The end of History? Let’s make sure it’s not

Chris Husbands

I should begin by setting out my stall. I graduated with a history degree. The first thing I did with it was to complete a PhD on Seventeenth Century demographic and economic structures. The next was to teach history in comprehensive schools. I was devoted to my subject and worked hard to encourage pupils – many of whom thought that history had nothing to tell them – to learn about the past and to comprehend what it had to do with their own lives.

I have written history textbooks and books on how to teach history, and have examined the subject at A-level. I think history is incredibly important: I believe that an understanding of history is an integral part of every young person’s general education, and that it does not make sense for anyone to stop studying history at 14. One of the delights of my job as IOE Director is that I get to work with fantastic teachers who excite, stimulate and enthuse their pupils. Ofsted agrees with my view of history teaching: its evidence shows that history is one of the best-taught subjects in the school curriculum.

It’s from this perspective that I read the Government’s draft national curriculum for history, and I have two basic questions: is it good history, and will it promote good learning?  One of the fundamental problems which history poses for the school curriculum is that there is just too much of it. That means that any curriculum has to make a selection, and that selection has to be made on the basis of some coherent set of principles. If not, history, as the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay observed, is “just one damned thing after another”.

The draft national curriculum is not short on things: once primary children have been introduced to the concept of the nation at five, they will be treated to an introduction to classical civilisation and then a strong chronological narrative taking them through the Heptarchy (look it up), and the Middle Ages (including “the Black Death and chivalry”), ending their primary career by encountering the Glorious Revolution.

Secondary pupils’ history career will begin with General Wolfe at Quebec, and will move both through the British Imperial past – the Indian Mutiny, the Great Game, Gandhi – and the economic and political history of Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, up to the election of, but not, it seems, the government led by, Margaret Thatcher. In the House of Commons, the Secretary of State commended a history curriculum which would place the inspirational stories of heroes and heroines at its core.

Is this good history? Few appear to think so. The Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, Sir Richard Evans, wrote in the Financial Times that it could portend the end of good history teaching in schools. History teachers, including the Historical Association, have been vehement about the proposals’ shortcomings.

The word history carries two distinct meanings: from the Greek work ἱστορία, literally an inquiry, and the French word l’histoire, which is, of course, a story. History as an academic discipline is both a story, and a mode of inquiry. The national curriculum draft realises this in the preamble to Key Stage 3, but it separates historians’ ways of working absolutely from the narrative, and the Key Stage 2 programme of study emphasises story at the expense of inquiry: it is chronicle rather than history.

In a powerful speech to the Social Market Foundation, the Secretary of State cited the influential work of the American cultural critic E D Hirsch in his defence. Hirsch emphasises the importance of a “core knowledge” curriculum, setting out – often in great detail – year by year slabs of knowledge to be taught to children. But Hirsch’s model, and its English imitators are incurious about two things: first, about child development, and the ability of children to master complex ideas at different ages, and secondly about the relationship between “knowledge” and “understanding”.

Knowledge is of fundamental importance – and most curricula that play it down are not very good. But understanding matters just as much. I may be wrong, but I find it difficult to believe that a seven-year-old can make much sense of the Heptarchy, or an 11-year-old the issues at stake in the Glorious Revolution. We can – and history teachers do – do much better than that.

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Posted in Chris Husbands, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
10 comments on “The end of History? Let’s make sure it’s not
  1. Helena Gillespie UEA says:

    Well said Chris. The new curriculum undermines everything we know about how young children learn about History. It makes a nonsense of the concept of starting with the child. Is there any evidence to suggest that learning History in the order which things happened might improve the students knowledge?

  2. behrfacts says:

    Very timely post. Yes the relationship between knowledge, understanding, skills and competence in history is not an obvious one from the draft PoS as it stands. What will matter is how it is assessed, so arguably it would be even more worrying if there is a compulsory national test that asks lots of factual questions of students and ignores methods of applying analytical skills within the correct context.

  3. Megan Crawford says:

    An excellent post Chris. I was in a primary school last Friday and they were not at all pleased about it. It may be the straw that takes them down the academy route- unintended consequences or not?

  4. Chris Husbands says:

    Point taken behrfacts. The evidence internationally is that it is testing of knowledge based curricula whch drives rote-based pedagogies.

    On Helena’s comment: styrict Hirschians would arge that one starts with the knowledge; the key point is that it introduces children to a stock of memorable knowledge – quite at odds with an approahc based on understanding

  5. 3arn0wl says:

    Excellent post.

    The subject of History does seem to vex both Mr. Gove and others in parliament, I don’t know why.

    I’m not a historian, but you said it in the opening paragraph: to learn about the past and to comprehend what it had to do with their own lives. (to paraphrase Edmund Burke.)

    I’d been wondering if a more thematic approach might be better: http://wp.me/p1k9HQ-gv

  6. Hi Chris,
    I remember your excellent repost to Chris McGovern in 1988 when he advocated a more ‘traditional’ approach with regard to GCSE and his subsequent founding the History Curriculum Association (he is now Chair of the Campaign for Real Education). He, of course, lost the argument during the Dearing Review of 1993-4 despite being on the History Committee for the National Curriculum Review and published his own minority report. No-one of course knows who any of the writers are who have been involved in producing the proposals for any of the subject PoS and I’m not suggesting he was involved, but it does show that a consensus developed over the decades can soon be destroyed by a few (or one) individual(s) with a political agenda (we could all cite examples from the past of course). The proposals for all the subjects have the same trait running through them. This trait is a political viewpoint, and we must understand the starting point is not what educators, or even the general public understand as the purpose of education. Even if one agreed that these proposals met the basic principles of learning history, which they clearly do not, anyone looking at the list would see that it was undeliverable. When laws (and of course the PoS are statutory) are made that cannot be enforced, then soon fail. We’re not therefore talking about the ‘end of History’ in schools or the curriculum, we’re talking about the end of the National Curriculum as relevant tool either for schools, or indeed as an instrument of control by Government.
    Gareth

  7. A crucial question, that the advocates of the draft of the new history curriculum have to answer, is the one of how cultivating what Collingwood calls an “illusion of finality” (where everything about the past is settled) is the best way to educate the future citizens.

  8. Norman Pratt says:

    I think that young people need some sort of saga, but the big story has to be alongside the analytical approach, for example SHP History. The content of the saga, the analysis – and even the method of teaching chronology – need to be carefully debated in school History department meetings, or set out by a teacher in charge of the History teaching within a school, not dictated by by a kitchen cabinet set up by a Minister. I have an awful feeling that the ‘cultural revolution’ which Michael Gove once told a Chinese audience that he wanted will simply result in the collapse of History as a subject in state secondary schools.

  9. […] Let me be clear, I have been watching the comments from plenty of teachers getting somewhat asymmetrical about the ‘prescriptive nature’ of the consultative document. The History Association have described it as a ‘troublesome document’, there are online polls for you to have your say. Many have written about the negative impact of the narrow curriculum, some more balanced than others. […]

  10. […] in early February 2013 to general disquiet from schoolteachers (1, 2), academic historians (1, 2, 3), the Historical Association, as well as the Black and Asian Studies Association. The […]

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