Friday, 22 February 2013

My thoughts on the History Curriculum part 2: This island Earth.


'Et tu, Starkey?'

This is how the draft History curriculum describes its first few aims:


·         know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world
·         know and understand British history as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the story of the first settlers in these islands to the development of the institutions which govern our lives today
·         know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires; the achievements and follies of mankind


That last bit is my favourite: the achievements and follies of mankind. Let me only sketch a curriculum from my life and I'll fashion you a puppet theatre of follies that would chill your kidneys.

Key Stage 1 is brief and broad enough. I've heard complaints that this curriculum is too packed. Yet within the sketch of the draft document I see no references to exactly how much time should be spent on each topic, nor the depth. 'We'll never cover it all,' I hear people say. Well, I teach KS3, and I have a non-statutory curriculum too.  You pick the depth to which you want to descend, and calculate the time in which you want to achieve it. Curricular design isn't a Meccano set; it's more like an Etch-a-sketch. By the time you hit KS4, there are so many checkpoints to reach that it feels as edgy and spontaneous as a join-the-dots picture, but prior to that, there is a fluidity that can be unlocked.

'Not tonight, (Keith) Jospehine.' Sorry.
In all of the three key stages described there are dozens of points where a globally minded teacher could freestyle off into the world at large: 'key events in the past' (KS1) could touch on Christmas, pilgrims and faiths of foreign origin; the Crusades (KS2) easily encompass the Middle East, the Muslim empires, the rise of Kevin Costner; the Norman Conquest (KS2) could- and I'm sticking my neck out here- touch on France, feudalism, and mainland Europe and its relationship to these islands. Most teachers I know could invent such points of intersection in a heart beat. It might be telling that some of the complaints I have heard are from people who have never taught a lesson, let alone a history lesson.

I teach, at KS3 and 4, RS. I follow a syllabus like Miles Davis follows scales; it provides the notes, and I provide the music. At times I soar away from the sheet music, but I always return to the melody. And by the time exams come around, my students all know the tune plus any riffs and licks I wove into the sequence. So while I deliver, dutifully, the required 'Big 6' religions in year 7, for example, I also drive off the map into lessons on Rastafarianism, conspiracy theories, Wicca, Scientology....whatever brings the best of what I know to them. Sometimes I ask what they'd like to learn, and if I like it as much, that's what we learn about.

The curriculum shouldn't be a straitjacket. It should be a climbing frame; a launch pad. With thought and preparation, it can be. Anyone who has a problem with the idea of a democratically elected body (namely, the government) creating structure for the course, surely needs to take their issues up with the concept of democracy. Besides, there is so much a teacher can do with a syllabus, any syllabus. It's up to us, as professionals, to take the opportunity and revisit what it means to be a teacher. We can be much more powerful, although God knows we have dragged the chains of high stakes accountability around with us for decades. No wonder we often lose the instinct for innovation within our own subjects.

If only the Carry-On team had more input into the NC
And for those who say this is a dead white man History, I say, a) you got a problem with dead white men? and b) The KS3 syllabus is bristling with opportunity to explore social emancipation, suffrage, and the recognition of the rights and liberties of the oppressed. I wonder if I'm looking at the same syllabus as some people. If there's a strong emphasis on eg the British Empire, then that's because the British Empire was enormously significant, and the ripples it generated still rock the water upon which we rest. And if you want a lens through which to examine the world, the Empire provides the perfect vehicle. This isn't about getting kids to button up their tunics and strike up a chorus of Men of Harlech; this can simultaneously be Michael Caines Zulu as much as Dabulamanzi kaMpande's.

As to the expertise of the Cassandras, I can only say that education is a battlefield of values as much as one of fact and expertise. There are some who believe that facts are less relevant in a Google age, when children can summon them from their smart phones like wraiths, proving that skills of critical thinking and discernment are more portable, more relevant to a new age.

And then there are teachers like me, who think this is well-meant flower pressing. That children don't know what facts to conjure if they don't know what they are in the first place; that knowledge becomes memorisation without context and understanding; that there are an enormous number of people in the field of education who wish subsequent generations of children to be deprived of the obvious benefits of the quality of instruction that they themselves enjoyed.

It is also ironic that, after so many centuries of teachers, we need to remind ourselves what teaching really involves, and why learning from history is important. Civilisations, like interest rates, can go up as well as down. Ask Gibbon.

6 comments:

  1. It's all very well pointing out that the curriculum leaves room for teachers to go "off piste", but that is not the issue at KS1/2 - or probably KS3 for that matter. The issue is more about time, and suitability.
    Firstly, at present in KS2 most children will study a single key period each year in depth - Victorians, Tudors, etc. In the new draft they will each need to cover 400-500 years of History in each period. Most primary schools struggle to find room for an hour a week of History. That time simply doesn't allow the sort of freedom you suggest - and the lack of specialist expertise of those teachers in those periods doesn't allow that to be achieved easily either.
    More to the point, there is much that is simply not suited to the age at which it is being covered. Have you ever tried to explain a concept to a 6-year-old? Imagine then trying to explain the concepts of democracy, monarchy or warfare. These are key issues in History, but will offer little by way of knowledge or conceptual understanding to the average KS2 child.
    Mr Gove wants us to believe that by focusing on what he considers "core" content he has left much freedom; the reality of the classroom is very different!

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  2. Tom I agee with your points but there is just too much to cover. Any history teacher knows getting through that will mean no time for any depth or developing understading. Imagine the amount you had to cover in RS was tripled...

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  3. "It might be telling that some of the complaints I have heard are from people who have never taught a lesson, let alone a history lesson"

    Honestly? Well you must have had your head in your waste bin for the last two weeks as you clearly haven't done much reading on the subject. May I introduce you to our facebook site with numerous posts, blogs and articles all in opposition to the proposals, which are all written by serving teachers from every stage? http://www.facebook.com/saveschoolhistory.

    "And then there are teachers like me, who think this is well-meant flower pressing" oh dear oh dear, I can't begin to describe how offensive this is to the thousands of us who strive daily to teach the subject in a way applicable to a variety of learning styles and needs. Namely by scraping dead words and personalities from dry and dusty lists of dates and facts they could easily appear to be were it not for our devoted translation into a learning experience the pupils might actually enjoy. Teachers like you? No thank you.

    And one last thing ..

    "(KS2) could- and I'm sticking my neck out here- touch on France, feudalism, and mainland Europe and its relationship to these islands."
    You're damn right you're sticking your neck out. Keep to your own stage key mate because you clearly have no idea whatsoever about the suitability of the content to match a primary pupil's needs.

    There, I'm done.

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  4. KS2 children can't understand democracy? I'm only half way through my morning coffee so in absence of a finely tuned response to that you'll have to be content with WTF??! Says who?

    I've worked with KS1 and 2 for the past 5 years and have happily grappled with the idea of democracy (and enacted it with various votes and debates) and monarchy, warfare and much else besides.
    Regardless to content of post, some of the comments above would seem to suggest there IS an issue with low expectations in teachers - both with regards to their students and themselves.

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  5. Bit late I know, but just read this. I think it might be useful to compare history here to RE; you may go off piste but how many agreed syllabus would only focus on Christianity? Would choose to construct a KS2/3 that begins with Genesis and moves through seamlessly from the Old T at 2 to the New at 3 finishing with St John the Divine? I think many RE teachers would argue that despite the UK's Christian heritage this would be a narrow (and somewhat impoverished?) curriculum; the fact that you can teach Buddism etc if you have time doesn't help if you are given so much to study in the time you have that the Off Piste skiing becomes impossible to fit in.
    Are some of the concepts in both the Old and New more suited to older pupils? Would you as their teacher like to make that pedagogical decision based on your training, your degree and your knowledge of the class?
    Knowledge vs skills is a silly debate; they are both diminished and valueless in isolation. Forget this dichotomy; knowledge and skills is what we should be, and I would argue in History are doing (read History for All: Ofsted). I have seen more history lessons in more schools than I can count, I have taught in and led three departments; I have yet to find one that believes that content is irrelevant to our subject; it's just that this, especially at KS2, will be verging on the unteachable; (mixed year classes for a start might cramp our ability to each sequentially!).

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