History's an adventure - don't cut it short

2nd January 2015 at 00:00
Efforts to make textbooks engaging are taking the magic out of the subject. What we need are stories, not snippets of source material

During my first year as a history teacher, my mind often turned to the staircase leading to the attic bedroom in my grandparents' house. Running alongside the stairs were shelves lined with children's books from the 1950s, which had been gathering dust since my mum was a child.

I would sit for hours on the stairs and leaf through children's encyclopedias, books in Ladybird's Adventures from History series and works by the children's historian R J Unstead. It was this immersion in the pleasures of the past that I wanted to recreate for my pupils.

However, I had a problem. Their books were nothing like the ones I had devoured at my grandparents' house. An ongoing issue I have with key stage 3 history textbooks is their lack of extended narrative. You would be hard pushed to find a stretch of more than 200 words that is not broken by a cartoon, a snippet of "source material" or a "funny fact". The layout often resembles a magazine, not a book, with short chunks of boxed text designed to cater to the supposedly minimal attention spans of today's pupils.

Then there are the anachronisms. In an attempt to make history "relevant", contemporary references continually intrude on the story of the past. One popular textbook contains chapter headings such as "Was King Henry VII a gangster?", "Match of the day: England versus Spain", "There's something about Mary" and "Blackbeard - the original pirate of the Caribbean".

The aesthetic owes much to the Horrible Histories series, with children encouraged not to think about the past but to laugh at it. So, in another KS3 textbook on medieval Britain, we have a sheepskin-coated John Motson figure commentating on the Battle of Hastings and a CSI-style investigation into the murder of St Thomas Becket.

Back to the old school

Some might say, what is so wrong with this style of history textbook? Is it not a bit peevish of me to dislike the use of humour and contemporary references for young pupils? I think not, because history can do so much more.

I have steadily rebuilt the collection of out-of-print books I enjoyed as a child. Far from being dry and boring, they are lively and beautifully illustrated. And, crucially, they do not make concessions in content and detail.

Unstead is largely forgotten today but his name was synonymous with classroom history for decades. As a primary headteacher, he took issue with dry pre-war textbooks and in 1952 published the lavishly illustrated Looking at History: Britain from cavemen to the present day. It sold 8 million copies and Unstead went on to publish more than 50 volumes of children's history. His books even earned him an invitation to the White House.

Reading Looking at History today, I realise my historical frame of reference was formed by looking at these beautifully rendered drawings: a rowdy game of medieval football, Queen Elizabeth I on one of her extravagant progresses, a horseback duel between a Cavalier and a Roundhead.

The same can be said for the Ladybird picture books. Looking at the map of Richard the Lionheart's journey to the Holy Land is like looking at an old family photograph - long-forgotten but instantly recognisable. Some 50 Adventures from History titles were published between 1956 and 1975. Each had a lively narrative accompanied by beautiful illustrations.

So why did such books fall from favour? From the 1970s, Unstead became a figure of fun, mocked for his earnest stories of derring-do and insufficiently critical take on British history. In 1962 he defended his brand of scholarship: "Whereas England has often acted foolishly or badly, her history shows the persistence of ideals which good men have lived by since Alfred's day." This was not a fashionable view in post-Imperial Britain.

The emphasis on narrative found in Unstead and the Ladybird books was also challenged, as history turned from a knowledge-based discipline to a skills-based subject. In a pivotal 1971 article, John Fines - the leading architect of child-centred history teaching - wrote that "instead of learning the matter of history, children should learn to use historical skills and attitudes". Stories were out, source analysis was in.

I can't help but feel something was lost along the way. Cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Willingham have shown that stories are "psychologically privileged" in human memory. As teachers introducing pupils to tales ranging from biblical parables and Aesop's fables to Ladybird books and the Just So Stories have long known, if you want children to remember something you should turn it into a good story.

In addition, the illustrations in these books aim for realism, not irreverent humour. They immerse children in a historical period, whereas the current fashion for a cartoonish, magazine aesthetic breaks the spell of the past.

Today, my collection of out-of-print books lines the shelf behind my desk, readily to hand when I am planning history lessons. If the reformed curriculum for England causes a burst of new history textbooks to be produced, perhaps publishers will find some inspiration in learning, as all good historians do, some lessons from the past.

Robert Peal is a teacher at the West London Free School and author of Progressively Worse: The Burden of Bad Ideas in British Schools

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