Strength in depth

7th April 1995 at 01:00
John Fines argues that outline history can only be a poor substitute for thorough enquiry and passionate debate and, below, offers a way to tackle key stage 3 with this in mind.

Philosophising is not something I am good at. Truth to tell, I rather despise the business. In history teaching it has been the philosophers who have done most harm to the profession, and the very habit of definition and logical thinking seems to me to be wholly unsuitable to describe the essentially messy and disorganised process of learning. When someone 20 years away from the classroom sets forth yet another theoretical pattern to explain what it is all about, I sigh and say: "Try that on Billy."

Billy is a nice boy, cheerful, open and desperately anxious to win. I like him a lot. But he is unpredictable. At times he is uncontrollable, at other times silly, or just a plain nuisance. And then, just when you have given up all hope and yearn for the days when you could just whack him, Billy produces a statement, an idea, an explanation that takes your breath away. Momentarily Billy is a genius, and then of course he is a nuisance once more. A nice nuisance, but still a nuisance.

Who is to plot Billy? Who can pattern a whole class of children, a school, a generation? Well, of course, the philosophers of education will - and they gain their courage and confidence from never having met Billy.

It is the generalisations of the philosophers that constantly leave me standing, while the rest of the community hastily takes them on board and tries to make them work. Three generalisations above all seem to me to be not only wrong and perverse but also dangerous:

o That there is somewhere to be found a body of knowledge, understanding and skills that should be given to all children to help them in their future lives.

o That this knowledge, understanding and skills is what we, the adults have arrived at as a result of our lives. What helped us make sense of the world must help the children in the world into which they are growing.

o All of this learning may be packaged in such a form as to be taught to all people coherently and effectively and may be objectively assessed. We will then know whether they have learned or not.

Read at a glance by the average person, these seem perfectly logical, but anyone who lives from day to day in classrooms knows that they are in fact absurd. The knowledge you arrive at as a result of education is not information popped into you by the teacher. Only the children can do the learning for themselves and the knowledge they arrive at will be different from ours. Above all, knowledge does not come packaged in handy bite-size lumps: growing into knowing is an experience, a process of struggle and disorder, of as many leaps backwards as there are forwards.

No outsider can test what I know, for what I know is now a functioning part of me, it cannot be extracted for the purpose of ticking a form. Ask a pianist how it is they can play when you can't; ask a linguist what it is that makes them so fluent; ask a car driver how they drive their car - they no longer know how they have broken through the veils of ineptitude into use. But you can see that something pretty wonderful and useful has happened out of the years and months of messy, arduous and so often tearful practice.

But of the three statements it is the first that most upsets me. In history teaching we commonly hear people talking of "a framework", "a mental map", "general knowledge - part of what one might expect an educated person to know".

In the warfare over what goes in and what is excluded from the curriculum what are the casualties? Well stories go - they take far too long. So does the examination of motive - that could last forever. Certainly detail must go. We have no room for colour. The battlefield grows clear - we have a few selected pieces of information hanging on the chronological wire, with all the good bits left out. Dem bones indeed. And don't tell me it doesn't necessarily have to be so, for we all know in our hearts that outline history has always been so.

The framework, once arrived at, is immensely hard to learn - there is no interest and no sense in it. It is perfectly simple to forget, for there is nothing in it to make it stick there. So the practitioners of outline history try to give it some meaning, some importance by shaping it, by generalising, by seeing patterns, by seeing uses in it, by looking to see whether it could point to the future. Well I did think that we had learned the lesson of outmoded generalisations such as "Our Island Story", "The Growth of Democracy", "The Rise of the West" and above all "Das Kapital". Have we not burned our fingers enough?

Yet surely, the outlinist protests, there must be value in having a simple chronological framework into which the child may fit what he or she learns in the future. In fact the framework notion is of little use as soon as you examine it: what is the use of knowing about Normans, Georgians or whatever when you are studying the Egyptians? They don't relate to the rest, in fact the only bits of history that do are perversions of history in later periods, like the idea of the Norman yoke in the 17th century or Margaret Thatcher's misuse of the word "appeasement".

Thus the superficial scamper through the whole of history, for so long advocated and recently readdressed, is a waste of time, a way of making history boring and an avoidance of doing real history, where true knowledge may be found: history in depth.

The more you know about a subject the more you think about it, the more you want to know and the more confident, the more expert you become. Teaching is less a business of instruction, more an act of faith. We cannot know, despite all the objectives we write, whether what we do does any good. What we do in school is done because we believe in it, hope for it and see in values and behaviours the prime objects of our schooling.

In the making of men and women it is the parental and the priestly figures which count. We nourish children on what we hope to be good and appropriate foods, we nudge them gently in directions we discern might be correct, we comfort and aid them in a time of uncertainty and anxiety. Our loving concern, coupled with our determination that a disciplined life can develop a confident, self-regarding and properly competent person govern our own behaviour and mark our vocation with its mission.

What, then, must history do to fit this cause? Well first, and above all things, it must be material in depth - the topic must have the potential for thorough enquiry, indeed for multiple enquiries. In a properly open structure of learning children must have the chance first to catch on to their own interests, to stay with them and become masters in the field.

Second, it must be material that is essentially to do with people, people who present problems. If we are feeding growing minds the supremely important interest for them is people's behaviour, their motivation, how they struggle to cope with events, when and where does principle work and where is self-interest the order of the day?

Third, we must take serious issues. Not that the classroom isn't a place for laughter, but in that we are privileged to examine the people of the past, their private, most intimate papers, in that they may well have endured tests and trials that daunt us and make us wonder whether and how we might endure, in that their heroism and their failures could form a framework for our walk into the future, we have a duty to take it seriously, research it thoroughly, debate it with passion.

Finally we need time to play with all this material, test it, learn from it, make it our own.

How do I know all this, how can I be so sure? Well, much of it Billy taught me as I struggled to educate him, and the others in the class, and all the other classes I have taught. I have only pretended to be the teacher, secretly taking the privilege of being the learner, so that I can really know something about educating Billy.

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