Trapped in the Dark Ages

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Sydney Wood warns that few trainee primary teachers have a sure knowledge of history. Knowledge and understanding of history and of important historical topics matter for today's primary teachers. The environmental studies guidelines for the 5-14 programme set out criteria for history under the heading of understanding people in the past. They include requirements that are designed to prevent either needless duplication of topics or the implementation of a curriculum that is narrowly focused in time span and in geographical context.

The five prescribed key features of history mean that those teaching it need to have a clear grasp of the subject's nature and of the great variety of source materials from which an understanding of the past is derived. Since nearly two-thirds of pupils abandon the subject at the end of secondary 2, the seven years of primary schooling occupy a position of vital importance in developing pupils' historical knowledge and understanding. Nor can primary teachers safely confine their interest to just one topic.

The guidelines ask for the development of a sense of the past through the placing of any topic in relation to others and through comparisons between the lives lived by peoples of different times. Moreover it is at least arguable that so influential a figure as a primary teacher ought to be broadly educated and able to engage in discussions that are properly informed by an understanding of key people, events and circumstances in the past.

Factors like these led to a decision to gather information about the historical knowledge of trainee primary teachers together with insights into their attitudes to the subject. In May 1995, a questionnaire was designed and administered to 89 BEd1 and 57 BEd4 students at Northern College in circumstances that prevented them from researching the answers. These students were overwhelmingly female (83 per cent in BEd1 and 91 per cent in BEd4) and predominantly from the 17 to 22 age-group (70 per cent in BEd1 and 68 per cent in BEd4) rather than from an older age range.

More than a third of the BEd1 students and nearly half the BEd4 students had chosen to pursue history at school beyond secondary 2, indeed nearly a third of each year group had gone on to take history at Higher level.

The questionnaire aimed to gather information on students' knowledge of the past together with insights into their attitudes to the importance of history. Gathering data about knowledge through a brief list of questions inevitably leads to an arbitrary selection of items: a list of dates, a list of names, a list of concepts. Such a selection is obviously open to criticism, but it does afford a glimpse into where students are and whether the experience of the course made a difference.

This attempt to probe students' knowledge revealed historical ignorance of considerable dimensions and failed to clearly show that having studied history at school beyond secondary 2 made a noticeable difference. Students were asked the significance of 10 dates. Both BEd years found 1914 and 1939 by far the easiest to deal with, achieving a success level of 86 per cent (BEd1) and 95 per cent (BEd4).

The year 685 bemused everyone and they did little better with 1870. Between BEd1 and BEd4, there were noticeable differences in their ability to cope with the years 1314, 1603 and 1707. Unacceptable answers fell from 74 per cent, 98 per cent and 97 per cent for the three dates respectively in BEd1 responses, to 46 per cent, 58 per cent and 46 per cent at BEd4 level. Despite the Auld Alliance, 1789 meant nothing to 97 per cent of BEd1 students and 75 per cent of BEd4 students. AD43 proved equally baffling, but they fared better with 1492 (79 per cent and 53 per cent failure rates).

Students were also presented with a list of 10 names that they were asked to connect to a relevant event or situation. They were least troubled by Stalin (a total failure level of 42 per cent and 19 per cent), Washington (42 per cent and 26 per cent) and Mussolini (53 per cent and 26 per cent total failures), although it has to be admitted that very vague answers were allowed credit here. Only one BEd1 student and three BEd4 students knew who Cortes was and just 9 per cent BEd1 and 16 per cent of BEd4s identified Robespierre.

Bonaparte meant nothing to 56 per cent of BEd1 and 28 per cent of BEd4s while Bismarck was a mystery figure to nearly 90 per cent of both years. Surprisingly, perhaps, James Watt was associated with steam power by only 6 per cent of BEd1s and 33 per cent of BEd4s: the bulk of those responding linked him to the development of electricity, especially the light bulb.

Finally the students were confronted by a list of concepts they were asked to define. "Despotism" meant nothing to 93 per cent of BEd1s and 75 per cent BEd4s: imperialism was even less familiar: 95 per cent of BEd1s and 88 per cent of BEd4s failed to explain it, while "Economic Revolution", "Religious Reformation" and "Renaissance" were only marginally better known. Students coped best with "left-wing politics" (adequately described by 37 per cent of BEd1s and 56 per cent of BEds) and "prehistoric", clearly explained by 22 per cent and 38 per cent respectively.

Throughout the responses there was no sign of a deterioration of knowledge between the years and a good deal of evidence of a noticeable improvement. Teacher training courses do not set out historical knowledge acquisition as a significant aim, but through the contexts used to explore learning and teaching strategies, through topics encountered on school placements, and through optional courses (especially on Scottish studies) students do seem to improve.

Greater maturity, of course could well make an important contribution. The questions designed to investigate students' attitudes to history showed that they were well disposed towards the subject, had not been put off by their own primary or secondary school experiences and if they abandoned the subject did so mainly because they were forced to make a choice. Sixteen per cent of BEd1s, however, felt it was not a useful subject and another 16 per cent were deterred from pursuing it beyond secondary 2 because it was not well taught. More than 60 per cent of both years indicated their interest in visiting historic sites and watching historical films and television programmes.

Reading history, however, attracted lower numbers: 42 per cent of BEd1s and 54 per cent of BEd4s. When asked if they considered history to be boring, 79 per cent of BEd1s and 90 per cent of BEd4s emphatically rejected the idea. Moreover both years overwhelmingly agreed that it was important for children to study history (88 per cent and 93 per cent) and that historical knowledge is essential for understanding the world today (78 per cent and 75 per cent).

Primary teachers are required to implement a full and varied curriculum. They cannot expect to be experts in every area. Teacher training courses must prepare students for teaching from nursery stage to primary 7 and much of the time must go on practical experience in schools. History has traditionally occupied a lowly position on the school timetable and the evidence here may well reflect this. Although this limited evidence indicates that students make progress between BEd1 and BEd4, the levels reached cannot be said to show an impressive standard of historical knowledge. The question is whether it really matters.

Sydney Wood is lecturer in history at Northern College, Aberdeen.

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