It’s the teaching that matters

Last year, the government’s proposed new history curriculum caused intense debate about what history children should learn. Should the black nurse Mary Seacole be taught, or (implicitly) is her inclusion in a school history curriculum a sop to political correctness? Should the content of history lessons be a story of Britain or of the world? Of kings and queens or of peasants and miners? And if all of the above, in what order of priority?

Those schools which still teach a national curriculum – fewer than ever now, since the increasing number of Academies don’t have to follow it – are preparing to teach new content in September. Or at least are thinking about how to repackage their existing provision.

For a Radio 4 documentary, I set out to investigate how and why history is taught, especially to 8-10 year olds. I focused on primary schools for two reasons. First because the new national curriculum affects primaries more than secondary, and so it made sense to try and find out what goes on there. And, second, because history teaching in primaries – delivered by non-specialists and without the pressure of exams – is more variable. Rather than ask academic historians what they think children should knowI wanted to find out how primary school children learn history – what it means to them, how it makes sense, and what they think it’s for.

When we talk about a good history education for children, what do we mean? How do we know it when we see it? Teachers can test literacy and numeracy, and have devoted great time and energy to devising more effective ways of teaching those things – but what exactly is history, as an academic subject for children, anyway?


Should history be taught like this….?

There are many formula for explaining why people love stories, but all involve a number of C’s  — conflict, character, change, context, causation. However many C’s there are, they are all intrinsic to history. This should make this an exciting and relatively straightforward subject to teach.

But it’s not as simple as that. What story? How do we know the story is true? And is it one, continuous ‘story’, or is it, rather, a series of discreet stories?

Somebody wise once said (I’m not being cryptic, I genuinely don’t remember who) that children see history as a series of vivid paintings denoting difference – the past as an exotic country. They don’t see the connections or the continuity. Perhaps the main challenge for primary schools – a difficult enough project in itself — is just to give children an understanding of time passing, of generations, of change.

Cognitive science has established what teachers have long known from classroom practice – that children remember things that have meaning to them. Disembodied facts are not retained. But how should meaning be conveyed? One way is through stories, another through asking ‘enquiry questions’ which enable children to learn things in order to understand a problem.

It is a great privilege to watch lessons in progress. They are small pieces of (sometimes improvised) theatre – everyone playing a role and responding to each other. The history lessons I watched while researching this programme prompted me to think about whether the learning activities being staged were likely to encourage the children to invest meaning in what they learn. If a child spends a morning pretending to be a Victorian parlour maid (as they do on school visits to Holdenby House in Northamptonshire), will they come away with an enhanced understanding of the Victorian class system, or will they just remember how odd and rather boring it was to spend 10 minutes beating a rug? And a similar question applies to a highly traditional, structured lesson: if a child is asked to read a passage of information, how will they know why they need to know it? What will they retain of that knowledge in a few years, or even a few months?


….or like this?

For a generation, now, British education has been heavily influenced by a ‘constructivist’ approach to learning – a child-centered approach that is based on the assumption that children learn best by exploring and discovering rather than simply receiving information or instruction. In History, perhaps more than other subjects, this approach has dominated, especially in primary schools. A typical history lesson in most schools will involve children doing activities designed to get them thinking about a historical subject. There is no doubt that this can be enjoyable – and Ofsted reports that History is a popular subject among children and teachers alike. But Ofsted also reports that children lack a secure sense of chronology. Discovery learning works fine so long as the children ‘discover’ what the teacher wants them to discover, and so long as the lesson is structured effectively so that they learn things that connect to a bigger historical picture. Otherwise, the danger is that it’s just disconnected pieces. Or as Michael Gove put it when I spoke to him, the ‘Yo Sushi! approach to history teaching.’

At Millbank primary in central London – part of the Future Academies consortium – they have developed a radically different approach to history teaching from that which prevails elsewhere. At Millbank, as I reported in ‘How do Children Learn History?’, Year 4 children are being taught history in a highly structured way that resembles – at first glance anyway – a very old-fashioned approach. The teacher reads aloud a passage of information, and the children follow along with their fingers. They then write answers to factual questions, drawing information from the text they’ve just read. But it would not be fair to characterise this as mere rote learning, because the children are learning the meaning of concepts like ‘civilisation’. And a strictly chronological approach means they are encouraged to understand change over time – for example, how Greek writing compared to Mesopotamian or Egyptian writing.

The ambition of the Millbank approach is laudable. Jo Saxton, who is in charge of developing the lesson plans in use, is a thoughtful advocate of knowledge-rich learning for the sake of social mobility. Following the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, she is passionate about the importance of ensuring that children from bookless homes are given at school the ‘cultural capital’ – the knowledge and confidence to use key concepts – that middle class children may get from home.

I watched one of the highly structured teacher-led lessons at Millbank taught by an astonishingly talented teacher, Nick Younger, who I suspect would be brilliant at teaching anyone anything using any approach. It was striking that, for 8 year olds, the Millbank children – some with special needs, many on free school meals – were impressively articulate and confident in their ability to talk about concepts like religion and civilisation.

The main concern I have about Millbank’s approach is whether a weaker teacher would be able to carry it off without alienating the children in the way that gave such a bad name to ‘old-fashioned’ ‘talk and chalk’ methods. But of course the same reservation applies to what are currently more mainstream approaches: de-contextualised problem-oriented lessons taught by someone without a clear sense of how to build historical understanding can be equally unsatisfactory, albeit in a different way.

As Jo Saxton argues, knowledge can enable comprehension, build confidence, and empower children. But, as I suspect she would agree, there are different kinds of knowledge and to be retained and to be useful it has to have meaning. It can be superficial as well as detailed, irrelevant and decontextualized as well purposeful.

And so the key question for primary schools is how to build historical understanding, while also giving children a sense of the construction of historical knowledge. They need to learn to be sceptical, but with the ability to critique information from the basis of knowledge. As Christine Counsell, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge, told me, children won’t get very far if they need to look up the dates of the Second World War. Millbank’s teacher-led approach may deliver this factual ‘framework’, but it may also prompt a backlash. And I don’t see why a ‘child-centred’ approach can’t be equally effective at building knowledge, as well as an understanding of the construction of knowledge, so long as it’s well planned and delivered.

And here we come to the real issue. If history in primary schools is to be improved and made more consistent, the answer, I suspect, lies not in imposing a teacher-led pedagogy (even if it were possible to do so), but in strengthening teacher training and support. At the moment, many primary PGCE students will have only an afternoon or two of history-specific training. The increasing number who train on the job, may get no training at all. Most will not be history graduates, and many will not even have a History GCSE. It is not that teachers are not capable of delivering good history lessons, but that they have never been trained and supported to do so. The Future Academies programme will not be to the taste of many teachers, but at least has the advantage of giving them a package — in fact, literally a script — that they can then follow. They are, in this sense, addressing a real need.

For the radio programme, I asked Michael Gove whether he thought he could change history teaching at all without investing in support for teachers. His answer was that the government did not believe in the central delivery of teacher support. That’s fine, but however professional development is delivered, money is needed and it is not clear where it will come from. The Schools History Project is now developing primary support, as is the Historical Association. But they do not have the resources to do this on a large scale and schools have many other priorities and calls on their limited budgets.

Since then, the DfE have at least acknowledged the problem by announcing a scoping exercise to establish a central repository of videos to support teachers, especially at primary level. A step in the right direction perhaps.

The problem is not all about pedagogy — you can develop knowledge through ‘discovery learning’ if its done well. And I fear that the very, very structured approach being developed by Jo Saxton at Future Academies, while very well-intentioned and admirable in many respects, is not likely to be scaleable because it is so difficult to teach it well without returning history to the old caricature of talk and chalk tedium.

Good history teaching should develop children’s historical knowledge and also their understanding of the construction of knowledge. Good teachers up and down the country do this now. We need more of them.


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