In my last blog I talked about how the educational landscape has changed beyond recognition since my own days at school. Most subjects, except perhaps for art, maths and science, have very altered curricula and pedagogy. I think maths, because of its nature, is much harder to turn into a skills-based subject, and so it still mirrors much of what I remember from school, except for maybe relatively new tweaks like number lines and bar model charts. Science too, is less likely to fall victim to the transferrable skills ethos though I do wonder what the net effect has been of grouping the 3 disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics under one teacher – perhaps people more in the know could enlighten me.
There have been many changes to the way history is taught, some positive, others less so in my view. Let’s start with the positives. When I was at school, history was a very English-centric subject (with a dash of European history thrown in), and the main focus at O level was, if I remember correctly, British history from 1815 to the end of the First World War. Today we live in a globalised, interconnected world, and it makes sense for students to learn about a broader range of topics and there is a great deal more choice on offer than in my day. I’m still not too sold on the medicine through time topic, though.
There is one innovation, which I have tried to like and to embrace but have been unable to: the elevation of the Source to a nearly mystical status. This has become the bane of my life. Some grainy First World War photo is given as source A, and the students are asked to explain why this source is useful for an enquiry into the treatment of injuries during the war. It gets even worse. Then students are asked about how they would follow up source A to find out more. What detail in source A would they follow up? What question would they ask? What type of source would they use? How would such a source help answer the question?
What is the point of all this amateur sleuthing? Of course, the work of professional historians often involves chasing down sources and evaluating them in order to piece together the story and weave an interpretive narrative. This is very specialised work. Do we really need our students to do this? If so, why? I suspect this is another of these so called ‘transferrable skills’ that somehow will enable students to go forth into the world able to investigate and evaluate different sources of information, a skill that could be used across many different settings – genericism par excellence. Do we truly imagine that our students, having dabbled – for it is no more than dabbling, what they do at GCSE – will become savvy at identifying fake news or tracking down fraudsters? I am not convinced.
So what is it that we are trying to achieve by teaching history? Here’s my personal take. I think our students need to learn about the critical events and developments of the past that have laid the foundations for where we are standing now. Why is our country and the rest of the world the way it is? How did we get to where we are now? Why is society organised the way it is? To understand our present we need to find out about our shared past. I don’t necessarily buy in to the trope about learning from the past in order to avoid making the same mistakes, as implied in the famous quote: ‘Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ As humans, we will carry on making mistakes for ever more, and teaching history is not going to change that.
So it’s simple really. We need to understand our past so we can make better sense of our present. There’s no complicated skill needed here, just the knowing of where we came from.