History - it's not bunk any more

18th February 2000 at 00:00
HISTORY EDUCATION IN SCOTLAND. Edited by Peter Hillis. John Donald pound;12.99.

In fact, it never seemed more relevant than in a series of new essays for schools. Des Brogan reviews blasts of the past

History is bunk", so Henry Ford famously claimed. Had he read Peter Hillis's timely volume on the current teaching of history in Scotland, Ford might have ended up wise as well as rich! With contributions from the great and the good in the history teaching confraternity, this is an excellent collection of essays. They are immediately relevant not only to the profession but to anyone who has views on the structure and content of the Scottish curriculum.

The chapters are short, engaging and stimulating. Helpful summaries identify key issues and would be useful for departmental discussion to refocus busy history teachers on why they are there - to develop better strategies to teach students history.

Teacher trainers would be well advised to use this book in their courses since the major issues of the day are comprehensively covered. Each chapter reviews current literature, provides practical help on what to teach and clearly identifies the challenges facing the subject in the 21st century.

Hillis writes an excellent analysis of the many concerns which have exercised history teachers over the last 20 years. He rehearses the criticisms of the sceptics, highlights the problems and confidently declares the benefits to be gained from continued study of the subject.

To those in the history profession who have wondered at the processes which govern assessment, Ian Matheson' s article dispels the darkness. It is good to see, at long last, a straightforward and stylish account of the detailed procedures used to ensure that external examinations are fair and standards are maintained.

Ed Geraghty's claims forsource materials in history teaching are comprehensive. His point that sources are used because they have "a dramatic impact on lessons and engage pupils' critical faculties" is convincing.

Sandra Chalmers provides a workable set of stimulating games which cover the content area of Standard grade courses. Here is the voice of a highly competent seasoned practitioner proving Hillis's claim tha "the teacher's knowledge and enthusiasm for a topic remains the strongest selling point for history." The Balkan Crises 1906-14 become an imaginative game that makes the teaching and learning of a complex theme both achievable and enjoyable.

In a very learned and well-researched chapter, Jim McGonigle makes a powerful argument for maintaining the discrete approach to the teaching of each social science. He refutes the claims of integrationists at the same time as acknowledging that fragmentation of the curriculum is a concern. It is to his credit that he makes alternative suggestions as to how this may be addressed.

The compilation, however, does not attempt to gloss over the problems facing the subject. Sydney Wood, the doyen of history textbook writers, provides interesting evidence that differentiation in the classroom has not yet been satisfactorily tackled - a problem, I suspect, not unique to history.

Although Higher Still courses are very much in their introductory phase I am not convinced by Duncan Toms's rejection of the "palaver of formalised internal assessment" when he also admits that teachers have always "done it, week-in week-out as an essential part of the job". Some may suspect that, on occasion, history teachers complain too much.

An area largely ignored by the book is the inability of teacher training colleges to provide students with sufficient time for learning subject content.

The time allocated for discrete social sciences, especially in the primary training sector, has been eroded for the past 10 years. We will not produce historians, never mind history teachers, if we do not adequately train teachers.

When all the claims of the authors are taken together, the reader may well ask, why study any other subject?

History seems to cover the core skills in most other curricular areas - literacy, numeracy, reviewing, evaluating and information technology can all be achieved through a study of history. It is a confident message that is being projected here.

History teaching is alive and well and has a bright future in the Scottish curriculum. Start spinning, Henry Ford!

Des Brogan is co-ordinating development officer for Higher Still history

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