Change and continuity in history teaching

Since accepting a history teacher training place through Schools Direct, I have delved into the substance and theory of my new profession, reading teacher blogs, professional journals and books (both history and theory books) . I must confess to finding the history books fun and interesting to read, the theory ones rather less so.

Burrowing through turgid and to my mind often unnecessarily complex texts requires some degree of effort. The reward at the end will undoubtedly be a greater understanding of the traditions and debates surrounding history teaching, so I persevere. I would wish that more history teachers and scholars used unfussy and clear prose. It can still convey deep meaning even if the style is straightforward and to-the-point, as can be seen in the writing of Michael Fordham, for example.

I enjoy reading his articles because they are clearly structured and take the reader through complex issues step by step, so as to make it easier to follow the chain of thought. If I were to apply cognitive theory to this point I’m making, it’s that working memory can only do so much before it overloads and stops being able to take in new information. Teachers and trainee teachers are not that different to the pupils in our schools, in terms of the architecture of our brains. If we are encountering new material, as surely we must in the course of developing our knowledge of history teaching, then we suffer from the same constraints of working memory. It makes sense then, if the aim is to share ideas and best practice, to present them in a structured, methodical (and scaffolded) way. Of course, it’s quite possible that I’m projecting my own peculiar weaknesses on to others in the profession, but I suspect I am not alone. So, expert historians and thinkers out there, please hear my little plea for more clarity and less obfuscation in your writing.

Going back to the theory of history teaching, what have I learned so far? For starters, I have encountered the following unfamiliar terminology:

  • Second-order concepts
  • Substantive, disciplinary, procedural and propositional knowledge

Of course, when unpacked, these are all things I know and can do automatically, perhaps even innately, as a by-product of my education and extensive reading. The big lesson for me, entering the world of education nearly 30 years after I left it, is that such things are not so automatic for the students of today. The social landscape has changed, people read far less than before and are hooked on to fast moving information in video games and social media apps. As a result, so many bits of knowledge and skills that didn’t need to be explicitly taught before, have become a necessary part of teaching. Hence the talk about historical writing skills, second-order concepts and so on. If this makes me sound like an old reactionary, then I do apologise. I am trying to keep up with the times!

I do think, however, that this goes some way towards explaining my impatience sometimes with what comes across to me as a far too abstract approach to history, with the focus on building up those disciplinary skills at the expense of the substantive – the heart and soul of the subject.

So my journey continues, as I try to make room in my head for all the changes in history teaching since I was last a school student myself. I have much to learn, of course, but I believe my slightly ancient experience has something to offer too, to my younger colleagues. Just as time brings progress, it also brings forgetting of past endeavours, which then have to be learned all over again.

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  1. Daisy Christodoulou

    Great blog as ever.

    “…we make a stand upon the ancient way, and then look about us, and discover what is the straight and right way, and so to walk in it.”

    1. historylover

      Thank you for your kind comment.

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