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Friday, 28 June, 2002, 23:16 GMT 00:16 UK
What history is for
classroom scene
Students can drop history at the age of 14

Over the past few weeks, GCSE history students have been poring over newspaper cartoons relating to the World War I or the Cuban missile crisis and analysing their reliability as historical sources.

This can require highly sophisticated historical skills. Interpreting original sources is undoubtedly a useful skill.

But will those students who emerge this summer with an A grade in GCSE history know much about, for example, the Celts, Saxon England, the Magna Carta, the English Civil War, or the Industrial Revolution?


After eight years in English schools, she could barely tell me the name of a single past prime minister or king or queen of England

After 11 years of schooling will they have a good grasp of the sweep of British history?

Can they place developments in Britain within the wider context of European or World history?

I suspect very often the answer will be: no.

American approach

Let me hasten to add that this is not their fault.

GCSE, and indeed A Level, history courses tend to focus on very specialised periods: typically, the Russian Revolution, World War I, the causes of World War II, Hitler and Stalin, or Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s.

By contrast, my experience in the USA is that schools there cover American history chronologically and comprehensively (mind you, they are not so hot on the rest of the world).

While my daughter attended junior high school in Michigan she went through the year learning, by rote, the presidents of the USA.

By contrast, after eight years in English schools, she could barely tell me the name of a single past prime minister or king or queen of England, never mind putting them in chronological order.

Critical analysis

So what should school history be about?

Should the aim be to develop the skills of original research, source analysis and specialist inquiry?

Or should it be about becoming familiar with the facts of the major events which have shaped your country?

Is school history a preparation for further historical study or is it about equipping every citizen with a minimum outline knowledge of their own country's past?


History now has a far more tenuous hold on the school curriculum than it did

These questions were prompted by a report this week from the "think tank" Politeia. It is highly critical of the way history is taught in British schools.

Authors Robert Tombs and Sheila Lawlor compare British school history unfavourably with the way it is taught in much of continental Europe and the USA.

At the risk of simplifying their arguments, they say that in these other countries the emphasis is on knowing the broad sweep of history of the country.

By contrast, in Britain pupils focus on very specialised area, often without any wider context, and on developing the skills which might be used by professional academic historians.

Dropped

To some extent, this is a re-heating of the debate that surrounded the creation of the syllabus for national curriculum history. Then is it was sometimes reduced to a "facts v empathy" debate.

However, the debate is still important today, not least because history now has a far more tenuous hold on the school curriculum than it did at the start of the national curriculum 14 years ago.

As fewer students continue with history after the age of 14, it is all the more important that we get the basics right before they drop it.

The Politeia authors have a point. In an honest attempt to make history more attractive to pupils the history curriculum has focused increasingly on a few specialised areas.

According to Robert Tombs this trend is commonly known as "the Hitler-isation of A Level history".


I have spent much of my adult life trying to make good the huge gaps in my knowledge

At the same time as history is narrowed to a study of a few significant individuals or narrow periods, there has been a simultaneous move away from memorising a large body of facts and towards the development of skills.

In fact, this has long been the case. I managed to get through A-level history by studying nothing outside Britain and nothing earlier than 1750.

I have spent much of my adult life trying to make good the huge gaps in my knowledge of the history of the British Isles.

Original research

On the other hand, school history gave me an enduring interest in the subject. This was largely thanks to the local studies coursework element which involved original research into my home town's history.

In some ways this did involve trying to run before I could walk. Original research in the county records office was exciting and interesting, but how much context did I have for this study of a single town's history?

I suspect I am not unusual in having completed an A-level history course which had introduced me to detailed study of local census returns, parish records, and the study of old maps but which left me unable to distinguish between Harold Hardrada and Harold Godwinson or to list the prime ministers of the 19th Century.

The principles of this debate are not confined to history. The Politeia study applies similar arguments to a much broader critique of the British examination system for both academic and vocational subjects.

Balanced approach

In short, it argues that British examinations under-value knowledge and over-value the development of skills or "competencies".

However, at the risk of appearing to sit rather boringly plumb on the fence, it seems to me that both aspects of assessment are important.


Rushing from the Saxons one week to the Normans the next can turn history into a rapid train ride through the past

Politeia are right to emphasise the importance of knowledge but I suspect teachers would argue that it is one thing for academics to write about what is desirable and it is quite another to capture the attention of a classroom of pupils.

The argument for developing skills is that it can make history more fun. The detective work involved in local studies and relating historical events to local surroundings can bring history alive.

Conversely, rushing from the Saxons one week to the Normans the next can turn history into a rapid train ride through the past: it flies by so quickly, the only enduring impression is a confusing blur.

Real as a soap

Specialising in relatively narrow periods does allow a student more chance to get a feel for the detail, and the differing interpretations, of a set of events.

But, I accept, if this period is not tied to a wider context it is as unreal as a soap opera.

A debate about where the balance should lie - between knowledge and skills, between generalist and specialist - should be at the heart of the debate over education.

We should, as Politeia has done, look at how other countries do things and constantly ask whether we have the balance right.

Too often debates over teaching content and methods have been reduced to slogans: facts v skills, knowledge v empathy.

That was the way it happened during the national curriculum debates. Let's hope we have moved on.

Comparing Standards Academic and Vocational, 16-19 year olds: The Report of the Politeia Commission.


We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

16 Oct 01 | UK Education
09 Oct 01 | UK Education
27 Mar 02 | UK Education
22 Sep 01 | Mike Baker
17 May 02 | UK Education
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