Learning and Teaching History: A Reflection on Practice

2. ‘History’ and History

The autonomy of the British teacher used to be one of the wonders of the age. Educationalists from abroad would marvel at our freedom to decide was what was taught and to teach it in the way they thought best. It was not always so. When, in 1870, a reluctant state decided that foreign competition made universal literacy essential, schools were required to adhere to what was known as the ‘Revised Code’ – a curriculum that voluntary schools had previously been obliged to follow if they were to receive government grants. A system of inspection and of financial penalties for non-compliance held back change until 1902 when the whole system was abolished on the grounds that it was unnecessary. ‘All a good teacher needs’, read the preceding Report, ‘is command of means and a free hand,’ and thus for nearly a hundred years teachers and schools were left to their own devices, able to resist or respond to new ideas as they saw fit.

This all came to an end in 1988 when a Conservative government, ironically pledged to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ seized the opportunity to deal a powerful blow to its liberal critics by taking back control of the school curriculum. At the same time it re-imposed the Victorian system of inspection and payment by results. Why did this happen? It was partly due to the growing impression, fostered by a right wing press, that national standards of literacy and numeracy were falling due to the introduction of so-called ‘progressive’ methods of teaching. It also arose from the belief that competition would raise standards in education in the way that it was thought to increase productivity in industry: a national curriculum was needed to create the basis for a national system of testing and so highlight failing schools.

Twenty years on the full effects of these regressive measures have yet to be realised. Until recently the majority of teachers teaching in state schools trained before they came into force and here is no doubt in my mind that schools have been living on the capital represented by their early idealism. Young teachers, themselves the products of the National Curriculum, take its restraints for granted and despite being instinctively child-centred do not question the hoops they are require to jump through. Whether they will be able to cope in the unlikely event that a future government repeals the 1988 Education Reform Act is an open question. For the time being it is safest to discuss the teaching and learning of history in the light of its requirements, although much of what follows is intended to anticipate a greater degree of freedom than is currently (2008) the case.

As is well known the school curriculum imposed in 1988 was based on subjects: three (originally four) core subjects and seven ‘foundation’ subjects, not counting RE which had been compulsory since the 1944 Education Act. Expert working parties drew up the detailed requirements, mostly un-controversially. History was an exception because history is more than a subject, it is a matter of identity. Just as the way we look at ourselves is conditioned by our memories so the way we think of ourselves as a community and as a nation is influenced by our history. In countries across the world governments seek to build up a sense of national pride by appealing to symbolic figures of the past. For Mrs Thatcher and her ministers the kind of history children learned about at school was intrinsically linked to the way they thought of themselves as British.

Unfortunately most national myths are just that – myths. They elevate people and events that fit in with the story and ignore inconvenient and contradictory evidence. Thus Sir Francis Drake, that Devon gentleman always with an eye to his own interests, is celebrated – quite wrongly – as the man who defeated the Spanish Armada. His game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe, not to be interrupted by the arrival of the enemy fleet, represents the coolness to be expected of a hero when a crisis is at hand. To draw attention to the fact that Drake’s ships could not sail out to meet the Spanish whilst a south west wind was blowing might still be seen as unpatriotic in some quarters. Worse would be to tell children how Drake subsequently broke away from the action in order to strip a straggling Spanish galleon of its treasure! It certainly led to arguments in 1988 between those who wanted National Curriculum history to be mainly British history and those who wanted it to incorporate more global and evidence-based approaches. What resulted was something of a compromise, mainly chronological in form but incorporating economic, social and cultural perspectives as well as purely political ones. It was largely British and European but with the requirement to study at least one non-European culture as well. It included local history – a growth area in the 1960s and ‘70s, and it specified certain historical skills which children were required to acquire as they progressed through their school career. These skills – chronology, historical understanding, interpretation, evidence and organisation – not only help us to plan learning activities but they also provide the basis for assessment. They have proved to be much the most valuable aspect of the whole national Curriculum exercise and we now need to consider what each of them means in practice.

For most people chronology means dates and dates are important in history. They are like grid references on a map: they locate people and events in relation to one another and they seem to be essential if we are to explain why things happen. Yet they mean very little to the man in the street. How long ago, exactly, was Henry VIII king of England? To say that he reigned from 1509 to 1547 doesn’t answer the question. ‘About 450 years ago’ doesn’t either. Everyone has a different idea of time, often depending on how long the person in question has lived. Beyond living memory numbers don’t mean much: ‘500 years ago’ might be just the same as 5000. You can give more of a meaning to such figures by equating them to other markers of change, for example the passing of generations. A generation i.e. the average time between birth and reproduction is usually taken to be thirty years. Thus my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather was alive at the time when Henry VIII was king… What matters of course is the order in which things come, as the old Victorian parlour game of Consequences illustrates. Here the importance of chronology can be illustrated by reducing it to absurdity: imagine Tony Blair discussing the subject of evolution with Boudicca in the Crystal Palace, or David Beckham engaged in a passionate conversation about chariot-racing with Queen Elizabeth I...

More valuable than a sense of time therefore is a sense of the distinctiveness of different historical periods and cultures, something we’ve already alluded to. If we were parachuted into England in the year 1530 how would we know where we were? How might we be expected to behave? What skills and knowledge would we need to adapt to a very different lifestyle? This might be thought to be a futile exercise – after all it cannot happen, can it? Yet learners of all ages seem fascinated by the challenge of living outside their own time. Might the past not still exist in some undiscovered corner of the earth where we accidentally find ourselves? Might not future space travellers find themselves on a planet still experiencing the Dark Ages? The task of the history teacher is lay down the rules of the game – the ‘irreduceable core of fact’ as Christine Carpenter calls it - within which the imagination must operate. They add up to a surprisingly precise definition of what, for example, makes a Greek a Greek or a Roman a Roman and they offer a definition of what the UK National Curriculum means by ‘historical understanding’. It is the same kind of familiarity with the territories of the past that the well known ‘rough guides’ provide in relation to the territories of the present. Acquiring it implies a similar willingness to travel.

The value of a ‘rough guide’ depends upon its author’s familiarity with the country he or she is describing. The historian has to establish his or her credibility in much the same way. Indeed, it can be argued that the only historians worth reading are those who know the societies they are writing about, inside out through long immersion in the sources. They may simplify or elaborate according to the audience they are addressing but it is knowledge of the evidence that gives weight to their pronouncements. Of course, evidence comes in many different forms and more is being discovered all the time. Not all of it is of equal worth; some of it is downright misleading. Knowing how much reliance to place upon a source is the third key skill that children are required to get better at whilst they are at school. We have already seen how it can be neatly demonstrated by examining the case of Lindow Man. Another way is to nominate someone to be a 21st Century ‘body in the bog’ and try to reconstruct their status and lifestyle by archaeological methods alone. What is signified by the strange bunch of ornaments (keys) the person carries with them? Are they weapons perhaps? And what about the person’s hands? Surely these well-manicured ‘mits’ never did a day’s hard work… They must belong to a prince or princess! If the object of these observations is a student, heavily in debt and dressed in clothes that look as if they have been thrown away twice, you are sure to get a laugh for your wildly inaccurate conclusions.

As in the game of ‘Consequences’ a serious point is being made through humour. Much of history is guesswork – the current narrative being the one that best fits the available facts. The further back in time you go the more approximate the narrative becomes and the more reliant we are on artefacts. Learners need to know just how much is missing, for example the beliefs that inspired the builders of Stonehenge or the names of those who directed its construction. It is still possible for some people to believe that the great Bronze Age temple was some kind of observatory, absence of evidence being no deterrent!

Why then the urge to turn history into some kind of story, for that is what we mean by the fourth key skill – interpretation? The answer was given right at the beginning of this chapter. There we saw that each individual constructs a story for himself and herself without which there is no real person there. That single over-arching narrative embraces hundreds if not thousands of others – episodes that have happened to us or of which we have heard and which have been stored in our memories for their future survival value. It follows that a story can only be useful if its consequences are clear. A set of events that has no outcome is simply a list! Hence our determination to resolve history into some kind of pattern and our love of biography – form of history which has a clear beginning, middle and end. In the process we give particular episodes greater significance than others, traditionally seeing them as indicators of the progress of some grand design whether it be the rise of Marx’s working class or the achievement of parliamentary democracy. Today there is less emphasis on the realisation of a perfect society than on the many non-human factors which have affected our survival on this planet. Shakespeare’s characteristically balanced view - ‘there is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we may’ – seems to provide the best basis for understanding the relationship between human aims and aspirations and the way things actually turn out.

Whether we think history has a pattern or is just a random series of happenings the argument usually comes down to the way the facts are presented. That’s why ‘history’ – the stuff written by historians – is different from history i.e. the sum of what took place in the past. The authors of the UK National Curriculum recognised this when they made ‘organisation’ their fifth key skill. There was a time when historical understanding could only be expressed in essay form but in a visual age images have come to play a much larger part. And not just images. A child trying to walk in the way that Henry VIII might have walked is literally stepping into the shoes of someone in the past – someone who lived a very different kind of life. Other children taking part in a role play can share some of the emotions that person may have felt. Visits to historical houses and sites can supply a unique sense of the environment within which past events took place whilst ‘living history’ experiments involving daily routines such as cooking and cleaning can give the lives of ordinary men and women a reality that words on their own cannot. This is not the same as giving carte blanche to the fantasy history already referred to however. There is no point in imagining a past that can never have existed, nor in exploring one where the only people we meet are ourselves in fancy dress.

The real value of the key skills lies in the help they give in the planning of lessons and the assessment of children’s work. The best way to acquire a skill is to be given tasks that require it, beginning with what is easy and straightforward so that the learner becomes self-motivating through success and sets his or her own goals. The teacher’s role changes from being instructor and provider to being one of counsellor and guide. The aim of all good teachers (like that of good parents) is to do themselves out of a job so that finally teacher and learner become fellow-travellers and both gain equally from the journey. A similar progression applies to encounters with the past. I like to think of such encounters as voyages of discovery, with assessment measuring how far the individual learner has entered into the mentality of the period he or she is studying. Just as happens in the case of a real voyage, the first encounters will be superficial, largely concerned with noting differences. A few days spent in the new ‘country’ will necessitate the mastery of some of its systems – typically those concerned with health and safety, earning a living or avoiding trouble with the law. A prolonged stay will mean understanding the beliefs and values of the community and perhaps learning the language. Only then does the visitor feel truly ‘at home’. A good scheme of work is one that allows learners to travel at their own pace, with tasks that call upon an ever greater degree of familiarity with the ‘territory’ being visited. Eventually learners should be working almost exclusively with original sources, able to understand their true meaning because of their familiarity with the world of those who produced them.

If all this sounds complicated it is possible to reduce the key skills of the UK National Curriculum to five kinds of question: what, how, why, how do we know and how can we tell other people? What supplies the easiest and most basic of tasks – observing, drawing and labelling things seen either first hand or in books. Thus very young children can become familiar with the ‘look’ of different periods in the past. How relates mostly to the way things were done, especially the fulfilment of those needs that are common to every age. Why calls for an explanation: for example, why did the Romans enjoy watching gladiators kill one another? To answer such a question properly requires the learner to see the world through Roman eyes and often generates an emotional response. How do we know is concerned with evidence and its reliability, whilst How do we tell other people takes us back to the question of organisation, the fifth key skill.

As I write the UK National Curriculum may be about to change once again, with reduction of emphasis on subjects and what they mean and a thinly disguised return to ‘topics’ in primary schools as a way of giving teachers and children more freedom to follow their interests. Given the naturally cross-curricular nature of their subject most history specialists are in favour of a more integrated timetable providing that the gains made in recent years are not discarded. The 1988 orders defined history as an ‘active’ subject, whilst the requirement to teach specific periods highlighted the need for teachers to possess sufficient subject knowledge to ensure that pupils’ exploration of topics was directed with particular learning objectives in view. What brought the so-called ‘progressive’ methods of the 1970s into disrepute was their apparently random nature. We don’t want to make the same mistakes again.