Why we teach at all

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Understanding History Teaching. By Chris Husbands, Alison Kitson and Anna Pendry. Open University Press, pound;18.99.

September 12, 2001, was a difficult day to be a history teacher.

At a time of great uncertainty, frightened children besieged our department, wanting to know what was happening, why it was happening, and what would happen next. This book opens by examining the kind of quandary this put us in. Should we have abandoned the curriculum and talked about it in class? How could we discuss events without imposing our own political agenda? Of course we did talk about it (as the authors note, history teachers talk about events of compelling significance every day) but after reading this book, it was the first time I reflected on my own reaction as a teacher to what had happened. That is the true value of this book. At a time when the status of the classroom teacher is increasingly questioned it is refreshing to read a book that celebrates and champions the knowledge and expertise that teachers bring to their role.The authors draw on extensive fieldwork in secondary schools focusing, in particular, on three teachers in very different schools. The three are likeable characters and their testimony reflects the reality of day-to-day teaching. Using teacher experience as its basis, the text covers issues such as the conflict between didactically active history and skills-based learning, the growth of outcome-led management and the double-edged sword that is citizenship.

It stresses the value of the many facets of teacher expertise - from subject knowledge to teaching after double PE on a windy day. Most importantly, it also gives us food for thought on the question of why we teach history at all. Is it the cornerstone of political literacy or should we just do it because we enjoy it?

Just as they say "youth is wasted on the young", the chance to read research and reflect on one's own practice is too often confined to those studying for PGCE. It has been 10 years since my training and much has changed since those days of weekly curriculum changes and, as Christine Counsell puts it: death by sources A to F". We now face new challenges.

This book doesn't give answers to problems faced by today's history teachers beyond asserting that people like me need the time to read books like this, but that's the point. It has encouraged me to think not only "Why am I teaching this?" but also why I teach the way I do and how, even after 10 years, I can get better.

Becky Hewlitt

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