Reflections on the Curriculum in History

On Friday, Niall Ferguson referred to an article of mine in the Guardian. Whilst defending Gove’s proposed history curriculum, he kindly wrote “If you want to understand what’s really wrong with history in English schools, read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter’s excellent essay in the latest issue of Standpoint.”

"Read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter’s excellent essay." Niall Ferguson

“Read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter’s excellent essay.” Niall Ferguson

In general, I try to avoid conversations about ‘what’ history should be taught in schools. The choice between dead white men on the one hand and Mary Seacole on the other cannot help but be politically contentious. It raises tempers like little else, and few who enter the debate are likely to emerge unscathed. In my Standpoint piece, I argued that it is not so much the content that it is at fault in today’s history lessons, but the ‘progressive’ or ‘child-centred’ ways in which the subject is taught. With that in mind, I stated at the end of the Standpoint article that the new national curriculum “is not the answer”.

However, it does have much to recommend it. The bonkers reaction of so many Gove critics has been a salient reminder of this fact. Overall, the history curriculum (still only a consultation document) is a step in the right direction, but not without fault. Here, in no particular order, are a collection of thoughts and concerns.

1. We should be thankful that it is knowledge based.

The most important difference between Gove’s curriculum, and its 2007 predecessor, is it does not conceptualise history as a skills based subject. Obviously, critical thinking skills are a vital part of school history. However, they cannot be practiced without being preceded by a firm knowledge of the subject matter. The 2007 curriculum begins with a list of six ‘key concepts’, such as ‘change and continuity’, and ‘chronological understanding’, which ‘underpin’ the study of history. This is followed by three equally woolly ‘key processes’. Only then do we get an unspecific sketch of what should actually be studied. Such a conceptualisation encourages a style of teaching in which skills take precedence, and knowledge is relegated to being a vehicle for their development. This leads to the sort of lessons where pupils are shown a picture of a Guillotine and a sans-culottes and asked to infer whether the French Revolution was a success. The result is that pupils do not learn much knowledge, and do not have enough knowledge to develop any skills either. Such teaching fails on both fronts. The stuff of history, the people, stories, ideas and changes are what make it a wonderful subject. This curriculum should allow them to come to the fore.

2. It is an improvement.

Yes, there are some misguided aspects, but this national curriculum is an improvement on its woolly and unteachable predecessor. This is the most important point that Ferguson makes against R. J. Evans and David Priestland. Evans (the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge) and Priestland (a lecturer at the Oxford) attacked the curriculum in the Financial Times and Guardian respectively. In their attacks, they showed no knowledge of the document it is replacing, or more broadly the troubled state of history teaching in our schools. Evans even praised the current curriculum for “breadth and ambition of coverage, critical method and historical debate”. If he really believes this is an accurate description of the status quo in history teaching, he is quite simply living in a dreamland, or more likely an ivory tower. This is typical of our cloistered academics, sallying forth under the misleading title of experts. Their expertise on British schools is minimal. As Ferguson writes, such attacks suggest “an almost wilful ignorance of – or indifference to – the parlous state of historical knowledge among young Britons.”

3. Some topics are not right for their age groups.

Those who claim certain topics are too hard for young children to study are normally, in my view, the enemy. However, this curriculum swings too far in the other direction. The teachability of certain topics is questionable. Whilst primary school children should certainly learn about the Civil War, whether they can appreciate the significance of the Levellers and Diggers is another question. Similarly, labouring over the ‘Heptarchy’ in Key Stage 2 could do more damage than good. This is one of the most important criticisms made by Steven Mastin, the head of history at a Cambridge school and a former Gove advisor. I have never taught primary school history, but my instinct would be that some of this is too conceptual for such pupils.

4. It expects too much of primary schools.

On a similar note, we should remember that history is very rarely taught by subject specialists at primary schools. History teachers are immeasurably better at their job when they know what they are talking about, and have an existing interest in the topic. This national curriculum would require primary school teacher to spend their holidays boning up on Llwelyn and Dafydd ap Gruffydd, or Wycliffe’s Bible – not an entirely realistic prospect. Perhaps this points to a deeper problem. The curriculum spreads the whole span of British history across six or seven years and three Key Stages. Whilst chronological consistency is important, I don’t think it needs to be taken to this level. Perhaps it would be sensible to be less prescriptive at Key Stages 1 and 2, and leave the chronological sweep of British history for the three years of Key Stage 3.

5. There are no resources with which to teach it.

Now we get to the nitty-gritty of implementation. In his Guardian piece, Ferguson writes that he fears this new curriculum may encourage “an official history textbook (even if its written by Simon Schama).” In fact, this is precisely what the curriculum needs. In classrooms across the country, there are textbooks and resources designed to teach history as a skills based subject. Source analysis is paramount, narrative is vague, and information is light. If from 2014 onwards secondary school teachers are expected to teach about the Congress of Vienna, or Chamberlain and Salisbury, they will be hard pushed to find a single school resource dealing with such topics. I will be the first to celebrate when today’s tawdry history textbooks become redundant, but finding replacements will not happen overnight. The academics of this country could make a truly constructive contribution to the new curriculum by turning their learned pens towards writing rigorous history resources, posted for free on the Internet, for the use of our schools.

6. It is too anglocentric.

This has been the most common complaint, and it is something that has to change. The idea of school history as a six-year trawl starting with the Roman invasion and ending with Margaret Thatcher is not a heartening prospect even to the most traditionalist history teacher. However, the hysterical opposition this has received needs to be qualified. Firstly, the 2007 curriculum also places a strong emphasis on British history. Secondly, surveys frequently show that most British people want British history to be at the heart of a national curriculum. In my view, the best model is one in which British history forms the foundation of a pupils’ chronological understanding, onto which some European and World history studies (chosen by individual schools) can be pegged. This is similar to what Kenneth Baker’s 1988 National Curriculum laid out, and I think it established a good balance.

7. It probably won’t make any difference.

The historian Nicola Sheldon is the co-author of an excellent history of how history has been taught in British schools. She makes a bathetic, but important point. Historically, “a politician’s pronouncement in Westminster does not automatically lead to change in the classroom. Teachers are the arbiters of the curriculum and, if they are not on board, the outcomes are usually rather different to those the minister intended.” This is the most likely outcome of the new curriculum. It will be passed, teachers will make a few token adjustments to existing schemes of work, and there will be little that can be done to enforce it. In any case, academies (now the majority of secondary schools) are exempt from having to follow the national curriculum anyway. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this whole debate not therefore a bit of a waste of time?

The best that can be said about the proposed history curriculum is that it will help herald a move to narrative, knowledge based history teaching. It is a cliché to say that ‘skills versus knowledge’ is a false dichotomy, and good history teaching includes both. Skills can only be developed through knowledge, a principle the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has done much to establish. A corrective shift towards greater emphasis on knowledge is vital. Reflecting on his experiences teaching history from primary school classrooms to New York University, Tony Judt (hardly a reactionary) wrote,  “It is universally true that young people who don’t yet know history prefer it to be taught in the most conventional and straightforward way.” Lets hope this guides our thinking in the years to come.

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~ by goodbyemisterhunter on February 20, 2013.

13 Responses to “Reflections on the Curriculum in History”

  1. Do you mean Ks2 for your co ment about the Heptarchy?

  2. The fundamental point running through your article is indeed a “skills versus knowledge one.”
    You do not deal with the “false dichotomy” argument effectively at the end of your piece. A good corrective shift is a valid argument that this injects a healthy dose of knowledge. However, you must beware the point that subversive history teachers do their own thing. Those that have pioneered historical skills are organically turning towards knowledge being a fundamental part of teaching. It was always intended to be so, but I believe the community has finally recognised for itself that some focussed attention is needed. The idea of historical enquiries was to give students some fundamental knowledge *and* progress their historical thinking in relation to these key concepts. The outcome was therefore supposed to be that students were still receiving knowledge, but whilst they have that knowledge to hand in their working memory, they could be encouraged to advance their historical thinking in an upward trajectory as opposed to a linear one-after-the-other lesson sequence of knowledge which this curriculum draft encourages.
    However history teachers are so anti-this draft that you will not even see your “token changes” to schemes of work I suspect. Who, may I ask, is going to police implementation? Nobody.

    What I’d be keen to ask is what merits you see of students advancing their historical thinking and learning some skills. Students will see no point in learning a series of facts. The knowledge curriculum does not bare the name ‘history’ but a ‘chronicle of the past.’ If you want history, you ought to have a good think about what it is – because it is not a chronicle.

  3. I teach in an International School in France and the French curriculum is very content based. The children leave after seven years knowing a lot. We follow the French curriculum but teach in English and it is a nightmare trying to find English resources that have the right amount of depth to teach unfashionable (but fascinating) topics such as the Congress of Vienna mentioned above. We sometimes use GCSE textbooks with year 7s and 8s, that’s how content light they are. It is embarrassing. If any one else is struggling with this, the Peter Moss series ‘History Alive’ is great. It is a book from the 70s, now out of print, but available used and new on Amazon.

    • Define knowing a lot. A lot of claims about the past that could hypothetically be disproven by historians within a decade? Furthermore, what do you want them to do with this knowledge? A chronicle of the past is of no use to anybody

      • All academic disciplines change and evolve over time. Your argument suggests that we teach students nothing at all.

      • My goodness, what an ignorant comment to make! “A chronicle of the past is of no use to anybody” ?!

  4. I do, thank you James.

  5. I think your suggestion that the broad sweep of history should be left to ks3 is interesting. It certainly highlights one of the key problems with the current draft: no pre-1700 history will be taught by specialist teachers. Indeed, most history before the Norman conquest will have been covered and then forgotten before children reach double-digit ages!
    Knowledge- based curricula are fine if they leave room for teachers to teach the necessary skills and understandings alongside them. The jam-packed list of requirements in the current draft prevents that.

  6. What is wrong with the curriculum being ‘Anglocentric’? The last time I checked, this is in fact Great Britain. Surely prioritising the history of the country where the students actually live is making the curriculum more relevant?

  7. I agree with your comments. So many of the criticisms of the proposed curriculum are silly. I end up defending a curriculum that I actually found sadly disappointing and even unworkable.
    The problem with the reaction of history teachers is that for the last twenty or more years they (like I was) have been trained to view that history is important to teach because of the skills children gain. This orthodoxy is accepted uncritically because the counter arguments are barely known and grossly caricatured. Teachers are protesting because this curriculum departs from the assumptions they have been told are correct but they have never known anything different.
    The pro skills rhetoric doesn’t actually address the thoughtful arguments made for a knowledge based history curriculum (for example as outlined by the Curriculum Centre) because most history teachers are not even aware these arguments exist.

  8. For me to be able to defend the new curriculum, first the amount of prescribed content needs to be cut drastically. Second primary schools need to be able to cover content up to and including the twentieth century. I like the idea that a second broad historical sweep should befin in year 5. The way some primary schools select historical topics to match whatever theme they have chosen leads to children being exposed to a random selection of detail chosen for the most spurious reasons. It would be good to see that end.

  9. I don’t think you quite understand why History teachers are jumping up and down in frustration and probably sounding rather hoarse. Having followed this argument in some detail for two years (as a retired Secondary school teacher who still tutors) let me try to explain this apparent mystery.

    First, there is the process of how this proposed change has come about. When Michael Gove chose his History curriculum review committee, he chose not to consult widely. Two years ago I was given assurances through a letter to my MP specifically stating that consultation would include representatives of History teachers. This did not happen. So however widely in the world Michael Gove did his research, it did not include a fair representation of History teachers or educationalists. The process also involved the lie that History as a subject was failing, an opinion, not a fact: the best evidence at the time was an OFSTED report that pointed to the lack of teaching time for History, not that it was a failing subject. Finally, a Conservative MP who dropped out of the review committee a month or so ago says the Programme of Study bears no relation to the draft when he left: this PoS was produced by an ignorant rump, to whom I will return.

    Secondly, and connected with the issue of teaching time, Academies are dropping History, probably because it is too intellectually demanding.

    Thirdly, Michael Gove is attempting to rubbish the ‘New History’, and introduce a saga of tory History, both at the same time.

    Then there is the Programme of Study itself. Why was I so rude about the people who produced it? If you are going to ignore most of the History teaching ‘Establishment’, you have, I would have thought, an obligation to produce a well-written, in addition to an intellectually sound, case. There is no such thing as a ‘free slave’ – the word is ‘freed’; the slip makes me think that the writers are not actually familiar with the concept. This is one example of many which suggest to me that one of the things this PoS does not represent is 2 years’ work.

    Having taught Key Stage 3 History for most of my 30 years as a teacher and Head of Department, my reaction to the PoS was one of shock. If you think that young people deserve a saga of ‘their own’ History, please include the generally accepted topics: don’t leave out world history, European history, the working class, or social history. The content is even a distortion of ‘tory’ History. The ‘PESC’ formula has been updated to include Religious History and Military History! Yet no attempt has been made in the list of topics to cover 19th Century religious History such as the impact of Methodism, or the Clapham Sect, both of which were in my school textbooks (Southgate and Edwards Notes). This is no doubt because there are far too many topics already, something very familiar to those of us who have struggled to write History schemes of work. (The arguments that Michael Gove has sparked off should in any case be taking place in History Department meetings.) The inclusion of great chunks of military History is bizarre (the bulk of the first half term in Secondary School in fact) something I know my own girls would not have been impressed with, I can tell you. Traditionally History in school is generally covered by Political History, and quite right too.

    It would have been good to have had a debate about both issues, what the ‘saga’ is, and what the balance should be between skills and facts. By the way Michael Gove has handled this important issue I’m afraid it’s all lost in the fog of war.

  10. I agree that the list of topics looks distinctly unprofessional. I find myself having to defend the curriculum because of the poor arguments against it, not because I think it is workable. Gove seems to make a habit of publishing proposals to enrage ‘the opposition’ but I think it is his idea of negotiation. He will appear to have been forced to make lots of compromises in the end and actually have secured most of what he ever intended to achieve. That is what happened with the EBC.

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