The past is not a foreign country

14th October 2005 at 01:00
As we prepare for Bonfire Night, it is time to remind ourselves why we teach history, says Steve Mynard.

Next Friday, October 21, sees the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and November 5 is the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. It is a good time to ask why we teach history.

Politicians, royalty and academic celebrities may feel they are best placed to answer this question - and many have, announcing to the country exactly what the nation's teachers should or should not be teaching children. Often these announcements focus on a list of dates and an exclamation of outrage that every child in the country does not know their significance.

I run a training course for primary teachers called Living History. Over the past year more than 300 teachers have come to 25 historic locations around the country to attend. We start each course with a discussion focused on exactly this question: why do we teach history? Here is what I have learned from those discussions.

"Learning about history engenders a sense of identity".

This idea has come up in every discussion. History helps us appreciate who we are and where we have come from. It helps us to understand why the present is as it is and try to improve the future by what we have learned.

Ashley Holt, headteacher at William Penn school in Horsham, West Sussex, is passionate about giving history a higher profile.

He says: "History tells us what is important and how it came to be important. It tells us why we value the things that we do. History has the power to define a whole society."

Often this leads to further discussion about the many strands of history experienced by individuals in a multicultural society. The teachers I meet feel they have an important role to play in encouraging children to appreciate the diversity of histories around them.

"We can learn from past mistakes and past successes".

While it is often the mistakes of the past that leave a troublesome legacy, we must not forget that the past gives us inspiration too.

History is full of role models - people we can look up to and aspire to emulate. We gain inspiration from the achievements of others, well-known figures or little known but just as important. In our own endeavours, we can draw on those of the people of the past.

Children need to learn about the effect and consequences of past actions: how the present could have turned out differently if key events had had alternative outcomes. We can study how and why decisions were made and we can seek to prevent the past repeating itself.

'The sequencing of historical events helps establish an understanding of chronology."

Teachers feel this is a difficult concept to get across to young children.

Some find starting with a child's own life and working backwards through parents' and grandparents' individual life stories on a timeline helps.

Chronological understanding also helps children to see how progress has been made over time in areas such as agriculture, technology, medicine and social organisation.

"History develops a sense of empathy with people of the past."

Barbara Parkes teaches at Matchborough first school in Redditch, Worcestershire.

She says: "Through learning about other people's reactions and emotions children, begin to understand their own. They all know what it feels like to be frightened, angry or disappointed."

She believes that through studying history, children learn how to question other people's behaviour and we can ask them: "What would you have done?"

Developing an empathetic approach to history helps children cope with change in their own lives, knowing that things have changed in the past and people have adapted. This gives history a personal dimension.

"The study of history aids the development of transferable learning skills."

History is an excellent vehicle for delivering many of the skills we want children to develop: discussion, interpretation, research, curiosity and imagination, analysis and deduction and, most importantly, questioning.

history is full of opinion and bias, propaganda and down-right lies.

Developing a critical, questioning approach to the study of history empowers children to be focused in their questioning in other areas of life.

"History is fun and exciting."

During our discussions this point often comes up right at the end. One important reason why we teach history is because children love it. History is interesting, colourful, dangerous and exciting - and it has so much to teach us.

Former head Steve Mynard now runs Metaphor Learning, which provides creative and imaginative training courses for primary teachers in the foundation subjects. 01373 300 748A Guy Fawkes poster will appear in Teacher magazine on October 28

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