History according to Holyrood - or Hollywood

13th February 1998 at 00:00
With a wealth of resource material available should history teachers make use of 'kilt' films such as Braveheart? Fiona MacLeod reports

From Hollywood tartan to serious CD-Rom, history teachers have had plenty of material to ponder recently.

The movie industry has sent them, unsolicited, packages of "educational" backgrounds to two new films. One is the epic Titanic while the other, Regeneration, is the film of the Pat Barker novel set in Craiglockhart War Hospital, to which the officer poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were sent during the First World War.

Such packages are part of a growing trend by the makers of "infotainment" to put an educational gloss on what they are selling. Stephen Spielberg began the trend by sending every school a free CD-Rom following his film Schindler's List. His new film, Amistad, and the accompanying classroom materials on the slave trade are already receiving a stormy reception in the fact versus fabrication debate. A CD-Rom package accompanying Braveheart has been well received.

Another, non-Hollywood, CD-Rom has recently landed on the history teachers' desks. Called The Scottish People it covers the century from 1840 to 1940. Published by the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum in its first major venture with the Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network, the package includes 10 academic multi-media essays aimed at late primary and early secondary pupils.

It is a resource for teachers covering topics in the Higher Still programme, such as religion, education and popular culture, and includes different levels of access.

"Its aim is to enhance teachers' professionalism," says Dr David Duncan of the SCCC and secretary to the council's recent major review into the place of Scottish history in the curriculum. The Government's response to the review is also going out to schools this month.

"In the wake of the review we are aiming to provide more resource materials for history teachers, using archival matter, photographs, recordings of oral history, cartoons, maps and material on natural environments and historical sites.

"We are not trying to address a deficiency," he adds, "but raising teachers' professionalism by giving them evidence to read up."

But what about the "evidence" of Hollywood films themselves, which pupils often see long before the subject is covered in class? History teachers have widely differing views. For some, anything which engages a pupil's interest is to be encouraged.

They take the view that the kilt films Braveheart and Rob Roy - and no doubt this year's offering about Mary Queen of Scots starring Glenn Close and Meryl Streep - illustrate an exciting period of Scottish history and can help children distinguish between myth and historical reality. Others reject Hollywood's tartan tendency as a distraction which confuses pupils and makes their own job harder.

Strathclyde University enters into the fray next Thursday with a debate chaired by Professor Tom Devine, its vice principal. The panellists, who will discuss the Scottish media's treatment of the country's history, include Louise Yeoman, presenter of the recent BBC Scotland series Stirring Times. This examined the lives of major figures in Scottish history by updating the settings, presenting Robert the Bruce as a gangster and Mary Queen of Scots as a 1920s flapper.

Tom Monahan, principal teacher of history at Perth Grammar, believes every treatment has potential for the resourceful history teacher. History is a hugely popular subject at the school and he encourages pupils' interest at all levels.

"Pupils are much more sophisticated than people give them credit for," he says. "We watched Braveheart on cable and they were perfectly able to distinguish between Hollywood and reality. The Braveheart factor has certainly sparked off interest, as pupils then want to know more about what really happened" Monahan sees teaching history as storytelling. "History is stories, and the pupils don't hear these stories anywhere else. This is particularly true of Scottish history, which we cover extensively at S1 and S2, but less so at Higher level.

"Teachers are hard pressed to keep up with the changes they are constantly facing, first Standard grade, then the traditional Higher, the revised Higher, and now Higher Still. So they take the line of least resistance. If you have good resource materials, you are loath to scrap them, so you stick with the Nazis, appeasement and so on, and Scottish history has in the past lost out," says Monahan.

"Taking advantage of the freedom to develop your own curriculum choices means hard work. It is very tricky, and has led to the sense that you do Scottish history in S1 and S2, and then move on to "real history" in S3 and S4.

"I constantly have to convince pupils and their parents that history is a useful and interesting subject. The Braveheart factor has undoubtedly helped. "

He is dismissive of the approach taken by Stirring Times. "Our department watched the programme on Robert the Bruce, but we decided not to use it in the classroom. It was a great opportunity to use some of the latest research on Bruce, but where was the need to make it a 1920s gangster story? It's interesting enough anyway, so I feel it was a wasted opportunity."

He has used the Braveheart CD-Rom, however. "It was very well put together and gave plenty of information about Scotland at that time. It included storyboards about the planning of the film and gave pupils an insight into how these become the film that you see. The interactive part allowed pupils to edit scenes to create their own 10-minute film, so it combined media studies benefit alongside the history."

Andrew Hunt, principal teacher of history at Alloa Academy, is not a television fan. "I am quite anti-TV and can see the dangers of the Americanised version of Scottish history. However, the idea of teacher as entertainer, and the entertainment value of a good story is something I do accept. You take the story and then put in the skills, looking at sources and searching for the truth.

"I aim to get across to the pupils that Scotland's history is not about a few famous names, and that change is caused by a whole range of different factors. I start off with a giant timeline which illustrates this. The Jacobites involve religious and military causes, Burns and the industrial revolution was driven by social factors, and so on. But to show the whole picture you would need 40 hours of history a week, so of course it's selective."

For teachers working in this Braveheart New World, the issues are not always clear-cut. Elizabeth Trueland, head of history at Mary Erskine's school in Edinburgh and president of the Scottish Association for the Teaching of History, is "hugely sceptical" about the use of films and their educational spin-offs in the classroom.

"We use the raised awareness of Scottish history that these films have brought to pupils to explore issues of myths and reality, but you can be giving out confusing messages. They already come to the class with quite strong preconceptions because of films. Our third year is looking at the sinking of the Lusitania, and I have to say I foresee a great many sinkings of the Titanic when it comes to the exam papers."

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