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How history can help students make sense of the present

We are living through difficult times, and ensuring that our students are coping can feel like an insurmountable challenge. But history can help, writes Claire Shaw

Claire Shaw

Black Lives Matter: Why I won’t be put off tackling racism through education

There has been a lot for young people to navigate this year. As if adjusting to life in a pandemic wasn’t enough, they've witnessed large-scale protests taking place around the world, calling for an end to racism and social injustices.

These are particularly complex and potentially confusing issues, so helping young minds to contextualise them is key. 

"Young people, and indeed all of us, can struggle to understand contemporary events without an understanding of the historical forces that helped to bring them about," says Dr Deana Heath, reader in Indian and colonial history at the University of Liverpool.

"The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, is impossible to make sense of without an understanding of the historic injustices of the past wrought by European contact with the rest of the world, not least through empire.

"And as the Covid-19 crisis has also starkly laid bare, the global inequalities of the present are, in short, a product of the global exploitation of the past.”

According to a Runnymede Trust report, one in 20 BAME people have been hospitalised with the virus, compared with one in 100 white people.

The report states: "Covid-19 is not just a health crisis; it is also a social and economic crisis. And the ability to cope, to protect and to shield oneself from coronavirus, is vastly different for people from different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds."

Contextualising current events

Dan Hartley, headteacher at Danesfield Church of England Middle School in Somerset, says that history lessons offer a perfect platform for children to explore and understand such events.

"Only two years ago, my Year 8 class completed an assignment on the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston,” he says.

“We asked pupils to critically analyse if his name should be used around the city due to his links with slavery, even though he was a philanthropist. How pertinent that turned out to be!”

He says history teaching has also helped his students to understand the discourse around coronavirus, through exploring ideas around the “Blitz spirit” and government controls on everyday life during the First and Second World Wars, such as rationing.

"Pupils can debate the idea of being ‘in it together’ and how people reacted to the lockdown in different ways. Have people’s attitudes changed? Have we become less materialistic and more willing to help our neighbours, family and friends?

"Will it result in us emerging from this as a different society, economically and socially? Is it a chance to rethink things like education and how we assess our students?"

Furthermore, these discussions can act as a springboard for students to reflect on their education and whether the curriculum is fit for purpose in helping them understand our complicated present.

Many argue that it’s not. Multiple petitions are currently calling for the UK curriculum to be made more inclusive and diverse.

One petition in particular, which has more than 264,000 signatures, calls for it to be made compulsory for primary and secondary schools to teach about Britain's role in colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade.

Deana Heath agrees that the history curriculum needs to be overhauled to enable students to fully understand contemporary events.

"At the moment it focuses largely on Britain and western Europe, and political, military and religious history,” she says.

“In other words, the history of elite, white men. The curriculum should position British history within a broader global history, one that not only incorporates people of colour as historical actors, but that deals with the history of empire, and does so honestly – as a system, in other words, of extreme injustice and exploitation that was designed to benefit particular groups in British society."

The power of trips

School trips can be a powerful tool in the process of contextualising, bringing students face-to-face with historical locations, artefacts and ideas.

The little-known story of the black and mixed-heritage prisoners of war who were held at Portchester Castle in Hampshire in the late 1700s, for example, offers a fascinating, tragic look at colonialism in action. Being able to visit the site and stand within the same walls that held the 2,000 formerly enslaved people, brought on ships from the Caribbean, brings a compelling real-world element to study of the topic.  

And the most effective trips, according to Dr Heath, are those that allow students to be active participants in negotiating and understanding the past.

"With Black Lives Matter, for example, I would like to see young people given the chance to have a say on what happens to statues that have been taken down, or what to do about plaques, street names and so on," she says.

“Pupils could visit such sites, research their histories and the histories of the contentious objects, names, and so on, and engage in debates about their future — as well as the futures of the students themselves."

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