Teachers Telling Tales

Richard Kennett calls on his fellow history teachers to embrace narrative. There is no better way to inspire the historians of the future.

The Bayeux Tapestry is both a rich source and a riveting account of the events of 1066If you have read anything about the proposed new English and Welsh history curriculum you will have noticed that, according to politicians, academics and journalists, school history teachers do not teach facts. We avoid knowledge as if it were the plague. Dates, names and statistics repulse us. All we do is teach – and critics utter the next word as if it were an obscenity – ‘skills’. We have comme nts to prove it from the Education Secretary Michael Gove, Claire Fox of Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, the best-selling historian Antony Beevor and others.

Yet all this is far from the truth. The majority of history teachers became history teachers because we love our subject. We love facts as much as Gove and Fox and Beevor do and most of us strive to find engaging and challenging ways to present historical material so that our students walk away from our lessons with a developed understanding of the past.

However, in my experience the one thing that history teachers – and I point my finger at the secondary sector – are scared of is storytelling and this seems a deep shame.

History is the story of the past. A large, complicated and fascinating story. A story the best historians tell us in narrative form. Think about who your favourite historian is? Is it the person who produced original research from an obscure source or the person who can stand in front of a crowd or writes a book that spins a yarn that enthralls everyone? The most influential historians at both my school and university were storytellers. Due to Mr Russell and Mr Clompus’ influence I can still tell you the narrative of 1066 in considerable detail. From university, Professor Ronald Hutton is still esteemed in my eyes because of the way he could tell a story about the Civil War or witchcraft or a dozen other topics. It is also pretty clear that the wider public think this way, too, with Hilary Mantel’s historical fiction topping bestseller lists.

Yet narrative at school is often a dirty word. It is seen as a low-level skill or the domain of a teacher-dominated lesson. As teachers we scrawl ‘only narrative’ or ‘stop telling the story’ in the margins of essays as if this was an insult to history. Many fear the idea of standing in front of a class and just telling the story of the past as this isn’t the magic ‘independent learning’ that OFSTED, the education watchdog, wants to see, where teachers are facilitators to learning.

Ultimately this way of thinking is regrettable, as narrative is a fundamental part of history and, more importantly, if we all embraced it a little more it would have a positive impact on the learning of our students.

Primarily it can have a huge effect on engagement. Children love a story and what makes history great is that these are stories that actually happened. Tell your students about the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170. Four knights entering Canterbury Cathedral and lopping off the head of an archbishop. What more could you ask for to grab the attention of a class? OFSTED have a point that lessons shouldn’t all be ‘teacher talk’ but this doesn’t mean that part of your lesson can’t be. Teachers should try it. Tell a story and watch it grab your pupils’ attention.

I don’t think that the only thing students should learn is the story. Ultimately I want my students to go on to tackle the higher order analysis of causality or significance or interpretation. But history teachers occasionally forget that this thinking can only take place once you know the story. To consider why the Soviets were victorious during the Second World War students must know the narrative of the conflict. This seems obvious yet all too often teachers move on too quickly to the higher order before students have a grasp of the narrative, the building block to this higher goal.

Finally narrative creation in itself is a challenging skill. Most popular history books are essentially narrative. The recent, and in my opinion, brilliant Second World War by Antony Beevor is a straight narrative of the war. Is this low-level history? Not in any way. Beevor had to consider what to include, what to leave out, how to make it appealing or interesting to the reader. This is difficult. Seán Lang of the Better History campaign has long stressed this point but all too often history teachers are frightened off activities where narrative creation is the central focus.

History teachers need to remember why we came to the subject. I would be shocked if it wasn’t our love of story. So let’s embrace it and continue to inspire the next generation.

Richard Kennett teaches at Redland Green School, Bristol and contributes to BBC Radio 4’s Making History.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X