Battle of Britain's history erupts

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Is modern teaching on the causes of the Second World War too complex for pupils? Stephen Lucas reports

The ink may have long dried on the 1919 Treaty of Versailles but history teachers are still warring over its impact.

"Received wisdom" on teaching the subject is that the origins of the Second World War can be found in the weaknesses of the post-First World War settlement. But is this a turn-off for pupils?

Does teaching about the treaty let Hitler off the hook by weakening the argument that he was the principal cause of the carnage of 1939-1945? Or do today's youngsters need to know that the world is a complicated place?

A battle flared between traditionalists and modernists after a teacher described the emphasis on Versailles - which paralysed Germany after 1918 and helped Hitler's rise to power - as needlessly complex, on the TES website.

"How come, when I was at school, we were taught that Hitler's actions were mostly to blame?" asked the teacher. Since the 1980s, teaching orthodoxy suggested "lots of multi-layered nuanced sophistication (yawn). Why the change? No wonder so many students find it dull".

One teacher fired back: "There is a change of emphasis partly because history is a dynamic subject, for Christ's sake!"

Another said: "The old orthodoxy of blaming people never was any good.

People still had to vote for Hitler and he still needed support ... to prosecute his actions."

Other teachers also appeared divided on the issue. Ian Taylor, head of history at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple school, Bristol, where 89 per cent of pupils got A*-C in history this year, said: "Layered answers do not make history dull.

"It is dull to give pupils a list of dates. And who can say what is right and wrong anyway?"

Ann Peers, head of history at Stoke Newington media arts college, north London, said: "The open-ended answers are what make history more interesting, but (they) are off-putting for lower-ability pupils."

Jacob Middleton, a PhD student studying the history of education at Birkbeck college, London university, said: "The Treaty of Versailles happened 20 years before the Second World War and many pupils will have difficulty envisaging its importance then,let alone how it connects to their lives now.

"It would be better for children to look at the experience of people in wartime. Then pupils could see how their grandparents lived.

"History teachers are tackling problems that are far too big. The question of what caused the Second World War cannot be answered in fewer than half a million words."

Teachers must be doing something right, though. Since 1992, the number of pupils studying GCSE history have risen from 218,729 to 230,688.

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