History should be fascinating, fun and factually correct

22nd April 2011 at 01:00
The reliability and robustness of history resources for non- specialists teaching the subject should cause alarm

Not so long ago, history - including Scottish history - was under threat as a discrete discipline. Now it is assured a place within Curriculum for Excellence, albeit in social studies. It is just as well because, in comparison with most other European countries, Scotland's schoolchildren have been poorly served in terms of history provision.

It is heartening that Scottish pupils now have an entitlement to know and understand more about their country's past; so too is the enthusiasm of numerous national and local "heritage" bodies to provide materials and engage with schools.

The "start local, think global" concept has been taken up in many classrooms. Building on the uniqueness of every school and of every learner within their own family and community, this approach allows young people from an early age to start exploring and understanding their place in history, which is critical for responsible, active citizens. If young people feel the past is theirs, they will be more likely to feel the same about the present and the future.

But just as there are major opportunities for history at the present time, there are also some very real challenges. One of these is resources.

The online store of visual images, primary sources, secondary source extracts, and podcasts generated by Learning and Teaching Scotland is impressive. The site looks good and is easily navigated. But scanning the materials on the Treaty of Union 1689-1740 topic for Higher history, I was intrigued to read that "Unification with England (in 1707) had terrible consequences for many people in Scotland, especially in the Highlands as subsistence farmers paid the price for industrialisation and agricultural reform". This uncompromising statement was followed by the assertion that Jacobitism, migration, emigration and urbanisation were further manifestations of post-Union alienation among the Scots.

Dear me. Yes, the Jacobites wanted to overturn the Union as this ruled out a Roman Catholic monarch for the British Isles, and they certainly exploited post-Union dissatisfaction to bolster support for the ousted Stuart dynasty, but their cause was born at the Revolution of 1688-89, not in 1707. The reasons for industrialisation and the Clearances were many, but they didn't include the Union, other than indirectly. Scots had emigrated in their thousands long before 1707. Over time hundreds of thousands of Scots benefited from migration to the towns, and welcomed what urbanisation offered in terms of more regular work, higher wages, better leisure facilities and an enhanced quality of life.

Yes, for many there was the loss of former ways of living, and dislocation, but adjustment to urban life has been a challenge for millions of people across the world in the past three centuries. It had nothing to do with the British Union of 1707.

My purpose in homing in on this example is not to undermine LTS or indeed other potentially exciting ICT classroom resources like Glow. The important issue is the reliability and robustness of history resources - electronic or print-based - for the non-specialists who will be teaching history in primary schools across Scotland and at S1-3.

History can be fun and it should fascinate. But facts matter too. One of the merits of history is its insistence upon accuracy: what exactly did happen? How do we know? What is the basis of our knowledge, ie, what is the evidence? This rigour has long been central to the practice of history but it is even more important nowadays when so much information is available from a variety of online sources, many unauthenticated.

Young people need to learn to question what they think they know. Gullibility is dangerous for individuals but potentially disastrous for society at large. For these and other reasons pupils' historical knowledge and understanding need to be tested and robustly assessed.

But there is a solution. If we can't have more history teachers, we can have dialogue. School teachers and university historians and other "providers", including family and local history groups, should work much more closely together than in the past. The Royal Society of Edinburgh's recent advice paper on the teaching of history in Scottish schools advocates such relationships. Ideally every school or cluster of schools would be part of one of these. Critical, though, is the responsiveness of university historians who need to be prepared to find out what local needs are and even go into schools. The Donaldson Review - if implemented in full and properly supported by local authorities - will also help to forge stronger links between the classroom and the subject specialists in the universities.

Understandably there have been reservations in Scotland about a national curriculum for history. Yet when I talk with teachers - especially non- historians - it is clear that many would welcome some guidelines about what history should be taught. Publishers of books - and history must be read in books as well as in bite-sized chunks on the internet - have to be assured of a certain market size before investing in new titles. Again, there seems to be convergence between the thinking of bodies such as the RSE's history working group and influential history teachers and their educators - about the need to extend the periods taught and avoid narrow over-specialisation and repetition, and to teach more Scottish history but critically and within appropriate wider contexts.

An exciting opportunity is within our grasp. Whatever the outcome of the Scottish election, we must make sure that the good work of recent years is built upon, and that current and future generations of young people experience history as a fulfilling subject that in its rigour stretches minds and develops key skills for a lifetime - not only in a few schools, but across the nation.

Christopher Whatley is professor of Scottish history and vice-principal and head of the college of arts and social sciences at Dundee University.

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