The French treat history as dogma.The Germans learn it by rote. And the Spanish are hungup on chronology. But British teachers are taking a lead in treating it as a living subject, demanding objective analysis. Hilary Cooper went to a conference at the world's biggest library of history textbooks in Germany and found othercountries anxious to learn from us
In Britain we should be more aware of how much our history curriculum has achieved and how much this is due to teaching strategies that encourage children to ask questions, to analyse different interpretations, to discuss issues, argue viewpoints and develop opinions.
This was brought home to me at a conference earlier this month at the Georg Eckert Institute in Braunschweig, central Germany, on the role of textbooks in teaching history, where I gave a paper. The institute houses the biggest collection of history textbooks in the world, and I was intrigued to find out more about, what seemed to me, a rather arcane institution.
The English have long had connections with Braunschweig (the German name for Bruns-wick). Most people have heard of Caroline of Brunswick, consort of George IV. Fewer may be aware that Mathilda, daughter of Henry II of England, was the wife of Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony and Bavaria, who established Brunswick as a force in the 12th century.
The city was devastated by bombing raids in 1944, and it was as a result of his own war experiences that Georg Eckert, a professor of history at the University of Braunschweig, decided to try to improve international understanding by making history and geography textbooks more objective.
The textbook institute he set up is now housed in the 18th-century Villa von Buelow and is supported by the German ministry for education and UNESCO. The original aim of the institute - to advise authors and publishers on how textbooks may be made more objective - is now seen to be far more complex than the removal of factual errors. "Textbook writing can no longer be confined to suggesting specific views," the prospectus says, "but must foster the development of pupils' ability to understand divergent and even antagonistic assessments and judgments in the context of factual background in order to produce judgments of their own."
In England we have achieved much in recent years in developing and implementing a national curriculum based on this understanding of the process of learning history - but we should not be complacent. Carmel Gallagher, assistant director of Northern Ireland's curriculum and assessment body, speaking at the 1997 Historical Association Conference of her experience in implementing the curriculum in the province, concluded that rather than construct meanings for themselves most children still have meanings imposed on them. She went on to consider ways to understand such "lethal" historical topics as the Great Irish Famine or the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, which, if handled badly, could be destructive. What other ways, for example, could Us President Truman have brought an end to the war in the Pacific?
The purpose of the Braunschweig conference was to share empirical studies of the role of textbooks in history education. Since most countries work exclusively from "recommended" textbooks, these are the main vehicles for change.
In France, research through observations and interviews showed no link between history and values. The researcher said school is not a place for debates, and never in history. The aim of history teaching is official instruction of scientific facts, and teachers would denounce any judgments students make. Teachers do not help children to understand that value systems of the past were different.
Similarly, research in Germany has shown that adolescent pupils have conventional and fixed viewpoints about the past and do not find school history interesting or influential on their lives. A frustrated German delegate asked with passion: "How do you construct connections between the past and the present? What should I have told my eight-year-old daughter about the Holocaust?"
Analyses of Polish history books of the 1980s and 1990s showed them to be dominated by armed combat with the Germans, and this was mirrored in pupil questionnaires that revealed negative images of Germans, often spontaneously pointing to the influence of history lessons.
In Brazil, Spain and Romania, too, teachers are reluctant to abandon the orthodox line of memorising narrative history for the more critical approaches that are now possible.
Spanish studies investigated the professional characteristics of teachers who persist in a traditional type of chronological teaching with little verbal exposition or mention of the realities and problems of the past.
What struck me so forcibly here, and at meetings in Strasbourg and Paris, was that when I talked about my own research into young children's understanding of the past, though people listened politely they clearly thought me a little eccentric, since there is no history teaching before you're 10 in most countries. One man in Paris concluded the discussion of my research by saying: "Madame, ce n'est pas possible!" But in every case when I quote from the national curriculum - at any key stage - everyone sits up. Ask questions? Discuss interpretations? Different media? Range of sources? How old are these children? Even their secondary pupils don't do this sort of thing. Then they ask me how it can be done. Will I photocopy the pages?
There is a copy of the national curriculum in the institute library, but we do not have a "recommended textbook"; the collection of supporting resources is piecemeal, randomly acquired and only related to key stage 3 - although even this was declared by a Romanian friend, who has adapted it for her new Romanian curriculum, to be "wonderful, the best".
The Georg Eckert Institute is playing a significant role in helping former communist countries switch to a more pluralistic system of textbooks and is contributing to a changed image of Europe in our textbooks.
So authors, please make sure that your publisher knows about the Georg Eckert Library in Braunschweig, so that our challenging methods of history teaching can be shared where they are needed most.
Georg-Eckert-Institut fuer Internationale Schulbuchforschung, Celler Strasse 3, D-38114 Braunschweig, Germany.Tel: 00 49 5 31 5 90 99 0 Fax: 00 49 5 31 5 90 99 99Hilary Cooper is head of programme for research in education at the University College of St Martin, Lancaster