Blast from the past;Subject of the week;History

9th April 1999 at 01:00
Anna Challand overturns parents' doubts about the value of historical analysis

At parents' evenings, history teachers often hear comments about how history has changed, but parents show little knowledge of what these changes are, beyond half truths such as "students no longer learn many facts". There is a lingering idea that learning history will not be useful and that it is much more sensible for students to take another subject and thoroughly learn all the right answers for the final examination. So when Wimbledon High decided to have a "Take your parents to school" evening, it was a golden opportunity to tackle some of these views.

I chose as our topics the Second World War and the Blitz, which most parents would know something about. The aim was to look at how government propaganda during war time becomes distorted and subsequently is considered to be factual history during peace time.

Parents and Year 9 students worked in groups to consider evidence about Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, evacuation, air-raid shelters and destruction of cities. They had to decide which evidence the Ministry of Information would publish and then produce a presentation explaining why their choices would boost public morale. The students had been taught the causes of the Second World War, but hadn't covered these topics.

The parents initially selected photographs showing singing, happy-looking people in shelters, and were against the idea of publishing pictures that showed bombed buildings. But after discussion with the students about how propaganda can be effective by manipulating the truth rather than avoiding distasteful topics, they chose a picture of a milkman walking through bombed buildings because it showed people carrying on as normal despite the war.

The students continued to raise issues about the sources of historical evidence, and the groups became more questioning. When examining the sources relating to Dunkirk, discussion focused on the fact that although it was important to boost morale by praising the involvement of ordinary men and women, it was also essential to inform people about the armed forces' role in organising the evacuation. At first the parents wanted to follow the traditional idea that anyone who owned a boat went to France to help collect troops, but they concluded that the evidence had to be carefully edited to create a sense of a team effort.

We only had 30 minutes for the whole session, so I set a 15-minute limit on the time they had to consider the material and produce their presentation. Many parents said they had too much to consider in such a short time. But the lesson structure was familiar to the students, and they quickly decided to allocate various sections to different people and then discuss their conclusions. We ran over time once the presentations started, as the parents tried to discuss every piece of evidence, whereas the students had developed selective skills.

By the end of the session parents had a better understanding of the skills students were expected to use in history and the high level of thought that was required to complete a task. They could see why simply knowing the facts was not enough and how students had to select evidence to construct a coherent argument. The activity also showed the importance of teamwork, dividing the task and sharing conclusions. It was clear that the ability to carefully evaluate the usefulness of a document, select relevant evidence and communicate within a group were skills that would be useful in any future career.

Although this was a short session it did go some way to stamping out the misconception that history is not useful, and proving that considering historical issues is more important than blindly learning about what happened.

Anna Challand is head of history at Wimbledon High School, south-west London

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