Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Content of a Secondary School History Course: Part 1 – Problems

There has always been discussion about what bits of the past ought to be taught in schools: Ancient or modern? National or international? Political or social? Local or general? Marxist or Whig? And so on. At the moment these discussions have gained a new intensity from the pronouncements of Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, on the subject. In Scotland, where I used to teach, his writ does not run, and so we look on his pronouncements, and the opposition to them, with mild amusement. Nevertheless, the discussion is interesting; so I thought I would add my pennyworth. There will be four posts in turn: 1 - Problems; 2 - Juniors 3 - Exam years 4 - Hidden Curriculum

I first devised a History syllabus in 1972, as part of my PGCE Course. For the last quarter of a century before I retired in 2010 I was lucky enough to be Head of History in an independent school, with almost complete freedom to make up whatever history course I liked. My responsibilities began with Primary 7 (10-11 yrs old) and ended with Secondary 6 (17-18). That is the experience upon which I can draw. Note that this series of blog-posts will be about content only. Skills and so on are another matter (though those who are interested can look at my earlier post about the point of studying history)

[Pedant watch. I tend to say “History” when I mean a timetabled subject and “history” when I mean the study of the past. It doesn’t always work, and I am not always consistent.]

So, here goes. Problems.

Simon Schama, on a recent “Start the Week” discussion, correctly emphasised the lack of time available, especially during those pre-exam years when History is compulsory. He was absolutely right. Whenever I was pestered to include more American History, more Scottish History, more Ancient History, more Social History, more Cultural History  and so on I would show my list of what we did do and ask: “What would you like me to leave out?” The problem becomes more serious if the course includes – as it should – exercises to develop skills of all sorts. Every exercise based on primary sources, every project, every Internet Research Exercise, every piece of extended writing and so on reduced the amount of content one could hope to get through.

My own greatest regret in this area came when a re-jigging of the timetable (no doubt for excellent educational reasons, though I was not convinced) led to a reduction in the allocated time for History, with the result that the War of the Three Kingdoms and the Industrial Revolution had to go. Or, at least, a lot had to go and those two massive and wonderful topics suffered.

An oft-quoted problem is lack of resources, especially lack of resources to change the content in any substantial way. I have been pretty dismissive of this in my time; part of the joy of being a History teacher is that one does not have to teach the same stuff year after year but can choose new options and refresh one’s curriculum all the time. What fun to use libraries and the internet, and to teach one’s pupils to do the same. But I taught in a great city, with three universities, a magnificent public library service and dozens of charity shops, at least four of which were dedicated to nothing but books. I also had an independent school’s departmental budget which was not huge but was several orders of magnitude greater than what was available to my friends in the state sector. I still do not see lack of resources as a major problem, but sympathise with those who are less lucky than I was.

However, what I regard as the biggest problem was raised tangentially on the same “Start the Week” programme when Tom Holland revealed that he had read Herodotus with pleasure at the age of twelve. I suspect that all the panellists had shared this precocious reading level, or something similar. I was a bit behind this standard but still read a lot of good history for pleasure before I was fifteen. What it is difficult for academics and politicians who have not taught in schools to remember is that their experience as young learners was almost certainly not typical. Most pupils will not read a historical novel over the weekend. Most will never read Herodotus for pleasure while at school. A few will, of course, and they end up being groomed for entry to the elite universities. But it takes the average Lower Sixth type a whole lesson to read one “History Today” article. The pace at which pupils can work varies enormously and the pace of the syllabus has to be set so that almost all can keep up, with educational profit. (It is not at all difficult to find worthwhile extra things for the scholars to do).

I used to carry out an exercise with my P7 and S1 pupil where I would read them a piece of undeniably interesting history in one lesson – with all the skills at reading aloud I could muster. Then we would have a test on the following day. Some would get all right. Some would get most right. A few (and not necessarily the least intelligent, however that elusive quality is measured) would get nothing at all. I also used to find that very few of my good A-level Historians could remember much of the history they had studied in pre-exam years. That surprised me, because I can still remember most of my history from school; but, as one wise old colleague said to me when I was beginning: “Ah yes, George. But you are one of the few who went on to become a History teacher”

Another good exercise was to give them a written exercise that involved using the contents and index and pictures and page-references in the open text-book. Some pupils would finish in ten minutes; some would never finish at all. One worked to help pupils develop these skills; but the arrived at the lessons with a wide, wide range of aptitudes. One had to bear in mind the pace at which the slower workers could cope when devising a whole-school syllabus. There was, I repeat, no shortage of extra stimulation and reading for the speed-merchants.

I would say that this need to go at what seems to an adult to be a snail’s pace is one of the biggest problems. The solutions would be either to concentrate solely on learning a single narrative, or to cover all topics in a very superficial way (or do both); in which case the cures would be worse than the disease.

The next two posts will explain my own efforts to make a decent syllabus despite these problems, and you can judge whether or not there is anything in my experience from which you can learn – if only in the way that the Duke of Wellington claimed to have learned from serving under the (Grand Old) Duke of York: “The best training a young officer could have. One learned exactly what not to do.”

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