A letter from the Continent

2nd December 1994 at 00:00
Despite its insular approach, Britain's method of history teaching is extolled by many countries. Joke van der Leeuw-Roord reports.

For the past two years I have been researching history teaching in the countries of the European Union and the former Eastern bloc and, though the project is not yet complete, I can already see that the approach to history teaching throughout Europe is marked by a sharp dividing line.

Across northern Europe, in Scandinavia and the Netherlands the Anglo Saxon model, offering a modern child-centred approach, is used or has inspired the national style of history teaching. The main purpose of this British method is to ensure that pupils have both knowledge and understanding of the past.

To meet this aim, descriptions of attainment targets and related skills for history are formulated. They vary in level and progression from assessing pupils' " awareness of distinction between present and past" through knowledge of "why and how things changed" to the ability to "make judgments about the respective strengths of differing interpretations of historical events and developments".

It is a skills-based method which has already reached the Baltic States and even some Russian teachers try to apply these ideas in their lessons.

In the other European countries narrative factual teaching is the norm, though a growing interest from teachers from France, Spain, Portugal and even countries such as Romania is noticeable in conferences on skills-based history teaching .

One may ask why the British approach is held up as the exemplary model in many other countries. Results show it provides pupils with tools to obtain knowledge and understanding of the past, even in subjects not taught in school. Modern history teaching supplies students with historical skills which are transferable to everyday life.

The formulated objectives or attainment targets in history are strikingly similar throughout the continent. But while teaching materials in England offer good examples of how to implement the objectives in classroom education, in other countries the theories are not being put into practice as effectively.

In Germany, for instance, the responsibility for education is left to the 16 different states. Each has five categories and levels in secondary education alone, with its own objectives for history teaching, resulting in more than 60 different curricula for history.

It is much too expensive to provide textbooks for all those curricula, so publishers in Germany produce a common deviser attempting to suit the wishes of 16 textbook committees. The results are elaborate, factual and boring schoolbooks with illustrative text sources and duplicated questions. For the German students I interviewed, history was a Hassfach (hated subject).

Another common problem is that in almost every country educators formulate objectives to show the nation and world how useful history teaching is, but they do not relate these objectives to the age of the pupils. This leads to enormously ambitious fields of study in European curricula. What can we possibly do with scholastic philosophy or even the roots of the problems of former Yugoslavia, in a class of 11-year-olds?

But in England the curriculum takes age into account, for instance requiring younger pupils to investigate changes in their own lives and older pupils to study history from a variety of perspectives.

Although it must have been a painful decision, one must admire the draconian choices in the curriculum in England. The selectors have been aware that working with skills-based education takes time. Instead of being over-ambitious and covering world history completely, themes are chosen to be studied "in depth", whatever that may be in the 20 or fewer periods available for each topic.

Assessing and moderating the results of pupils' history is another interesting feature. Instead of qualifying answers as wrong or right, teachers have to make an effort to moderate "developments in understanding of causation, change, using and evaluating evidence, seeking to understand the perspectives of people in the past". To improve future results teachers have to define how better results can be reached, which is a very difficult procedure. It is encouraging that teachers really try to think along these lines.

But not all my observations on history teaching in England are positive. My first concern is the predominance of British history in the national curriculum. My estimation is that more than 60 per cent of the lessons were dedicated to English - not even British - history before this year's revision. This could be even more in those schools that offer a minimum of teaching periods.

What should English pupils know about Europe? The new study programme asks only for the wars of the 20th century. If students study this topic and look in their history textbooks they will receive a queer notion of Europe. The impression given is that this continent is full of wars - the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War - and dictators such as Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler. I must say I would not care much myself about being part of Europe if my only source of knowledge was the compulsory 20th-century unit from the curriculum in England.

Perhaps even more dangerous is the total absence of ethnic groups and their history among the compulsory topics. One optional unit on a non-European society is not enough to avoid the threat of a nationalistic curriculum. To widen the perspective it would be interesting to look at other national curricula. For example in Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden, schools offer a genuine European approach which diminishes the danger of "throwing bombs" at other countries, as Mr Batsyn, vice-minister of education in Russia said some weeks ago.

The last aspect of the English curriculum that worries me is the fact that history is optional after the age of 14. There is a real danger of being forced to oversimplify a difficult subject because pupils might finish studying history at too early an age. The result will be too many English students lacking a knowledge of modern history.

In Germany, Belgium, France, Spain and Russia, to mention some examples, history is compulsory for the whole period of secondary education. Comparing England or Britain to these countries it seems that although history is much appreciated by the public, this is not reflected in the school curriculum.

Joke van der Leeuw-Roord is the first elected president of Euroclio, the European Standing Conference of History Teachers Associations, which was set up in 1992 and now covers 40,000 teachers in nearly 30 countries.

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