History Lessons for the 21st-Century Classroom

January/February StandpointWhen Winston Churchill appointed R.A. Butler as the president of the Board of Education in 1941, he advised him: “I should not object if you could introduce a note of patriotism in our schools. Tell the children that Wolfe won Quebec.” Butler believed it would be too autocratic to dictate to schools what lessons they should teach, and it was not until 1988 that Kenneth Baker imposed a national curriculum on Britain’s state schools.

Since the arrival of the national curriculum, public debate on school history has focused almost exclusively on what topics should be taught, namely whether the emphasis should be on British or world history. This debate has been fuelled by a steady stream of surveys revealing the ignorance of today’s school-leavers. One commissioned last summer by Lord Ashcroft found that while 92 per cent of 11- to 18-year-olds could identify the animated dog from the car insurance advertisements as Churchill, only 62 per cent could identify a photograph of Britain’s wartime prime minister. Fewer than half knew that the Battle of Britain took place in the sky.

Read the full article on the Standpoint website here.

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~ by goodbyemisterhunter on December 19, 2012.

2 Responses to “History Lessons for the 21st-Century Classroom”

  1. Hi. Read your ‘Fun, Not Facts, Hijacks History article in the Financial Review this morning. I found it very interesting and agree that when you speak to young people about the past, history is fast becoming history. Eric Hobsbawn said he gets intelligent uni students asking him: You call it the Second World War: does that mean there was a First World War?

    What I was thinking when I read about your students’ reaction to the Napoleon portrait, however, is that I would not have reacted to their laughter with anger. It was their honest response, and let’s face it, Bonaparte does look pretty camp and faintly ridiculous in those pants and in that pose. As a teacher, I think I would have had a laugh with them and agreed that yes, fashions have changed since then. (Thank goodness) I would also have said that the man was in many was arrogant, self-promoting, and risible. Perhaps many of his contemporaries also laughed at the painting.

    Whatever else you believe about Napoleon, it pays, I think, never to take men like him as seriously as they took themselves. Charismatic leaders are, after all, usually responsible for the worst acts of aggression and violence, and he certainly committed many of those.

    So anyway, just saying, I think it is important not to teach history in the old positivist, empiricist style of people like Leopold von Ranke. I don’t know if you do that, but it does sound like you may not be allowing enough for the inexpungeable contingencies of historical information, as I think Hayden White called them.

    I would have got my students to find some other portraits of Napoleon and discuss what different responses they might have to them, and I believe some very fruitful ideas would begin to emerge.

    Maybe I would not have made a good history teacher…my field is literature….but I do think the responses of today’s students need to be respected, as they are products of a world very different from the one we grew up in. Which is not to say their ideas should not be challenged, just that it’s good to begin from a point of mutual respect and understanding.

    Cheers, Chris.

  2. Finding your blog very interesting but I feel that you have misunderstood a lot of teacher training, particularly the difference between rigour and discipline.

    The Historical Association run an annual conference and I would be really interested to see what you make of the presentations there. I found it invaluable for developing ideas about history teaching and for teaching history. Perhaps ask your school if they will send you?

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