of formulaic exercises for assessment purposes with little or no relation to the actual practice of the subject.

The most obvious example here is source work. We have come a long way from the heady days of 1972, or even from the “Jackdaws” that preceded them. Not only are source exercises formulaic, but they can only cope with a limited range of anticipated responses. For example, attendance at a training session run by an examination board will teach you that when a question asks “How different is Source A from Source B?” the examiners do not want to hear anything about how they might also be similar, and candidates will in effect be penalised for considering it. This is a useful tip for passing the exam, but utter nonsense in terms of historical work. Does anyone seriously believe that is how any historian actually works?

I am not saying that school history is or should be the same as academic history; but at the same time, they are aspects of the same discipline, and children grow up and pass from one to the other; we sometimes forget this, I think. Whom does this sort of formulaic work benefit? Certainly not the students. By and large they loathe sources. As Heidi LeCocq put it:

When entering the realms of source work, this can translate into, as Michael Riley has often put it, “death by sources A to F”. Sources are flung at students, at the end of each topic, in the vain hope that the sheer quantity of source work will automatically teach skills, perhaps through some sort of osmosis.

Chris Husbands pointed out some of the pitfalls that all too often bedevil source work:

The length, the conceptual and linguistic difficulties of many sources, and in some cases their sheer boredom, make it impossible for pupils to make any realistic appraisal of their significance. The teachers’ normal tactic, of editing, cutting, pre-selecting evidence upon which pupils will practise the “historical skills” often results in activities which can scarcely be dignified with the label “history”, and, in many cases, the “skills” themselves operate at a lamentably low level.

Recently I myself had the unusual experience of being asked to come into a bright Year 11 group who enjoyed history but hated source work, and to show them the satisfaction, even the joy that work with historical sources can bring, when separated from the demands of examinations. They responded very well, but as they remarked afterwards, I gather, it was all very well but it wouldn’t fit the assessment criteria. Formulaic exercises demanding formulaic answers do not stretch the middling student, and they actually penalise the best. The provide no basis for further study. Those are not my words, but the words of a group of Cambridge historians to whom I showed some recent AS papers. Truly, we have come a long way from the ideals of 1972.

Thirdly, the obsession with assessment creates a market mentality. Of course, this has always been there to an extent, but now it is rampant. There might not be anything very wrong in the idea of a curricular market – after all, there was a completely free market in the curriculum below 14 before the National Curriculum came in, and we are used to the idea of competing examination boards – but this is not a free market but a heavily skewed one. It has led not to a plethora of different historical topics being studied, but in a narrowing of the scope of school history to what one popular historian has designated as “Hitler and the Henrys”.

Certainly Hitler. John Fines asked years ago why it should be that the only historical character whom everyone seemed to have to learn about should be Hitler. Perhaps it is as well that he did not live to see the current situation in which Hitler is taught, all too often, in Year 9, at GCSE, at AS, at A2, and in many cases at undergraduate level too. It is not difficult to explain this situation – the cut-off points at 14 and 16, competition between exam boards and even between school departments, publishers looking to tie in to popular topics, not to mention the wider culture of television documentaries and wartime dramas all have their part to play. But explaining it is one thing; justifying it is quite another. The acid test, I think, is this. When the curriculum was planned, did anyone plan for this? The answer is No; nor would anyone have planned for it. Does it matter? I think very clearly that it does.

Firstly, it impoverishes the subject. One strength of SHP is the way in which it gives proper weight to earlier periods of history, but even SHP has not proved immune to the process of “Hitlerisation”: after long debate SHP now offers depth study on nazi Germany, a probably inevitable acknowledgement of the power of the market, but a sad commentary on the narrowness of school history nonetheless.

Secondly, it limits the students’ understanding even of the period they are ostensibly studying. You will remember the example I quoted of the woman who believed she had studied the Second World War only to discover she had done nothing of the sort. I have often heard A level students saying that they have studied modern world history or even that they have studied modern Europe. It usually only takes cursory questioning to discover that in fact they have studied Germany and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, and all too often with little or no context. Whole swathes of relevant history from the period, including such fundamentals as Mussolini’s fascist state or pivotal events like the Spanish Civil War are often missed out not only at GCSE but also at A level.

Nor should we overlook the implications of this for the teaching of history within a democracy. I am not saying that current cynicism about democracy and democratic processes is our fault, but we do contribute to it. Our teaching is heavily focused on undemocratic dictatorships, or on democratic states falling badly short of the ideal – Civil Rights in the United States is a good case in point. More by accident than by design we hardly ever give pupils through their history lessons an example of a successful or stable democracy, even though those are the values we profess to believe in and to wish to impart.

Thirdly, this emphasis on the nazi period does do actual harm. It would be very arrogant of us simply to ignore the complaints that have emanated from the German and Japanese embassies about the effect it is having on perceptions of their countries within Britain. It also means that the 1930s – or rather, a limited understanding of the 1930s – has become virtually the only historical point of reference for anyone trying to make sense of the present. Thus President Bush and Tony Blair, like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher before them, regularly invoke the heavily simplistic images of Chamberlain the appeaser or Churchill the ignored prophet in order to put their positions across to the public. It comes across in the nasty attitudes of xenophobic racists who feel free to insult foreigners not only in this country but even in their own countries, because “we” won the war. It may be too harsh to say that we as a profession are responsible for the attitude that chants "If it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts” in French streets or “Two world wars and one world cup” in German, but it is difficult to see that such a heavy concentration on nazi Germany will do much to combat or alleviate it.

Three important points underpin this. First is history teachers’ responsibility. Naturally, we like to talk up our subject and to quote Khrushchev’s tag about how dangerous historians are because they are always seeking the truth; but that very explosive nature of the subject gives us a heavy responsibility, which goes beyond even the child, and certainly well beyond the concerns of League Tables. I suppose I have to call it a responsibility towards Society, as long as that is understood in a global, rather than merely in a national, sense. It is a responsibility which, perhaps, we are not facing up to.

Second is the issue of prescription. That is not a popular word: people tend to bridle when it is mentioned, and it is difficult to find an entirely satisfactory phrase with which to sweeten the pill, though Ian Dawson did recently coin the felicitous phrase “legislating for diversity”. We often like to think that we exercise choice in constructing history courses, and choice is so heavily entrenched a principle in education policy that it might seem strange to be sailing in the opposite direction, although it is noticeable that the concept is coming under increasing criticism on a number of fronts. Indeed, Denis Shemilt found, perhaps surprisingly, that SHP teachers, especially in the early days, did not actually want choice – what they wanted was prescription. If I may speak personally for a moment, I do not in fact approve of the “Tell me what to teach and I’ll do it” school of thinking – or rather, of not thinking – but at the same time it has to be said that our commitment to choice has led us down some very odd alleys. The nazi Germany issue is one obvious result of the exercise of too much choice. But how much choice is there in any case? We buy the resources, which commits us to using them at least for the foreseeable future; publishers produce endless books and resources on a small number of big-selling topics and very little on anything else; teachers invest so much time to preparing these topics that – especially if their teaching duties are combined with other positions of responsibility – they can become very unwilling to change. This may well be entirely understandable – indeed, it probably is - but it is not the operation of choice; it is inertia.

Properly understood, curricular prescription is not an act of oppression but an act of faith. You prescribe for study those aspects you actually believe in. If, for example, you believe that all pupils should study a variety of different periods or different types of history, you do not offer them as options; you prescribe them. The SHP is, I need hardly add, a prime example of this principle in practice.

Third, there is a need for a philosophy to underpin school history. Denis Shemilt identified something a little more modest for SCHP – he called it a rationale, but I think he did himself a disservice. The SCHP was founded upon, and developed, a very clear philosophy based on a reading of the needs of adolescents and on the nature of the historical discipline. Its philosophy borrowed heavily from Collingwood’s argument that through analysis of evidence we not only discover the past but we reach a fuller understanding of ourselves: “The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is”.

Is there a recognisable philosophy underpinning current school history? Yes, or at any rate there are certain principles, but they do not appear to have proved strong enough to withstand outside pressures, especially those of assessment, and they are by no means always evident in practice. For example, ask history teachers if they believe pupils should know about non-western history, and ideologically they will almost certainly say yes; but in practical terms, very few history teachers actually teach any. Yet, the more pressure there is, the more important it is to have a set of principles, a coherent philosophy. Without it, the subject has no defences, not least because it has little to defend.

HACP is above all an attempt to provide that philosophy. It grew out of three separate developments: the Historical Association’s Past Forward conference in September 2002, the Prince of Wales’s summer schools for history and English teachers, particularly the second one, held in 2003 in Norwich, and above all a meeting of historians and history education specialists convened on three occasions in the course of 2003-4 by the Secretary of State. We have conducted consultations with history education specialists, with academic historians and with representatives from the heritage industry and from other history associations. We will be conducting consultation with teachers and with pupils. We aim to report in the autumn of 2004. It is important to understand what our report will be, and what it will not be. It will not be a syllabus or a programme of study. It will not list content or topics that should be studied at particular ages, though we will need to start thinking about that in due course. What it will do will be to recommend the principles and criteria that should underpin school history in the 14-19 phase.

Obviously, while we hope we maintain open minds we do not come to this from a tabula rasa. There are issues which concern us, some of which brought us to the issue in the first place, and some of which have arisen from the discussions we have already held. A major concern we have identified is the issue of the fragmentation of history, in terms both of content and of its component skills. Put very simply, we want to know how we can put history together again. Within that overall issue, there are other more specific issues:

* source work – how can it be re-integrated with the process of writing history, as happens in A level Personal Studies but not elsewhere?

* narrative construction – this was identified by the academic historians as the central skill of the historian, particularly in relation to primary sources. Grant Bage cites L. Mink and the late Raphael Samuel to emphasise that narrative is “so primary that the real wonder is that the historians were so late in discovering it” and that too heavy a concentration on source work “narrows time-horizons and prohibits grand narrative”. There is a problem of definition here – the technique of constructing narrative from historical material is not necessarily the same as constructing a grand narrative across a long timescale – but the construction of narrative is a crucial historical skill, and a high order skill at that. What place ought it to have in the assessment of school history?

* Breadth of coverage – how can this be achieved, both in chronological and geographical terms? The SHP Study in Development is certainly one model for ensuring chronological breadth; an interesting idea which also came up in our consultations was for the long-term perspective to be integrated into every unit of study, rather than in one specially-designated one. The issue of geographical spread was the subject of a particularly interesting discussion with a representative of the Japanese embassy who raised the issue of the Meiji Revolution of 1867. He fully accepted that it was unrealistic to expect British teachers to deal in any depth with this central event in the development of modern Japan, but it could feature in a thematic approach which took, say, the theme of revolution well beyond its traditional European confines to include revolutions in South America and Asia. This is clearly an area which requires further work.

* Interpretations of history – this a good example of where Key Stage 3 practice could inform practice at Key Stage 4 and even at A level. Indeed, historical interpretation features so slightly at Key Stage 4 that GCSE might even be regarded as a step backwards. It is also a weak feature of history at AS. It may be that part of the problem lies in the problems students have in reading, especially the sort of reading required in historiography. What role might different interpretations arising from the students themselves play here? What ought to be the relationship between historiography at A level and at undergraduate level? Again, this is an area which needs more thought.

We have also begun to address issues such as the interplay between the individual and the historic environment; the role of Encounter in history; and how to develop a sense of period. These raise the important question of history’s relationship with other subjects. Here, we are trying to think creatively: history is a perfect umbrella subject for links with anything. There is certainly great value to be gained from links with geography, especially in certain aspects of historical work – local history is particularly important here. But we have strong potential links, largely under-used at present, with English. We do relatively little with the creative arts and, apart from translation services for battlefields trips, with modern languages. These are potentially very rich areas for curriculum development, especially in the light of Tomlinson. But these areas of possibility make it all the more important that we enter into the field with a clear idea of history’s distinctive identity and value.

This is particularly important in terms of history’s relationship with Citizenship. On this difficult issue, different opinions have emerged. History contributes to a sense of citizenship (small “c”) willy-nilly; it can also contribute to Citizenship education, while there are many ways in which Citizenship issues arise naturally from historical work. The bottom line, however, has to be that Citizenship is NOT why we teach history. History can certainly help to shape Citizenship, but Citizenship should not shape history.

Above all, we need to take on board the implications of that 14-19 age-bracket. It is not all we might wish: 16 remains the school-leaving age, and will still be a point of assessment. However, a single 14-19 diploma does allow us to address the issue of through-planning. The idea has always been to plan each stage separately: Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3, GCSE, A level. There has been no successful attempt to plan the whole sweep in a coherent manner. Partly this comes from our tendency to identify strongly with the particular age group we teach and to forget that the pupils go through all the Key Stages. It is one of the ironies of the current set-up that arguably the people who are least well served by the history curriculum are those who actually follow it all the way through. Why, for example, should they have to repeat topics? This is often defending in terms of “revisiting” topics in greater depth, and the alternative of teaching different topics is sometimes scorned as simply “teaching more content”, but from the pupils’ point of view “teaching more content” means discovering new topics, gaining new knowledge, and a broader and deeper understanding of the past. What right have we got to deny them that in the name of revisiting? This, again, is something on which we need to solicit views.

Lastly, but crucially, we are considering the issue of relevance. If we do not address this head-on, we fall foul of the “So What?” question asked by pupils of anything that seems to demand it. But relevance is a relative concept. Too often it has been assumed that relevance means recent history – hence the drive for Modern World History at GCSE, though in its usual form it is neither world history nor particularly modern. Relevance requires flexibility, taking changes in the modern world into account as they happen. We need to consider the best models for using IT to support this, bearing in mind that geography, government and politics, and modern languages all manage to do this very effectively. It might, for example, mean taking on board the historical causation of current events – an approach pioneered, of course, by the SCHP – or it might mean more of an emphasis on Causation’s poorer, often rather neglected, relation, Consequences, to se how events in even the more distant parts impact on the modern world.

This is the first time the Historical Association has got involved in Curriculum Development, though it is not the first time we have tackled these sorts of issues. In 1971 the Association published Jeanette Coltham and John Fines’s seminal pamphlet Historical Objectives for the Study of History. It had an enormous impact, not least on the development of the Schools Council Project. We are not presuming to match that, but we are carrying forward the process that they started, helping to reshape and redefine school history for a new generation.

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Brilliant.

What can I say? In terms of impact, this was like reading John Slater's wonderful pamphlet all those years ago as a PGCE student.

On assessment, source-work, coverage (following the IGCSE and IB, I have no choice but to deliver 20th century history!), interpretations (KS4 regression), and history/citizenship, on everything actually, I couldn't agree more.

For me, the study of the past in schools needs to move beyond the narrow discipline of academic 'history'. We must recognise that as citizens, students need to become as much discriminating consumers of the past, as pale imitators of the producers of history. I can't help feeling that that our students still study history in the way it was designed to train bright young Victorian men how to become civil servants of the Empire.

I often wonder how traditionalists felt when they read Slater: Celts looked in the starve - factual recall - famous dead Englishmen - essay as eccentric literary form. To me in the early 90s, how we had been teaching history was so obviously wrong. Reading your seminar, I am reminded how far we still have to go.

A few years ago I started teaching the IB. Although innovative in many ways, the history syllabus and assessment system is very English. I wrote some time ago on the History Teachers' Forum some thoughts which echo your own:

'Generally, there appears to be no attempt to move beyond a narrow, rather Rankean empiricism with its fetishist obsession with the “documents”. Spend ten minutes examining two sources and comment on their reliability. Confronted with such a question, I have often been tempted to ask “why?” What are we as teachers hoping to achieve? Are we hoping to imitate what real historians do or is it some sort of elaborate IQ test that has little to do with history? At an IB conference I attended the senior examiner seemed to delight in revealing that students could expect to achieve up to 17 or so marks out of the 20 available without having to know much of the historical context at all! I suspect, therefore, that quite a bit of IB History teaching time must be dedicated to teaching the “skills of source analysis” or as I prefer to see it, learning to jump through the very contrived and intellectually restricted hoops, in a limited amount of time.

Where did the idea of a document paper come from? I suspect it had something to do with developments in Britain. The Schools Council History Project in the 1970s and the GCSE in the 1980s attempted to address the perceived crisis in History teaching (a subject identified by students as boring and difficult) by reducing the assessment (and therefore teaching emphasis) on content recall and essay writing (or the boring and difficult). As John Slater once put it: “Skills – did we even use the word? – were mainly those of recalling accepted facts about famous dead Englishmen, and communicated in a very eccentric literary form, the examination length essay”. It was almost inevitable after its introduction at GCSE that document work would find its way into the A Level, as it universally had done by the end of the 1980s. When exactly did it make it into the IB? Perhaps IB was the innovator? Either way, the document paper is like the essay, a very eccentric intellectual form.

But it is not really the artifice or eccentricity that bugs me; it is the fact that methodologically it ignores intellectual developments in the social sciences over the last 30 years. A student doing IB History need never have to consider the implications for History of the work of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty et al. Yes, I know history was slow to adjust; historians have always had a healthy scepticism of abstract ideas. But for goodness sake, there will be people teaching IB History this year who were not even born when Hayden White’s Metahistory was first published (1973). It is now nearly ten years since Keith Jenkins began his campaign to bring post-modernism to the historian masses (Re-thinking History 1991) and now there is even an Access to History textbook for Advanced Level students that takes up the challenge. (History and the Historians, John Warren) As this last text recognises, although as historians we may not accept the arguments of the post-modernists who attempt to undermine our theoretical foundations, we cannot afford to ignore them either.

As it stands therefore, history at IB is in a sort of intellectual vacuum cut adrift from not only general intellectual developments but even more bizarrely (in its non-relationship to the TOK programme), IB History appears cut adrift from its own general academic programme. The student who has made a number of profound observations on the epistemological fragility of history in TOK, confronting questions such as “can we know anything about the past?”, will always have to return to a realistic down to earth acceptance of “whether I can know or not, I’ve just got to get on and do it” IB History programme. This amounts to a sort of intellectual resignation that is so out of keeping with the professed spirit of the IB. '

http://www.schoolhistory.co.uk/forum/index...showtopic=1944#

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I have to say that this was not only a very enjoyable read (which is saying something after a night of courseowrk marking and lesson planning!), Sean Lang has certainly been able to master the 'historical narrative' in his writing style. This is also a VITAL read - there are some hugely important questions being raised, particularly about the purpose of the History curriculum and the way in which we adapt to the 14-19 curriculum. I would hope that the vast majority of respondents to this forum will be au fait with a large amount of what Sean is saying. I know that I am very aware of the importance of creating 'historians' rather than 'history students' - the motto at my old dept was 'creating happy historians' - and put a lot of emphasis on using sources in more than just a superficial way and encouraging pupils to be good narrators. I have also interpreted the NC with a certain amount of licence which means that I am not overburdened with content at the expense of skills. I am very proud to have ' legislated for diversity' as anyone who has read my various rants about multicultural history (what are you doing for Black history Month!!!!). Read it.

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Brilliant. What can I say? In terms of impact, this was like reading John Slater's wonderful pamphlet all those years ago as a PGCE student.

I agree completely with Richard. I was also lucky enough to be at the SHP conference where I heard the original speech.

It is interesting that Richard compares the speech with the John Slater’s pamphlet that he read as a PGCE student. I never read the pamphlet but I did hear John Slater speak at a conference for history teachers when I was in my first year of teaching (1978). The speech was to have a tremendous impact on the way I was to teach history for the rest of my career.

In 1980 I had a phone-call from John Slater. He had seen the materials that a small group of friends (Tressell Publishing Cooperative) were publishing for history teachers. He asked if he could meet us and the following Monday night he came to my home (with Roger Hennessy) to discuss these materials. Over the next couple of years John and Roger were extremely helpful in our efforts to produce history materials that would develop critical thinking skills. This included giving out our brochures to fellow HMI inspectors. Could you imagine Ofsted inspectors doing that?

Seán Lang raises several important points. I plan to respond to all of them over the next few weeks. First of all I would like to look at the following passage concerning the introduction of SHP.

However, before I go into detail about that, I want to look back. That should not be a strange thing for a historian to do, and certainly not in a gathering like this. Yet I think that as a profession we – paradoxically – often don’t look back anything like enough. We tell our pupils - rightly, I think – that the past can help illumine the present but we often don’t apply that lesson to our own field of history teaching. Or if we do, we couch past practice in crude caricature, which does a disservice to those who came before us, and teaches us nothing. So let me take you back moment to 1972. Edward Heath was in Downing Street and the country was deeply divided over whether or not it wanted to be in Europe; there were protests against foreign asylum seekers as Idi Amin expelled Uganda’s Asian community; the country had to eat by candlelight because the miners’ strike had hit the nation’s power supply; and here in Leeds a team headed by David Sylvester launched the Schools Council project: History 11-13 on an unsuspecting world.

Why? Mary Price in 1968 had declared “History in Danger” – in danger of disappearing from the curriculum, buried under its own irrelevance and the innate tedium of its teaching. The SCHP was an attempt to save school history form oblivion, from being forced off the curriculum by Social Studies or Sociology, or from being completely subsumed within courses of Integrated Humanities. But it was always more than that. In his Evaluation Study of the Project, Denis Shemilt called it a revolution in the way history was taught to the young, and so indeed it was. It placed critical analysis of source material at the heart of the subject, it helped children share in the pleasures and thrills that can be found in careful investigation of the past through the evidence it ahs left behind. It aimed to replace, or at least to move on from, what David Sylvester called the “Great Tradition” of British history teaching, memorably described and characterised by Professor John Slater:

”Content was largely British, or rather Southern English; Celts looked in to starve, emigrate or rebel; the North to invent looms or work in mills; abroad was of no interest once it was part of the Empire; foreigners were either, sensibly, allies, or, rightly, defeated. Skills – did we even use the word? – were mainly those of recalling accepted facts about famous dead Englishmen, and communicated in a very eccentric literary form, the examination-length essay. It was an inherited consensus, based largely on hidden assumptions, rarely identified let alone publicly debated.”

I was first introduced to SCHP materials on my PGCE course at the University of Sussex. As someone who had just completed a degree at the Open University there was nothing new in this approach. The whole course had been developed around using primary sources. There was also a great deal of work on the different ways the past had been interpreted. However, this was in stark contrast to my own history lessons at a secondary modern school in Dagenham (1956-60). I left school with a strong dislike for history and it was not until my early twenties that I developed a love of the subject.

My first teaching job was in a school that had just adopted SCHP. Although I liked the approach I did not like the published materials (If I remember rightly the contract had been given to a Scottish company called Holmes McDougall). The “What is History” course was not too bad. However, I think it was a serious mistake to use a made up murder story rather than use a real example from history. This was the most popular part of the course with students but they were deeply disappointed when they discovered it was not a true story.

Another problem was the materials produced for the SCHP examination course. The books were very unappealing to the children. They contained a great deal of text on the page. This was made more of a problem by the use of a small typeface that was printed in brown on off-white paper. Poor use was made of visual sources with a preference for political cartoons that probably made sense to the literate classes of the time, but were virtually incomprehensible to the students (and most teachers).

It was not only the look of the material that was a problem. I did not like the topics that had been chosen by the SCHP. My impression was that the SCHP had purposely selected topics that they considered to be “safe”. They were aware that the idea of teaching history in schools in this way was going to have a political impact. There is no doubt that this was a revolutionary approach to the subject. For centuries history had been taught in schools in a way that implied that there was an agreed story to tell. Now we were suggesting that the past could be interpreted in different ways. Understandably, those on the right of the political spectrum, including Education Secretary, Keith Joseph, considered this to be an example of Marxists gaining control over history teaching. Interestingly, Joseph made the same point about some of the Open University courses being taught at the time.

The SCHP knew this charge was bound to be made and so decided to select what they considered to be “non controversial” topics. Could you for example, have a Marxist interpretation of the Wild West? Yes, you could, but I don’t think any teacher taught it in this way. The big modern world history topics were therefore left out of the SCHP.

John Slater was aware of this problem. This was one of the reasons why he gave support to the Tressell Cooperative (John was one of those who realized we had been named after the writer rather than the table). However, we could only produce these materials for the lower school. We could not have any impact at what was taught post 14.

Despite the many criticisms of SCHP history, this approach became more and more popular with history teachers. Even though a majority did not adopt ‘O’ level SCHP, they did introduce this approach in the lower school. The main reason was because the children enjoyed it. They liked the idea of historical mysteries. It gave them something to contribute. History lessons was not now about memorizing what their teacher had told them. It was also about opinions. They now had the power to interpret the past for themselves (a revolutionary concept). I still remember the excitement generated in my classroom in the early 1980s when my 13 year old students grappled with the contradictory evidence regarding the assassination of John F. Kennedy and eventually came up with their own theories about what had happened. This was of course not only about teaching history. It was about teaching about the nature of citizenship. It was about providing them with the skills needed to cope with the mass media and government propaganda.

By 1984 most history teachers had become convinced that the SCHP approach was the way forward. The real revolution therefore came with the introduction of GCSE History. This ensured that those controversial subjects such as the First World War, Russian Revolution and Nazi Germany could be studied via interpretations of the past. This had a major impact of the more traditional history teacher who had resisted change in the later 1970s and early 1980s. He/she had to use this approach at GCSE. In order to prepare their students for this exam, they knew they had to change their approach in the lower school.

Seán Lang argues that: “Change in education does not usually come from teachers; it comes from those with power and influence in the quarters where it matters: MPs, journalists, public commentators, and so on.” That is usually true. But this is not true of what happened with history teaching in the 1980s. The government of the day, led by Margaret Thatcher, made it clear that it strongly disapproved of the SCHP approach to history teaching. They also understandably disliked GCSE history.

What is more, they were going to make sure it was going to be brought to an end. Thatcher and her Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, took great care in selecting the group of people to decide what kind of history was going to be taught in the new National Curriculum. Do you remember the original team? Chaired by the owner of a castle, it only had two teacher representatives, both of these were not associated with the SCHP approach to teaching. The story goes that the secondary teacher representative, Carol White, only got put on the committee after being quizzed about her views on the subject at a Conservative Party meeting.

However, despite the efforts of Baker and his history committee, they could not overthrow the changes that had taken place in history teaching (and publishing). When the history National Curriculum was introduced, it mirrored the approach of SCHP and GCSE. They might not have been aware of it at the time, but this was a victory won by classroom teachers. The powerful politicians, journalists and public commentators had been defeated. Their view of history teaching had been thrown into what someone once called the “dustbin of history”.

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* source work – how can it be re-integrated with the process of writing history, as happens in A level Personal Studies but not elsewhere?

I am an American history teacher so some of my commentary should be a little off target for reasons of difference in our systems. We use primary sources in the United States on our AP (where college credit can be earned in a year-end examination) classes in a fomat called a DBQ (document based question)

I did not like documents in the classroom setting when they were heavily used in discussion sections in my undergraduate history classes. I was pleased that I rarely had to use documents for using documents sakes as a graduate teaching assistant. As a high school history teacher of general college track students I very rarely have my students work with primary sources. I think they are best used by professional historians in creating secondary works. I think they detract from the quality of learning in the classroom. (Generally)

* narrative construction – this was identified by the academic historians as the central skill of the historian, particularly in relation to primary sources. Grant Bage cites L. Mink and the late Raphael Samuel to emphasise that narrative is “so primary that the real wonder is that the historians were so late in discovering it” and that too heavy a concentration on source work “narrows time-horizons and prohibits grand narrative”. There is a problem of definition here – the technique of constructing narrative from historical material is not necessarily the same as constructing a grand narrative across a long timescale – but the construction of narrative is a crucial historical skill, and a high order skill at that. What place ought it to have in the assessment of school history?

I like to use grander scope essay questions that emphisize analysis. I try to get students to write as much as I can because I feel, like many other aspects of the history classroom, it is an opportunity to use the history classroom to improve important academic skills.

My narrative construction assignments tend to work along the lines of "Tell the story of . . ." Expected is a clear timeline in terms of organization, a reasonable mastery of facts and dates, and explanations of the significance of introduced facts in terms of the telling of a particular historical story.

I am not at all sure this comment is addressing the proper issue.

* Breadth of coverage – how can this be achieved, both in chronological and geographical terms? The SHP Study in Development is certainly one model for ensuring chronological breadth; an interesting idea which also came up in our consultations was for the long-term perspective to be integrated into every unit of study, rather than in one specially-designated one. The issue of geographical spread was the subject of a particularly interesting discussion with a representative of the Japanese embassy who raised the issue of the Meiji Revolution of 1867. He fully accepted that it was unrealistic to expect British teachers to deal in any depth with this central event in the development of modern Japan, but it could feature in a thematic approach which took, say, the theme of revolution well beyond its traditional European confines to include revolutions in South America and Asia. This is clearly an area which requires further work.

US high schools tend to require one year of US history and one year of World HIstory. Both are broad at the expense of depth. World History has gotten longer (every year!) but this has been a change from Western Civ to World History, so it increased in breadth. US has of course gotten longer as well.

At my private high school, we have added another mandatory year of history (although recent administration changes and a new emphasis on a wider variety of electives may reverse this). This added year is the history of the twentieth century. This course picks up where both course left off around WWI and looks at the events of the Twentieth Century in depth and breadth. I thoroughly enjoy teaching this course.

It allows the opportunity to delve more deeply into US history (more in depth social/economic/cultural forays) and more broadly at the development of different societies in the 2oth century (Africa, Middle East, Asia primarily)

* Interpretations of history – this a good example of where Key Stage 3 practice could inform practice at Key Stage 4 and even at A level. Indeed, historical interpretation features so slightly at Key Stage 4 that GCSE might even be regarded as a step backwards. It is also a weak feature of history at AS. It may be that part of the problem lies in the problems students have in reading, especially the sort of reading required in historiography. What role might different interpretations arising from the students themselves play here? What ought to be the relationship between historiography at A level and at undergraduate level? Again, this is an area which needs more thought.

At our high school level, I use historical interpretation in the ability to write certain type of essays. (Compare and contrast, evaluate the causes/consequences, explain the significance of, tell the story of) Historiography should be left in the undergraduate or graduate level of study (IMHO). Students should simply be constantly be reminded through different presentations of material, that the historian is a human filter that presents bias in his material. History, like most all sources of writing, should be read critically and skeptically.

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Raymond Blair raises the issue of using primary sources in the classroom. I do not share Raymond’s views, but I do think teachers need to ask important questions about they are used in the classroom. When I entered the profession the vast majority of textbooks concentrating on narrative history. Most did not include primary sources. Now all include plenty of opportunities for “source work”. But as Seán Lang points out:

“Not only are source exercises formulaic, but they can only cope with a limited range of anticipated responses. For example, attendance at a training session run by an examination board will teach you that when a question asks “How different is Source A from Source B?” the examiners do not want to hear anything about how they might also be similar, and candidates will in effect be penalised for considering it. This is a useful tip for passing the exam, but utter nonsense in terms of historical work. Does anyone seriously believe that is how any historian actually works?”

What has gone wrong? To answer this question I think you need to consider why historians advocated the use of sources in the classroom in the period following the Second World War. The main push for this approach came from a group of historians dissatisfied with conventional history teaching in schools and universities. These historians were associated with the “history from below” movement. 1952 saw the arrival of the journal, Past and Present. Over the next few years the journal pioneered the study of working-class history. Important figures in this movement included E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawn, Rodney Hilton, Raphael Samuel, George Rudé, John Saville, Dorothy Thompson, Edmund Dell, Victor Kiernan and Maurice Dobb.

In 1967 these historians joined forces with the growing feminist movement to establish the History Workshop Group. This group believed that students should be turned from passive consumers of history to active participants in the process. This involved the study of primary sources.

There were several arguments put forward by these historians why primary sources should be used in the classroom. This included:

(1) Narrative history suggests to the student that there is an agreement about how the past is interpreted. This is of course not the case. Therefore, students should be encouraged to study different interpretations of the past.

(2) The student should be encouraged to study first-hand experiences of the past. These should be of a wide variety of different experiences. For example, when studying the First World War, you should look at the experiences of the private soldier in the trenches as well as the general directing operations behind the front lines.

As I argued in a previous posting there was great opposition to this approach. However, with the introduction of GCSE it became part of the dominant ideology. There was a serious problem with this new approach. The driving force was the examination system. The primary concern was how was we to use sources to assess student achievement? How sources were used in the classroom was now largely determined by they way they were used in the examination? This in turn influenced the content of textbooks.

Authors who had the job of selecting primary sources for their books soon realized that they had a serious problem. In the past, great care had been taken over getting the reading age level of the narrative right. Now they had to include written sources that had originally been produced for an adult audience. This problem was made worse by the fact that they were often written in the distant past when language was very different from modern use.

At the same time textbook authors had to deal with the tyranny of the double-page spread. Publishers were convinced this was the way forward. Give the teachers what they needed in a self-contained unit. As this included the extensive use of colourful images, there was little room for text in these new books. After all, the publishers argued, modern children could not deal with too much text on a page.

Given these factors: reading age of text, double-page spread, generous use of images; the use of short extracts was inevitable. However, this was to completely undermine the original idea of why you should use primary sources in the first place. How could the student get any idea of what it was like to live in the past by a one or two sentence quotation? As Christine Counsell has argued, the use of short extracts makes it more difficult, not less difficult, to make sense of the source.

The length of a source also influences the activities you can set. It is no accident that most source work is little more than comprehension exercises.

Seán rightly quotes Chris Husbands on the subject:

The teachers’ normal tactic, of editing, cutting, pre-selecting evidence upon which pupils will practise the “historical skills” often results in activities which can scarcely be dignified with the label “history”, and, in many cases, the “skills” themselves operate at a lamentably low level.

To deal with this problem we need to reconsider the whole issue of assessment in history.

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I suppose I've hesitated in adding to this debate since nothing decided by this review could in any way affect what I teach here. However, one or two points do occur to me, and, at the risk of boring you all...

First, a little story. One day, about 8 months after the vcitory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini, I was invited to a small party at the home of a man who had been the head of the Shah's press bureau. The party was attended by a peculiar mixture of people, including two members of the Shah's last government, which he had appointed in extremis before fleeing the country. The government, headed by Shahpour Bakhtiar, inlcuded many reformists who had spent years and years in exile. I got talking to the former Minister of Housing. He was a poet who'd been living in Paris for 15 years and spoke Persian with a French accent. He'd returned to Iran full of hope that this was a new dawn of democracy. Now, he was in constant fear of arrest and was considering a return into exile. "How," he asked me, "could anyone have expected that it would all turn out like this?"

Well, the answer is that anyone who'd studied the history of the French or Russian Revolutions could have predicted the rapid radicalization and the descent into mob violence, but, under the Shah, bth had been banned from the history curriculum...

I suppose I see that as one of the dangers of the narrowing down of the curriculum that has taken place since I left England 30-odd years ago. Looking at the threads on what people teach at GCSE and A Level does indeed show a marked preference for Hitler and Stalin. It's difficult to work it our from the replies, but it would seem that you could almost get away without studying anything else from year 10 through year 13. Some appeared to study Weimar Germany, then thre rise of Hitler, then the Nazi Economy, then Nazi foreign policy...

Now, I'm not saying Nazi Germany cannot teach us important lessons, but perhaps such an emphasis is a little excessive...

Perhaps I'm misinformed, but it would appear that virtually all the "world" history being taught is from the 20th Century, and British history -- apart from "thematics" like medicine, crime, etc -- outside the 20th Century doesn't seem to cover much other than the Tudors.

If this is the case, then I think there's rather a lot of babies been thrown out with the bathwater.

I'm not advocating the sort of over-simplified survey courses the American AP examinations demand, but surely we can only achieve the level of "cultural literacy" necessary to maintain some level of communication if there is at least a general understanding of the forces which formed the 20th Century. It would seem to me, for example, that a study of the French Revolution would be pretty fundamental to a proper understanding of nationalism and liberalism...

Again, I don't want to appear overly prescriptive since any "list" of what should be study would inevitably be incomplete, leaving out something someone else thought of as "essential", and I do appreciate that one can teach, for example, the growth of early civilizations as easily by looking at the Minoans as by looking at the Egyptians. However, I think the present system has gone too far the other way. Topics seem to be picked, more often than not, for the ease of the exam board, or their "interest level" rather than on the basis of their intrinsic worth, or of whether or not the complement the other topics chosen.

For example, some IB teachers teach "The Rise and Rule of One-Party States" as one of the two topics they choose in year 12, and then study Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin again in year 13. This does mean that they stand a better chance in the examination, but does it really give them a fully rounded historical education?

I think there's also a "baby and bathwater" element to the movement towards the use of evidence.

I'm reminded of a year 13 child who informed me last year when I told him to make some notes on the Terror from his textbook, that in IB class, they did interpretation, not facts...

It is important to learn the skills needed to evaluate evidence -- I remember the wonderful Mark Pullen and Tollund Man materials from the SCHP many, many years ago -- but I do think there also has to be a chronological framework upon which to hang what stduents learn from evidence.

Again, in our rush to make history "hands on" and "relevant", I think we've perhaps lost track of "history as story"... Sean mentioned R. J. Unsted, and what I remember from his books was the excitement of reading history as a story -- as narrative. Looking at history books today, I think we've lost some of the excitement that comes from reading a really exciting story...

This isn't very coherent or well-thought-out -- just a few observations from an ancient teacher rapidly approaching a well-earned retirement -- 10 years to go and counting....

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I believe that before we attempt to “shape and redefine school history for a new generation” we should ask a basic question: What kind of influence to we want to have on students studying history in the classroom?. I would suggest the following:

(1) That they leave school with a keen interest in history and with a good understanding of why the subject is important.

(2) That they are aware of how the past influences the present and the future.

(3) That they have the necessary skills to function fully as an adult citizen.

(4) That they have an empathetic understanding of what it is like to be an individual or a member of a group outside their own experience of life.

(5) That they have an understanding of the historical relationship that their country has had with the rest of the world.

(6) That they become life-long learners.

(7) That they can communicate their knowledge and understanding of the past to other people.

Once we have created a list we can then start to look at how these aims and objectives can be delivered. I think we need to pay particular attention to the role new technology can play in this.

Finally, we need to consider how the students should be assessed.

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If we create learning opportunities which are innovative and interesting both the exam results and the "love of learning" will look after themselves.

I am particularly interested in how e-learning can be used to break the stranglehold publishers and National Curriculum writers have on what is selected to be studied and how this study is carried out. The Ask an Expert feature on this forum is a very good example of this potential - linking students with expertise and research at the sharp end.

John is correct when he suggests we tend to consume technology using modes of learning with which we are familiar - electronic whiteboards are used as "jazzy" chalkboards, web pages for learning are modelled on what textbooks have been offering for years. The exciting feature of Internet based learning for me is the communication factor - something which remains underexploited and something we should perhaps be focussing on at the start.

I have no argument with John's 7 points quoted below

(1) That they leave school with a keen interest in history and with a good understanding of why the subject is important.

(2) That they are aware of how the past influences the present and the future.

(3) That they have the necessary skills to function fully as a citizen of the country.

(4) That they have an empathetic understanding of what it is like to be an individual or a member of a group outside their own experience of life.

(5) That they have an understanding of the historical relationship that their country has had with the rest of the world.

(6) That they become life-long learners.

(7) That they can communicate their knowledge and understanding of history to other people.

They are an excellent starting point. They are also very similar to the aims and objectives of every National Curriculum document I have ever seen. The difference is that if we harness the real promise of the internet to liberate learning from the selection and control of knowledge, we may well have a better chance of meeting them.

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I think that Richard makes several important points. One of my concerns is that pupils should develop an understanding of history as a form of knowledge as well as a body of knowledge. I have been influenced partly by reading the work of Peter Lee, Alaric Dickinson and Ros Ashby, and feel that the outcomes of the CHATA project (Concepts of History and Teaching Approaches) offer several interesting and useful ways forward for history teachers. As John Arnold notes in 'History a short introduction', history is an argument, and one of the benefits supposed to derive from the study of the past is people who are able to choose wisely between different accounts- an important ability for citizens to possess in the 21st century. Keith Joseph's paper in The Historian, 1984 is another very powerful argument for the vitality and relevance of school history. Richard Aldrich's idea of 'historical perspectives' as one way of making sense of the world is also a helpful one, noting that history is about the present and the future as well as the past: is there any problem, question or issue into which we cannot gain more insight and understanding by looking at what has gone before?

For me, a big part of how history might be rendered more useful and more relevant to young people is in developing their information literacy and political awareness. In England this is now 'legitimate' as part of citizenship education, but there is still a lot of practice which does not link the past to the present, and which does not provide 'overviews' over time so that pupils can make sense of some of the big themes of history. (For instance, many teachers do not link the Peasants' Revolt to the issue of how opposition to monarchy/government has changed over time and how opposition is manifested in today's world, they do the Norman occupation without any link to the problems and issues of occupying/liberating Iraq. In 1990 the DES argued that history should ‘prepare pupils for adult life by imparting a critically sharpened intelligence with which to make sense of current affairs’ (DES, 1990: 1-2), only for Kenneth Clarke to bring in the '20 years rule' forbidding the joining up of past and present, and for some on the right to complain that history was becoming 'too political' (as if teaching pupils about kings, queens and peasants was not in some way political).

One example of this which I would like to focus on is the use of school history to develop pupils' 'democratic literacy'. At the moment pupils leave school with a very naive idea about democracy, government, power etc. They think, unreflectingly that democracy is 'a good thing', and that it simply means the right to vote. They do not have an understanding of 'democratic deficits' which ought to be an important part of their political education.

Also, some content issues; in the UK pupils learn very little about how their society has changed over the past 50 years. We generally 'pull the drawbridge up' at World War 2, and although some pupils do the Cold War, social change is a black hole, and could be a very powerful demonstration of how vital history is.

It is interesting to look at the general aims and values which are now part of the National Curriculum. It is a part of the National Curriculum which many of our PGCE students are not particularly familiar with.

The 1999 revision of the National Curriculum for History noted that pupils should be able to ‘research, sift through evidence and argue for their point of view- skills that are prized in adult life.’ There was explicit reference to the use of history to develop intellectual autonomy; ‘What they learn can influence their decisions about personal choices, attitudes and values. In history, pupils find evidence, weigh it up and reach their own conclusions’ (DfEE/QCA, 1999: 148).

In addition to this rationale for history as a school subject, the overall aims and values of the National Curriculum stipulated that all subjects should develop ‘enjoyment of and commitment to learning’, and ‘build on pupils’ strengths, interests and experiences and develop their confidence in their capacity to learn and work independently and collaboratively.’ The general aims of the National Curriculum also put significant emphasis on the development of critical intelligence, intellectual autonomy, and active citizenship- school leavers are to be equipped to ‘think creatively and critically, to solve problems and to make a difference for the better… to make informed judgements and independent decisions.’ (DfEE/QCA, 1999: 11)

I think that most history teachers in the UK would be broadly supportive of these ideas, but would shake their heads if asked whether current arrangements offer a propitious environment for realising these aspirations. The main obstacle in the way is the current assessment and testing regime.

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A very enjoyable and stimulating debate so far. I'm looking forward to Sean's final paper.

And one "moment of truth" from an A2 student in the middle of a lesson about eighteen months ago: "Sir, I don't mean to be rude but... you might think that Lenin and the Bolsheviks are really exciting but what I want is a Grade C. Can you just tell me how to get that?"

And yes, I did. And yes, she is now a happy physiotherapy undergraduate.

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In my first teaching post I was given a delightful Y7 mixed-ability tutor group. It was the policy of the school for teachers, wherever possible, to teach their tutor groups. Therefore for the next three years I taught them history. A large number of them also opted to join my ‘O’/CSE groups. Some of these graduated into my Y12 ‘A’ level group.

In the first lesson of the ‘A’ level class I decided to carry out a little experiment. All the students had followed the same courses over the previous five years. I therefore gave them all a quiz on the history topics they had been taught at the school. Much to my surprise, they had remembered very little of what they had been taught. This was true of my students and those taught by other members of staff. (I was to discover over the next few weeks that they had indeed remembered the skills they had been taught).

During the discussion it became clear why the students had forgotten this information. They had remembered the information for as long as it was needed (for tests and examinations). They were all good students and had done well in these tests and examinations. Although they had not done this consciously, they had discarded the information as soon as the task was over.

I realized I had done the same in my own studies. For example, how much do you remember from your science lessons? However, there were certain areas that they did have a good memory for facts. One area concerned the military tactics used during the First World War. Further discussion revealed why. My Y9s had been used to test out the computer program Attack on the Somme that I was developing at the time. This involved the students playing the role of a military commander in 1916.

The students had also taken part in a simulation that I had devised on trench warfare. Each student played the role of a particular character who was alive in 1916 (soldiers, nurses, journalists, wives and girlfriends, etc.). Two of the students played the role of prosecuting and defending attorneys. Another played the role Sir Douglas Haig. The classroom was set up as a courtroom and Haig was tried for using immoral tactics at the Battle of the Somme.

Whereas most of their lessons had failed to have any long-term impact on them, these lessons had been different. They seemed to have internalised the information they needed for the task that had been set. It reminded me of a seminar I had at university about the ideas of Jerome Bruner. He had argued in the 1960s that people learn best when they learn in an active rather than a passive manner. He used the example of how we learn language. It is claimed that this is the most difficult thing we have to do in our life, yet we learn it so young and so quickly – so easily in fact, that some experts in this field have argued that language is, to a certain extent, an inherited skill.

Bruner argues that the reason we learn language so quickly is due to the method we use. As we are introduced to words, we use them. We test them out. Words immediately became practical. We can quickly see why it helps us to know these words. This is of course what the students had done while studying trench warfare. They had internalized the information they needed for the task.

This method is very different from what usually takes place in schools. The student is usually a passive receptacle trying to take in information that they will need for some test or examination in the future. To complete this task effectively, depends on students employing what sociologists have called deferred gratification. This is something that most young people are not very good at. They want their pleasures now, not in the distant future. However, the successful student plays this game and does well in tests and examinations. Although, as soon as the test or examination has been completed, the information is likely to be discarded.

This raises the issue of why we spend so much time preparing students to take factual recall tests or examinations. Obviously we do it because we have to do it. But should we be doing it? As educators should we not be demanding that we spend our time doing other things?

For anyone who is interested in active learning I suggest you visit Ian Dawson’s website on the subject.

http://www.thinkinghistory.co.uk/

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I think on this question we have thrown the baby out with the bath water. What do I mean? Well, I do rather rely on anecdotes, so here's another. Last year, I was teaching an IB Higher Level class. I gave the students a little quiz on the "facts" (Who were the members of the 3rd Estate? What were the cahiers de doleance? Who was Abbe Sieyes? etc). One on the students protested: "But we're in the IB class. We don't do facts. We only do analysis..."

Of course, the problem is that you can't "do analysis" if you don't possess any "facts" upon which to base your theories... It's unfortunate that all-too-often these days students appear to believe that "I think" is a valid way to express oneself in a history essay. I read time after time the regurgitation of poorly understood theories unbacked by any sort of historical evidence to back them up. For example, my class has just finished an IB essay asking them to compare the impact of Mussolini and Mao on world affairs. Four of them wrote "The PRC had no traditional foreign policy." I don't know where they got this from -- probably some website or other, I'll google it later -- but that's not the point. It's a rather startling statement. It might be true, or it might not be. But at the very least, it needs to be backed up by some sort of evidence. If the students don't know about Zhou's intervention in the Bandung Conference, the invasion of Tibet, the war with India, the Shining Path and other Maoist parties in the 3rd World, the Vietnam and Korean Wars, and Nixon's China Card, how can they even begin to have a valid analysis? They have to learn some facts as well as learning the analytical skills. Clearly, the ability to analyze the facts is far more important than the facts in isolation. My point is that both are necessary.

A good example of the division of fact from skill can be seen in many, many GCSE textbooks I've seen recently in which accompany the briefest and most superficial account of "what happened" with 6-10 two-three line "sources" for the students to analyze. They just don't have sufficient background or perspective from the inadequate account which accompanies them to react in any very valid way to the "sources" presented. (I would in any case challenge the validity of any source which consisted of a couple of lines wrenched from a much longer piece of writing.)

I'm not asking for a return to the sort of rote learning of prime ministers and battles I lived through in secondary school -- although I do think there's a lot to be said for the story approach to history common in the primary school I attended in the 1950s, but that's another argument. As I said in my post on the Sean Lang thread, I remember my relief when I accidentally discovered the Mark Pullen and Tollund Man materials from the SHP. I could begin to show my students (I was teaching 10-year-olds at the time) the joy of "doing history", something no-one had ever done in my school before.

On the other hand, I reject the claim that learning historical facts, as opposed to hands-on Mark Pullen activities, must, of necessity, be "boring". Anything can be boring if it's taught badly! It all depends on how you do it, and if you yourself believe what you're teaching is important and interesting. I met a woman I taught 25 years ago the other day, and she told me she still had John Kay's Flying Shuttle stuck in her mind from when I'd done the Industrial Revolution with them. Now, if that was all she remembered about the Industrial Revolution, that would be a sad story, but it wasn't, and it does go to show that with a bit of effort and imagination, you can even make something as intrinsically boring as John Kay's Flying Shuttle so interesting the students remeber it a quarter of a century later!

I teach in an American school. Skills acquisition is frowned upon. The American history curriculum involves delivering huge quantities of infromation and then testing its retention with multiple choice/true-false/short answer tests. We had to re-write the curriculum guide a couple of years ago. The school shipped in -- a huge expense -- a expert curriculum consultant from the US. I tried to suggest that there needed to be a skills element within the document. He rejected the suggestion out of hand, so our curriculum says things like:

"Students will understand the main events and personalities of the Italian Renaissance"

Totally useless! But very American.

But this does mean that no American high school student would cover Hitler four times in three years!

So, to sum up my rambling, I think the pendulum has swung too far. There needs to be a balance between skills and content. In the UK, I think you lean too far one way, and in the US, too far the other...

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John Simkin wrote to me:

I am very much a skills man. I also favour simulations and individual research projects.

In the Netherlands the History debate is turning away from the skills approach. A governmental commission has advised the Minister of Education to emphasise on chronology. This timeline is divided into 10 parts and pupils should be aware of main aspects of that period. Unfortunately the commission has not pointed out what those main facts should be.

I'm like John a skills man, but I can only apply skills when pupils have some notion of the periods they're studying.

In this way I agree with Mike Tribe

Of course, the problem is that you can't "do analysis" if you don't possess any "facts" upon which to base your theories...

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May I follow Mike's example with a little anecdote which I guess sums up my approach to teaching History. I have recently entered two year nine students (13year olds) into the 'Black History Challenge' a competition for schools about British Black history based on the Peter Fryer book, 'Staying Power'. I had no idea about the style of questions that were going to be asked, and was daunted by the vast amount of text that the students were expected to cover (for those of you unfamiliar with the book it is about 400 pages and more often used at A Level or higher). I prepared my boys by discussing the main themes in the book, for example black abolitionists or black radicals and most of the work was focused around understanding the context in which these people operated and the struggle that they were fighting for. I was not expecting questions such as what year was Olaudah Equiano born?, which is what we got. In fact all of the questions were simply testing recall and I found it incredibly frustrating. Fortunately the boys won through the first round but were knocked out in the semi-finals. I hope and believe that the skills that I helped the boys to develop, in particular the interpretation of key events and individuals, were far more useful than a few facts.

I am a strong believer in the SHP / active learning philosophy and only the other day my year 10 class re-enacted Hitler's trial after the Munich Putsch and it was a fantastic lesson. Of course the boys needed the 'facts' to be able to complete the activity and the fact that they were able to produce such high quality speeches clearly showed they had a good grasp of the details. I can't believe that they would have got as much out of an essay or even source work about the same topic. It is a lovely fantasy but wouldn't it be great if students could do part of their GCSE / A Level exams with these kind of activities.

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