Going down in history for the right reasons

18th January 2013 at 00:00
Whether Mary Seacole is in or not, the latest curriculum must balance knowledge and skills effectively, argues John Blake

While no year since the coming to power of the present government has been free from incident for those of us working in state schools, the next few months promise to be a time of particular importance for me and my fellow history teachers. At some point soon the Department for Education will formally reveal the latest iteration of the history national curriculum. It has already been leaked that Churchill is going to make a glorious return, rather like in 1940, while nursing pioneer Mary Seacole is for the chop.

The debate about the appropriate schema for teaching history in English schools has been going on in one form or another since the advent of mass education. From the late 1960s, the argument became ever more fierce, and by the time the national curriculum was legislated for in 1988, two broad positions had emerged. Crudely characterised, this was an argument of "knowledge" versus "skills": the purpose of teaching was either the acquisition of historical facts, such as the dates of the battles of Hastings, Trafalgar and Waterloo, or the acquisition of historical skills, such as assessing historical sources to decide whether they were trustworthy.

Advocates of the knowledge position charged that a focus on skills left pupils with no grasp of their heritage as British citizens, no capacity to see the larger narratives in history and, fundamentally, too few facts about the past to count as educated people. Advocates of the skills position claimed that the narratives desired by their opponents were authoritarian in content and pedagogy (and dull, too), with pupils expected to listen to and agree with teachers, who largely spoke about how wonderful dead, white British men were. A focus on historical skills, they claimed, would allow pupils to question authority and study the history they wanted.

That argument was supposed to have been put to bed by the first iteration of the history national curriculum in 1991, in which a working group, composed of experts holding a broad range of views, resolved that knowledge and skills were to be taught side by side throughout compulsory schooling, and that anyway it didn't make much sense to separate them out since they each depended on the other.

In retrospect, it is clear that such an explanation did not end the debate. Only recently, Fiona Reynolds, the outgoing director general of the National Trust, used a public lecture to lament the lack of historical knowledge among English pupils and implied that they didn't know anything of their heritage or even what order the Romans and the Tudors came in. Given that education secretary Michael Gove has expressed similar views, asserting that parents would like to see their children "sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England", and that former schools minister Nick Gibb decried "ideologically driven, skills-based" teaching, it seems pretty clear that the new history national curriculum is going to mark a victory for knowledge over skills.

In a way, this is a positive move: factual historical knowledge does matter. And if the lack of specific named topics, other than slavery and the Holocaust, in the present history curriculum suggests to anyone, especially pupils, that knowledge isn't important, then we should change it.

Moreover, the suggestion that knowledge and skills are codependent is, in one sense, not true: although it is absolutely the case that no meaningful judgement about the reliability of, say, the Bayeux Tapestry can be reached without a great deal of knowledge about the events it supposedly depicts as well as the political and social context of its creation, you don't need to do any source work to be taught and to remember that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066 and that Harold Godwinson died there.

Knowledge above all else?

So, knowledge wins hands down? No, because although it may be possible to create a list of key events in history that all pupils should know about, it is simply not credible to claim that such a list constitutes an adequate historical education. Such an education cannot adequately prepare pupils for the moment they come to doubt that what they learned at school was true.

This is a very real problem: the incomplete nature of our evidence of the past means that there are disagreements among reputable historians about the precise details. Pupils know this but find it difficult to understand. If they are not taught to understand it, they can fall into a crass relativism that leaves them unable to tell the difference between a legitimate historical dispute, such as over the precise motives for Henry VIII's Reformation, and a nonsensical abuse of historical evidence, such as Holocaust denial. If pupils are not taught the rules of historical knowledge, they can end up believing that their opinions and prejudices are as useful a guide to the past as the evidence.

Wrestling with ideas such as "reliability" provides pupils with an insight into the basis of our knowledge of the past. But it is not "skills" in the abstract that are important, rather teaching them about the status of the historical knowledge they acquire in school. This allows pupils to assess versions of history that they are offered by other sources: the internet, television, parents, priests, politicians. When any pupil with a smartphone has access to an unlimited amount of information, the capacity to know the rules that distinguish knowledge from nonsense is ever more important.

If a well-meaning desire to ensure that all pupils are empowered by knowledge results in the new history national curriculum eschewing guidance on teaching pupils how to judge the validity of that knowledge, then it will fail our youth no matter how many facts they learn.

John Blake teaches history at a comprehensive school in London and is chairman of Labour Teachers.

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