A sense of purpose

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Ken Adey and Mary Biddulph are looking for what motivates history and geography pupils.

The number of pupils opting to study history and geography at GCSE is declining. Teachers we work with say the main reason is that both subjects are forced to compete in the GCSE option blocks with "sexy subjects" such as business studies and sociology, which are not studied at key stage 3 and so have a novelty value. There is some truth in this, but does it explain the decline?

To find out more about pupils' perceptions of history and geography we conducted a questionnaire survey of 1,400 Year 9 pupils in 10 East Midlands' comprehensive schools. Although the majority of pupils enjoyed both subjects at key stage 3, their perceptions of what work would be like at GCSE suggests a widespread belief that many of the activities that they did not enjoy at KS3 would dominate the teaching and learning at GCSE (for example, essay writing in history). How these perceptions are developed and the effect this has on option choice is being investigated further.

One of the most significant findings was pupils' perceptions of the usefulness of these subjects for future life: just 42 per cent for history; 62 per cent for geography.

However, when pupils explained their views, "study usefulness" was related to "possible careers", which were often ill defined. For geography, comments referred to employment in the travel industry or the armed forces, or to the importance of "being able to read a map" so that you did not get lost on a journey.

For history, comments referred to "history-specific" employment as a teacher, an archaeologist or a museum worker, or to jobs for which a history qualification was deemed to be expected (especially for becoming a lawyer or solicitor). Others, in Schools History Project schools, linked the study of the history of medicine at GCSE with the career potential of becoming a nurse, pharmacist or paramedic. Only a handful of pupils could identify any intrinsic value in studying either subject.

Teachers have to compete in an options marketplace and convince pupils of the unique contribution that the knowledge, skills and understanding developed in each subject can make to their future understanding of the world and to their ability to make a skilled and informed contribution to it. Only when pupils can answer for themselves the question "What we are doing this for?" can history and geography win a greater share of the post-14 market.

Ken Adey is lecturer in history education and Mary Biddulph is lecturer in geography education at the University of Nottingham

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