The voice of the history blob
On Tuesday evening, BBC Radio 4 ran an excellent documentary about how history is taught in English schools. The presenter, Dr Adam Smith from University College London, did an admirable job teasing out the pedagogical orthodoxies that have taken hold in recent decades. He seemed, as far as BBC strictures on impartiality allowed, to recognise that knowledge has been neglected. As he remarked at one point, ‘the idea of letting knowledge back in seems to be gaining ground’.
This was certainly my impression from the documentary. Amongst those interviewed, there was a reassuring consensus on the importance of knowledge. Michael Gove and Tristram Hunt appeared united on this front (no surprise to anyone who read Tristram in the Times last year), as did Christine Counsel of the University of Cambridge and Michael Riley of the SHP – who explained the damage done by his own organisation since the 1970s.
However, there was one exception: a Professor of Education from the University of Cumbria, whose contributions were pure, unreconstructed blobbery. Sadly, hers was the voice of the history teaching orthodoxy, and must be challenged.
When asked about those schools reasserting the importance of knowledge, she declared:
It seems to me that those children are missing out on a whole range of very rich experiences which are going to help them be permanently interested in the past. Of course children need to know facts, but discussion is also very important.
This statement implies that knowledge is taught at the expense of ‘rich experiences’ such as ‘discussion’. Knowledge advocates are frequently accused of erecting ‘false dichotomies’, but this statement demonstrates it is the constructivists who are most guilty of said crime. I cannot possibly think how knowledge could do anything other than enhance a process such as discussion. But she continues:
A huge amount of research, starting with Vygotsky, Robin Alexander has done a lot of recent stuff on the importance of dialogue, and indeed in the current 2013 curriculum it says pupils should ask relevant questions, maintain the intention of their audience, explore ideas, hypothesise, speculate, present their findings. And all those things are going to be lost.
Ah, the appeal to authority. Vygotsky will forever be invoked by educationists hoping to win an argument by simply referring to a scary sounding Russian name. Never mind that this particular Soviet Psychologist died in 1934, and has been forgotten by nearly everyone in academia aside from educational psychologists. As for Robin Alexander, he has written a lot about dialogic teaching… I have no idea how this invalidates teaching historical facts.
Of course children need knowledge, knowledge isn’t separate from skills, it’s through using the processes that you acquire the knowledge.
This is a belief fundamental to constructivists, and it is difficult to think of a statement more at variance with the findings of cognitive science. It is impossible to take a first step in ‘thinking’ about history without knowledge of the content. How can you consider why Parliament won the English Civil War if you don’t know what a Roundhead was? How can you infer from 1940s Soviet propaganda if you are still unsure who Stalin was? As the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who as far as I’m aware is still very much alive, has written, ‘Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts… critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.
The knowledge-skills debate is not an either-or dichotomy. It is a question of what comes first, and cognitive science has made it clear that knowledge begets skills, not the other way around.
Later in the programme, our same Professor of Education emitted yet more blobbery on the question of historical truth.
In history a great deal is uncertain, very little is actually known. Of course the facts that are known are important to know, but there is an awful lot that is a matter of probability. Children look at sources, particularly in early history and pre-history. They can work out what they think they tell us about how people lived, thought, used them, made them in the past. And another child, and I’ve got examples of children doing this from a very early age, may say, ‘no, I think so and so because…’, and the third child will say, ‘no I think so and so because…’ and they might be equally valid.
And people say postmodernism was a passing fad… It needs to be more generally realised that the origin for this sort of teaching is ideological. It comes from the postmodernist assault on the concept of truth that gained ground during the 1960s, coupled with the New Left’s cultural critique of ‘dominant narratives’ during the 1970s. Together, these movements made the teaching profession profoundly wary of teaching accepted historical truths.
The solution was to teach pupils not history, but how to be historians. This in turn led to the absurd situation, through which we are still suffering today, where the mechanics of establishing historical truth is elevated, even at a primary school level, to a higher plain that those truths themselves. Questions which are best asked by professional historians, or perhaps undergraduates nearing the end of their degree, are asked by primary school pupils. This is invariably done in a watered down and superficial way.
Worst of all, such a mechanical vision of history teaching is boring and joyless. During the programme, Smith argues that Horrible Histories (the TV series, not the books) is ingeniously smuggling an old-fashioned, knowledge based approach to history back into children’s lives. If the success of Horrible Histories proves anything, it is that children relish stories, facts and (it may pain many history educationists to admit it) Kings and Queens. Compared to the great wealth of human history, epistemological questions about the nature of truth, the validity of sources and the existence of bias, are dry and pointless.
In one sense, the well-articulated cases put forward for a revival in knowledge made this programme reassuring. However, one must not forget that the voice of the Professor of Education was pre-eminently the voice of contemporary practice. An enormous amount needs to alter (textbooks, GCSEs, assessment models, Ofsted inspections) before this approach to teaching fades. Nevertheless, there does seem to be some coalescence of opinion amongst those in the right places: the scourge of ‘New History’ must become a thing of the past.