Saturday, 1 October 2011

How to teach history?

‘History [is] little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.’

‘If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.’

‘Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.’

The history teaching debate seems to have resurfaced in some areas. According to one blogger, 'schools history instils in students very little sense of what history is really about, and very few of the skills for university history ....  History is about interpretive skills and understanding other cultures.... The real, socially and culturally valuable skills of history proper can be taught regardless of the place or  period under study.'

So what matters, it seems, is not actually teaching about the past, but teaching some undefined 'skills' for which the student may or may not have a use in the future. But surely skills are useless without knowledge and context?  One would not, presumably, teach someone the skills to perform heart surgery without first teaching him or her human anatomy? Or the skills to rewire a house without teaching about electricity?  Why should it be any different for history?

It is true that in order to study history at university one does need analytical and critical skills. But the majority of people who study history at school will not go on to study it at university. Many will not even study it to the age of eighteen. Is it appropriate, therefore, to use the limited time available to teach skills that many students will never actually need, rather than to give them knowledge which will help them understand the world in which they live?

Should not the purpose of history in schools be to teach students how we came to be where we are today? That is, to teach them about the origins of our landscape, our language, our monarchy, our legal system, our parliamentary system, our Commonwealth, and may other aspects of daily life?

The idea of teaching history as a continuous narrative is also decried by some. Under the National Curriculum in schools, and with the modular approach favoured by some universities,  it is possible to go through thirteen years of school and three years of university specialising in history without studying the complete political, social and economic history of Britain.

Yet one cannot properly study historical topics and eras in isolation. One cannot understand the Second World War without studying the First. One cannot understand the causes of the First World War without going back at least as far as 1815, and arguably as far back as the ninth century. One cannot understand Henry VIII’s conflict with the Pope without looking at relations between the English monarchy and the Papacy as far back as the time of William the Conqueror. And so on.

This debate has been going on for some years and shows no sign of being resolved in the near future. It is possible that the end result will be that, as there is now a generation of English teachers who cannot punctuate, because they themselves were never taught how, there may in future be a generation of history teachers who do not know any history, because they were never taught any.

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