4 ways we made our history curriculum locally relevant

Teaching history in an international school, you can weave local context into the curriculum, writes Charlotte Giles
7th December 2020, 11:44am
Charlotte Giles


4 ways we made our history curriculum locally relevant

How To Make History Relevant To The Local Country In International Schools

These are the four golden rules that my history department in an international school in Kuala Lumpur lives and breathes by:

  1. Context is all.
  2. History is a construct.
  3. Evidence is essential.
  4. All sources are biased, and all sources are useful.

They are stuck to the front of all student books. They are used in lessons. They are even, occasionally, used to prove a point during staffroom debates.

Yet it was only recently that it occurred to me that rule number one is also the perfect catchphrase for the challenges of building an international history curriculum.

Moving to China from a public school in the UK, I was used to building a department based around guidance from the Department for Education, which focused almost solely on British history: setting out time periods, topic areas and only one statutory area of focus - the Holocaust.

This was, clearly, a curriculum intended for use in Britain. But simply transposing this to an international school seems problematic. After all, while both international schools I have worked at have been "The British School of…", they also serve 50-plus nationalities and 63 nationalities, respectively.

Clearly, sticking steadfastly to the British curriculum would not be relevant to students, and would fail to provide them with an insight into the country they are currently living in and - in my current setting - glossing over the highly relevant topic of British colonisation of Malaya.

How international schools can focus on local history

Therefore, we have worked to ensure that the context of our history is central to all we do.

1. The history curriculum must serve the local context

A key first step is to ensure that any area of study includes a focus from a local perspective. This is important not only for the children who come from the part of the world the school is based in, but also to help pupils new to the country to understand its history.

One "quick fix" for us was to look at the British Empire - a commonly taught topic in the British curriculum - and encompass this in relation to Malaysia, given its former status as British Malaya.

Built around the question ''Why do [Jeremy] Paxman and [Niall] Ferguson disagree about the British empire?', this module focuses on the impact of British rule in Malaya, allowing us to explore how it came to be the nation it is today, while reflecting on the British Empire, too.

This makes it a lot more relevant to both our pupils and our setting - and more engaging as a result.

2. Consider the groups that make up your student body.

In Kuala Lumpur, the three main ethnic identities are Malay, Chinese and Indian.

We have considered this when putting together our curriculum, both ensuring that we explain how this has come to pass, and including elements of national history for each identity.

Examples of this include the focus on Merdeka, the Chinese communist revolution and the Indian contribution to both world wars. All of these examples fit into pre-existing units that could be adapted to increase the relevance to our student body.

It is gratifying to see how engagement increases for some students during these units, and our own knowledge increases due to the family history that students are often able to share.

3. Ask your students

Students can be a great source of ideas, inspiration and challenging questions - often highlighting areas you may not be familiar with or have not considered.

For example, during a student survey while I was teaching in China, a student asked, "Can we learn about World War Two in the Pacific, rather than Europe, as we are in China?"

It was such a simple point, and yet one we had completely overlooked. We quickly changed[DW1]  this.

In my current school, the equality student committee is working with both the history and English departments to develop their curricula to better reflect the experiences of black people, which is already proving to be incredibly helpful.

4. Research your host country's history

Teachers, too, need to be proactive in their learning - reading books, visiting museums and discussing history with locals and those who have lived there a long time.

Discover the common threads, perceptions and views. Both of the international schools I have worked in are in countries that were at some point, at least in part, controlled by the British Empire.

Knowing about this, and being mindful of it during my lessons, was a huge boon and helped me to design enquiry questions that were specific and relevant to the country I am teaching in, for example: "How did World War Two change life for people in Malaya?'

Knowledge of the impact on the different ethnic identities in Malaysia was vital to approach this in a sensitive and appropriate fashion and allowed me to encourage students to explore diversity in history in the country that they call home.

Charlotte Giles is the Nord Anglia Teaching Fellow for History and the head of history at the British International School Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has worked in international schools for six years and, prior to that, in the UK for five years

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