Sense of place no longer out of kilter

9th October 2009 at 01:00
History experiences and outcomes are an attempt to give young Scots a clearer awareness of national identity

A Curriculum for Excellence will have a dramatic impact on the teaching of Scottish history and give young Scots a clearer sense of national identity, according to two experts approaching the subject from the contrasting worlds of academia and HMIE.

Dundee University Scottish history professor Christopher Whatley and the inspectorate's Lachlan MacCallum believe pupils and teachers have the opportunity to explore their country's past in a more profound and wide- ranging way.

Professor Whatley highlighted the joint effect of curricular change and the burgeoning of Scottish history at universities: "At long last, our young people will be in a position which has long been enjoyed by their counterparts in Britain, Ireland, Europe and elsewhere in the world - to learn about and understand better the historical environment in which they've been born and raised."

He conceded there were some "misgivings" about the history experiences and outcomes among history teachers. But he identified "enormous opportunities" to teach Scottish history in "new and exciting ways which have the potential to capture the imaginations of the learner population". He hoped teachers would have greater "freedom to select topics according to what's available locally as a starting point". Speaking at a Scottish history conference held in Dundee, he identified examples close to the city.

A picture of a handloom weaver's headstone was the potential starting point for a host of topics, including the coarse linen trade, Scotland's 18th-century economy, the 1707 union, colonialism and slavery. "You need to know where you are before you can decide how to get to the next place," he said.

Professor Whatley recognised that curriculum change represented an "awesome challenge" and that teachers had long suffered from a "serious deficit in terms of knowledge of Scottish history", but help was at hand. There was "a small army of Scottish historians scattered around the universities" who were "desperate" for more contact with schools to "share the fruits of their researches which otherwise might be locked away in little-read scholarly journals".

Mr MacCallum, the other key-note speaker, asked: "What is the point of all the good practice we see in teaching Scottish history in our schools if it is not set in a wider context of time and location?"

He underlined that children learned more history out of school than in classrooms: "To me, the real point of school history is to provide children and young people with an increasingly robust framework which allows them to put all the other history they will encounter in their lives into context."

Mr MacCallum dismissed suggestions that the new curriculum experiences and outcomes were vague and general, insisting they were "actually quite rigorous. They make very clear the importance of young people developing an understanding of how Scotland has developed as a nation. In particular, the level 2 and level 3 outcomes emphasise the need for a cumulative understanding to be developed - the sequence and relevance of those aspects of history studied before."

He praised the imminent Scottish history resource trailed by Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop at last month's Scottish Learning Festival, which would fill "important gaps" in history teaching, such as the late-medieval period, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.

The conference was organised by Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE.

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