Curriculum - History - Are we watching history or hype?

13th March 2009 at 00:00
What can pupils learn from Barack Obama's election journey? Dorothy Lepkowska investigates

There have been few events like it in living memory. The hopes and aspirations of a nation resting on the shoulders of one young man, his election to the presidency of the greatest nation on earth symbolic of the journey his people have endured. Does that sound like hype, or is it history?

Undoubtedly, few politicians have captured the imaginations of young people worldwide like Barack Obama. His personable style, good looks and relative youth, and his clever use of media such as YouTube and Twitter to reach out to voters, means people have never felt so engaged or close to a world leader.

All of which, of course, is potentially good news for teachers. In the weeks since his inauguration, history teachers in Britain have been capitalising on the enthusiasm and interest in the new President, and using his popularity to fuel discussions, debates and lessons bringing history, literally, to life.

But just how much scope does Barack Obama offer to history teachers - and how much is just jumping on the bandwagon?

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) says that the new secondary curriculum offers teachers the flexibility to incorporate current affairs into their wider teaching.

"The inauguration of President Barack Obama allows pupils to explore contemporary issues regarding race relations, equality and democracy in citizenship and history lessons," it says.

Ian Ochiltree, a history teacher at Aylesbury Grammar School, believes it was too good an opportunity to miss. "We were already doing a Year 9 scheme of work on slavery and emancipation, which was coincidentally coming to a close around the time of the election, so we extended it for a few weeks to cover civil rights," he says.

"The question to pupils was: `Why did it take 143 years from emancipation to elect America's first black president?' It gave us a hook into the issue."

The scheme of work drawn up by Mr Ochiltree and his colleagues did not hold back from some of the more gruesome features of the civil rights movement.

"We did some challenging work on lynching, institutionalised racism and the segregation of schools, and considered whether Obama was the end of the road for that kind of discrimination.

"That is problematic in itself because he came through an entirely different route from most black Americans, yet his election remains highly symbolic.

"Students will draw their own conclusions about his presidency as its goes on, but I believe they will take a pragmatic approach. The election represents advancement because Americans have elected a black man, but it could be regression if nothing much changes as a result."

At Priestlands School in Lymington, Hampshire, Shona Baker also presented her Year 8 pupils with questions about the relevance of the election for the civil rights movement.

Ms Baker devised a two-lesson scheme of work, where pupils studied quotes from famous Americans and tried to work out who they were. The aim was to encourage pupils to build up a vision of what modern America was like.

"We examined all aspects of discrimination such as housing, education, employment and voting, and how far these had been addressed in the period since the 1960s and now," says Ms Baker.

"One of the strengths of Barack Obama is that he is a great speaker, just as Hitler and Martin Luther King were, but I wanted to do more than just look at great orators and their potential as great leaders.

"The question I really wanted pupils to consider was whether Martin Luther King's dream had been realised. I hoped they would come up with a `no' because we still don't know what shape this presidency will take.

"The real sense of excitement among pupils in the run-up to the election and inauguration meant it was something they wanted to talk about."

Katharine Burn, of Oxford University's Department of Education and a member of the Historical Association, says Barack Obama's election offered teachers an opportunity to examine the 40 years following the civil unrest of the 1960s to the present day.

"Traditionally, teaching of the post-war period and civil rights seems to stop with Martin Luther King, even though so much happened beyond that. The new stress on relevance and significance in the national curriculum offers clearer opportunities to seize upon opportunities such as Obama's election," she says.

But she urges teachers to be creative when considering how the new President can influence history teaching, and not just to focus on slavery and civil rights.

One way to look at it might be to compare today's events with those of other periods, she says. "One obvious example is the Great Depression, and how economic hardship can throw out leaders, such as Roosevelt and Hitler.

"Of course, Obama's impact on the global economy has yet to be felt, but nevertheless the parallels are there."

Dr Burn adds that teachers can also consider Obama's election and inauguration speeches and compare them to, for example, Churchill's war- time rallying calls, and consider how a nation can be united in difficult times.

"What was interesting about Obama was that he delivered what many considered a fairly flat inaugural speech as if he wanted to take a step away from the hype surrounding his election and the expectations people had," Dr Burn adds.

But how far should teachers go along with the hype or step back from it?

Barbara Hibbert, head of history at Harrogate Grammar School, a mainly white comprehensive of 1,700 pupils, uses President Obama in lessons on slavery and civil rights for Years 7 and 8, as well as wider debates with sixth formers studying A-level in American politics.

"When Obama said in a speech that his father would not have been served in Washington as a black man, he was emphasising how different the United States was in living memory," Dr Hibbert says.

"So he offers great material, and I cannot remember so much interest in an inauguration among students since Clinton in 1992. But we do have to try to cut through the hype. Things have not suddenly changed for millions of people in the United States because Obama is president. We had the experience of New Labour and the 1997 election, so we have already had our fingers burned. We can never have too many expectations of one person because we just don't know what will happen.

"We may have had a completely different view of the Bush administration, for example, if 911 had never happened, and world events would have taken an entirely different course."

Hype is not necessarily a bad thing, says Ben Walsh, a former history teacher, and now teacher trainer, historian and GCSE examiner. "Teachers love hype because of the enthusiasm and interest it generates. It offers a ready-made question for classroom debate: `is this too hyped up?' and raises issues about how important this event is.

"There are some quite complex issues that could be raised with older students, such as whether this will signal the end of the race problem, and how far it might improve life for ordinary black Americans.

"My own view is that poverty is more of an issue than the politics of race, although they are inextricably linked.

"Americans like to draw comparisons between phases in their history and their leaders, and we have already heard Obama compared to John F. Kennedy and Roosevelt. Teachers have to decide how valid these comparisons really are."

Whatever the right way might be to tackle Obama's place in history, he has certainly opened doors to history teaching that teachers might not otherwise have considered.

As Mr Ochiltree has observed, young people readily engage with his vitality, youthfulness, and his apparent transparency and optimism. "The coherent way in which he speaks, with his vision of openness and change, is impressive to young people," he says. "Any teacher who did not see the potential of Barack Obama has missed a trick, and a fantastic opportunity."


Barack Obama's victory speech acts as the introduction to the BBC Learning Zone's Class Clips film of Witness on Civil Rights, USA.

The film is aimed at pupils taking GCSEs in subjects such as history and citizenship, and gives first-hand accounts of what it was like for those who were involved in the civil rights movement.

The excerpts include speeches and footage of interviews carried out with significant individuals, such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. It looks at first-hand accounts of the Birmingham Riots of 1963 and the Little Rock Nine school crisis, when nine black students were refused entry to a racially segregated school in 1957. The film features a 1974 interview with Ernest Green, who was one of the students.

The film was the brainchild of Jill McLoughlin, archive producer for the Learning Zone. "I wanted to use primary sources, which gave first-hand accounts of people talking about their own experiences," she says.

"Starting it with an excerpt from Obama's speech, in which he mentions change coming to the United States, seemed an appropriate and topical way to introduce it."

For more information and to access the footage, look at

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