History needs lessons for life

12th February 2010 at 00:00

My seven-year-old asked if I had been born in the Middle Ages. She wasn't being impudent; more a case of an undeveloped historical perspective. History isn't always done very well in schools these days.

Or was it ever? My own memory of history lessons is of a teacher sitting on his desk, dictating notes about a revolution which happened a long time ago in France. We spent virtually the whole period scribbling down his words and I can justifiably blame him for my appalling handwriting.

The lessons were perhaps useful to those in the all-boys class who went on to become note-taking secretaries. But for the rest, there was little evidence of critical skills, learning to learn, multiple intelligences or those active learning activities which would have made us more successful learners and effective contributors. Perhaps, in terms of education, I am a product of the Middle Ages?

But my student-teacher friends inform me that such lessons are still being taught in the odd school or three. I hate to be the one to break the disappointing news to the teachers concerned: most pupils do not remember many of the interesting facts you work so hard to tell them.

Don't take my word for it. A recent study concluded that the average student takes in less than 20 per cent of a teacher's spoken words: that is at a good time of day, and on days when the weather is calm and there is no full moon exerting its influences.

Some of our history teachers, like some of those teaching other subjects, might well benefit from adopting new ideas and approaches to teaching and learning. And I write this with only the most helpful of intentions. History in schools is facing an abyss: it has lost its place in the core of the exam curriculum; some schools have even started to remove lessons from S1-2 timetables.

History in schools has been criticised for all sorts of reasons: too male- dominated, too white-dominated; too boring and irrelevant. And: history makes no lasting contribution to pupils' preparation for life or work.

Mostly nonsense. There are many highly competent history teachers offering interesting, meaningful and popular lessons. On a recent trip to Auchtermuchty, I - almost literally - bumped into Fife's mobile museum (pictured) and saw pupils involved in meaningful learning.

One of the assignments the group had been set was to think of five things they would include in a museum for their area. The mobile museum provided some. Then, back in the classroom, the pupils would collaborate in small groups to discuss, justify and evaluate the ideas. The key was that the lesson made the pupils think hard about the important past events which had helped to shape their community.

The research would extend into the home as an interesting assignment involving the extraction of information and suggestions from mums, dads and so on, before the pupils would reconvene to finalise their choice. As well as organising their own group work, the children had to give a short presentation to justify their choices: this encompassed many historical events, from prehistoric times to the Second World War. I bet in 20 years' time, every one of them will have positive memories of this assignment.

Effective history classes have much to offer pupils, including lessons on how to think, question, research, interpret and communicate clearly, along with opportunities to view things from different perspectives, to form arguments, to challenge assumptions and to question attitudes.

It is also about the lessons we should draw, or not, from the past. Otherwise, it might just be, for schools at least, the end of history.

John Greenlees is a secondary teacher.

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