Rewriting history: what children learn may not match the political script

Arthur Chapman and Tina Isaacs

This month the College Board  in the US published revised standards for its Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum for US history courses. For those unfamiliar with the AP programme, it offers university level courses for students in their last years of high school, and those students who succeed on AP examinations are often given university credits. One student, for example, was able to skip an entire year of ‘freshman English’ because of her AP English results. So, it’s an important part of the American school curriculum offer.

What changed in AP US history and why? Certain statements on colonisation and its effects on Native Americans, slavery, the Progressive movement and the New Deal have been edited, toned down or changed completely and a section on American ‘exceptionalism’ has been introduced. Names of important American historical figures that had been left out were reintroduced, for example, founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. When the 2014 standards were sent out for consultation there was a notable conservative backlash, with one pundit stating that the programme was so anti-American that students who completed it would be “ready to sign up for ISIS”. The US states of Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas threatened to withdraw the courses and the Republican National Convention complained that the course focused on the negative aspects of US history and recommended that Congress withhold the College Board’s Federal funding. And although the 2014 standards were meant to guide courses away from rote memorisation (hence fewer names explicitly mentioned) toward historical thinking skills – for example introducing thematic learning objectives – the pressure was sufficient for the College Board to amend the offer.

Similar changes have taken place here in England in line with political pressure on our history curriculum. We have had five iterations of history standards since the national curriculum was put in place, the most recent of which were in 2008 and 2014. In 2008 the curriculum moved away from an emphasis on content and emphasised concepts – in the same way the AP course was trying to introduce historical thinking skills. For 11 to 14 year olds it included shaping students’ values and attributes, focused on diversity, explicitly identified citizenship aims, asked students to understand the present and wanted students to develop their own identities through understanding history.

The 2014 curriculum has reversed this trend. In 2008 Michael Gove told the Conservative conference that the history curriculum was neglecting traditional values: “Instead of being taught about Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution and the heroic role of the Royal Navy in putting down the slave trade, our children are either taught to put Britain in the dock or they remain in ignorance of our island story.” Transferable skills and citizenship aims are less prominent and students now ‘understand’ rather than ‘develop’ their identities. They no longer explicitly question the present. The past is presented as chronological narrative and ‘great names’ have been re-introduced.

It is relatively easy – if the politics can be managed – to change curriculum documents. Do these changes matter on the ground? The limited research evidence that we have – from Estonia and the United States, for example – tells us that even if children ‘master’ the stories that governments script for them, ‘mastery’ and ‘appropriation’ are very different things. Kids can know the story but still contest it, challenge it, keep it at an ironic distance or simply regard it as of no importance or relevance whatever. Rewriting history curricula has its rewards in political terms, no doubt, however, it’s not at all clear that real and intended learning outcomes will match, whatever the political script.

Some might argue that the 2008 curriculum went too far in trying to concentrate on a ‘big picture’ that emphasised skill development and downplayed content at the expense of important names, dates, places and events – and certainly neither of us would argue against a thorough chronological grounding for our students. What strikes us, though, is that in both the US and England examples it is politicians, rather than historians, who seem to have the upper hand. Our children deserve to have access to what our colleague Michael Young refers to as powerful knowledge – one that is based on engagement rather than compliance and features content based on the understanding of important concepts. That knowledge is based on deep learning, exploration and questioning, and history, with all of its richness and complexities is the perfect subject for developing it.

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Posted in curriculum & assessment, Education policy, Evidence-based policy
3 comments on “Rewriting history: what children learn may not match the political script
  1. John White says:

    Re your statement that history ‘is the perfect subject for developing’ powerful knowledge: I wonder if you are right?

    In Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice by Michael Young, David Lambert, Carolyn Roberts, Martin Roberts (2014) there are 3 criteria for knowledge which is PK:

    1. It is distinct from ‘common sense’ knowledge acquired through everyday experience and therefore context-specific and limited.
    2. It is systematic. Its concepts are related to each other as part of a discipline with its specific rules and conventions. It can be the basis for generalisations and predictions beyond specific cases or contexts.
    3. It is specialized; developed by specialists within defined fields of expertise and enquiry.

    Science and mathematics have no difficulty in meeting all 3, but history falls foul of 2.

    Historians do not use specialised historical concepts because these do not exist. For the most part the accounts they write are in everyday concepts supplemented sometimes by concepts in other fields like economics. There are no systematic networks of interrelated concepts in history as there are in algebra or physics.

    Michael Young’s account of PK reminds me of Paul Hirst’s now abandoned notion of ‘forms of knowledge’ as the basis of a liberal education. That too required that each ‘form’ had its own unique concepts and tests for truth. The theory had a huge impact on the educational world from the late 1960s, not least on the HMI in the 1980s in its recommendations of what the school curriculum should be (in a pre-National Curriculum age).

    But it ran into insoluble problems over whether certain of the forms that PH identified met his criteria. Religious knowledge and ‘literature and the fine arts’ did not seem to match up. Neither did history (for reasons I’ve given above).

    Like PK, Hirst’s FK provided a handy and apparently impeccable justification for a curriculum based around traditional subjects in a standard secondary education.

    Is it relevant that Hirst was trained in mathematics and Young in chemistry? Did they both extrapolate from their own fields outwards to embrace wider areas of knowledge?

    In all this I’m NOT saying that history should not be taught in schools. It is my own first specialism and a subject that I taught in schools. But why we should teach it is a big and many-sided question.

    See my ‘The purposes of school history’ in Lee. P., Slater, J. Walsh, P. and White J. The Aims of School History: the National Curriculum and Beyond London: Institute of Education 1992

    It is not helpful to say we should teach it because it provides ‘powerful knowledge’.

  2. lofalearner says:

    I like your point – ‘mastery’ and ‘appropriation’ are very different things.
    It’s no surprise that right wing politicians emphasise “knowledge” and mastery – this goes along with a transmission view of curriculum, and generates a teacher-driven culture in classrooms. And that all generates a divisive pattern of performance amongst pupils. Add to that the organizational changes they impose and UK now has a school system which recent data shows is “among the most socially segregated in the developed world” (BBC News 11 Sep 2012, OECD “Education at a Glance” 2012)

  3. Might I add that the State Board of Education of the US state of Texas also approved revisions to their history textbooks. The revisions become effective this fall for all primary and secondary school students. The changes usher in a more conservative view of history. For example, the textbooks discuss slavery very little and, when they do, they downplay its role in the southern state’s history. Since Texas is the second largest state in the US, publishers may try to sell the textbooks to school districts outside that state, thus affecting the teaching of history to children in other states. (Washington Post, 6 July 2015, “How Texas is Whitewashing Civil War History”).

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