History that engages is key

25th November 2011 at 00:00

Tom Devine and Sydney Wood have called for a "re-think" about the way history is presented in Scottish schools. There is, they argue, a major opportunity to deliver a history curriculum that will address the "sad catalogue of failures of the past". As much as I am an admirer of their scholarship, I couldn't help but sigh at the content they have suggested.

Professor Devine seems unable to talk about Scottish history without reference to the Reformation and the Acts of Union 1707. Are these two topics really going to enliven the curriculum? He suggests that other areas of global historical debate will have to make way to allow for a deeper consideration of Scottish identity.

It is interesting that, south of the border, David Starkey has also been calling for a de-cluttering of the English history curriculum, so that pupils can appreciate their "Anglo-Saxon" island story. Only last year he pursued his cause on national television with ludicrous results, appearing to morph into David Brent on those cringeing occasions. And therein lies the rub.

Professors of history, who stand in front of attentive undergraduates every day, are a world removed from the history teacher who has to address 30, 13 to 17-year-olds up to six times a day. History teachers must (1) control the class, (2) engage each pupil, and (3) hope they inspire learners to have a love of history for the rest of their lives.

I have seen children marvel at the mind of Leonardo da Vinci, become animated when confronted with the injustice that black Americans faced in their fight for civil rights, and appear genuinely awe-struck by the self- discipline of Japanese samurai bushido values. This is history that engages.

In my 12 years as a history teacher, I have still to witness that level of interest in Scottish shipbuilding and trade unions, tired topics of Standard grade. Do we need more of this? "The trouble is," they argue, "that only a minority of pupils choose to pursue examination courses in history." Could it be that Scottish history is just dreich?

Professor Devine and Mr Wood also discard interdisciplinary studies as being "notoriously difficult". Scottish history is about depth, not breadth. Really? What about Fleming and penicillin, Logie Baird and television, Graham Bell and the telephone, Carnegie's entrepreneurship philanthropic activities, Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, Glover and Mitsubishi, Lister and antiseptics, McAdam and roads, Napier and logarithms, Livingstone and missionary work, Smith and economics, Dolly the sheep? All rich possibilities for interdisciplinarity and relevance.

I recently read that International Baccalaureate pupils perform better at university and are more likely to get highly-paid jobs than Scottish Higher and English A-level students. Devine and Wood might wish to take a look at the IB history curriculum. It is full of conceptual history, synthesis and knowledge that transcends geographical borders.

Gavin Cunningham, Aberdeen.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today