Time for a new crusade

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Christine Counsell calls for more time and specialist teaching if pupils are to enjoy unravelling the mysteries of the past

Martin is making animal noises again but his history teacher distracts him cheerfully. After a while, he joins the others in working out what being "free" meant in the 14th-century and whether or not living in a town had anything to do with it. His experienced history teacher - a medievalist with a PhD - laughs and says, "When we played the medieval medicine game, his fascination with animals came in quite handy. There's always a new way of involving Martin or helping him to concentrate."

Martin reminds me of a merry band of 12-year-olds I once taught. Through trial and error (mostly error) I eventually gained the confidence to let them think and talk about the trickier historical questions. The more period knowledge they acquired the better they did this. But you had to abandon all selfimportance and you had to learn to listen to them, or it was quite hopeless. And there was Geoffrey, who would switch from enthusiastic to sullen in a split second. One day, during an improvisation on the Children's Crusade (that other merry band of 12-year-olds in the 13th century), the critics of the Crusade became a little crazed. Fearful of the hoards of singing children and hissing "heretics!", one priest leapt out of the classroom window. It was only a three foot drop but I didn't notice as I was too busy observing the beatification of Geoffrey by some holy men on the other side of the classroom.

What these pupils taught me was that once you had caught their interest in a puzzling human story then you could, at last, fascinate them with the meaning of a word like "heresy" and you could make them want to argue about why people disagreed with each other in the 13th century. Even caring about full stops or paragraph cohesion becomes possible then. When they suddenly see the familiar in what they thought was strange, or see the strange in what they thought was familiar, they are shocked into curiosity.

The history classroom is a place of small epiphanies. In Sophie's World, Jostein Gardner captures it perfectly when 13-year-old Sophie suddenly feels the implication of all those stories about human thought: "Until yesterday I thought I was 13. Now I realise that I am 3,000-years-old!"

Sophie and her able friends capture it with polish, but the epiphanies of Martin and Geoffrey are no less important for being noisy, erratic and messy. The historical consciousness of these children matters because these children are human beings. History teaches us the meaning of humanness.

These pupils, too, can experience the awe and the humility that a disciplined, stretching study of the past confers.

But they do need plenty of time. It takes time to learn the languages of the past, to discover what concepts people used and how they reasoned with them. It takes time to learn the language of history - the modern explanations, judgements, interpretations and truth claims that can be called historical.

Today's new teachers do all this far better than I ever did. Whether their gurus are Niall Ferguson or Quentin Skinner, the finest of new history teachers are advancing our understanding of historical learning. They debate the meaning of historical significance; they share and read about others' practice; they go on Historical Association CPD weekends and agonise over the best wording of questions on empire and imperialism in order to get the challenge for Martin just right. How do you construct a causal explanation in a non-anachronistic and sympathetic form? What kinds of visual or written sources might help Geoffrey see the difference between "evidence" and "information"? What traditions of scholarship must we understand if we introduce Year 7 to Islamic history?

This makes it all the more tragic that many of today's Martins and Geoffreys do not receive adequate time or specialist teaching. Many history departments have got used to just an hour a week at key stage 3. In some schools it is now only 50 minutes. Put that together with the unintended consequences of other policies and disaster looms. History has become patchy and superficial in many primary schools. At GCSE, history briefly became the most popular non-core option two years ago - a staggering achievement for a subject invariably viewed as "difficult" and one which bears out Ofsted's judgement that the quality of history teaching repeatedly outstrips other subjects. Yet still only a third of pupils take it, and no amount of popularity can now sustain it if yet more school managers prevent low-attaining pupils from taking subjects that might not grace league tables with a "C". Even this we are getting used to - and we shouldn't. Our European neighbours are shocked that we do not have all pupils studying history until 16. And here is a double tragedy, for European history teachers flock to this country to learn from our approaches to history teaching.

But it doesn't stop there. Some schools do a two-year KS3. So there are pupils in this country whose entire entitlement to specialist history across their school career could be as little as 50 minutes a week for just two years (even that may be taught by a non-specialist). And what if that goes too? If integrated humanities returns (there are rumours), some pupils may experience no specialist history in their entire schooling.

It takes time to learn to teach history well. Medieval medicine games are not just light-hearted fun. To plan a lesson sequence around such a game is to explore the conceptual structure of the discipline. It is a difficult and serious business. Martin and Geoffrey need serious history more than anyone. No teacher teaches just any old subject well. We teach our specialisms well, and this forms the best possible base for true cross-curricularity.

If you think your MP hasn't spotted the problem, write to him or her.

Emphasise that what the press bleats on about - too much Hitler at A-level or whatever - is irrelevant: it is easy to solve and affects a tiny proportion of students. Warn them instead about the situation for the majority. Focus on the bottom 50 per cent of the ability range. Emphasise the popularity of history with pupils and the achievement of history teachers. Ask if they think an hour a week for two years is enough. Ask if they are aware of the fragility of even that entitlement.

Christine Counsell is senior lecturer at Cambridge University's Faculty of Education. The topic of this article is among the themes she will cover in her keynote address entitled "Curiosity, sensibility and humility in the secondary school history classroom" at the Historical Association's centenary secondary conference in Bristol, March 4.

Email: alf.wilkinson@history.org.uk

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