Teaching History

Christine Counsell robustly defends the teaching of history in secondary schools, arguing that press attacks on ‘trendy’ teaching are ill-informed and out-of-date.

The tone and the theme are familiar staples of the diet of Daily Mail readers: the newspaper’s devotees no doubt obligingly tut-tutted in disapproval:

In the old days, O-Level candidates would have had to discuss the grievances behind the 1381 Peasants Revolt. [Now] GCSE courses just encourage pupils to empathise with one of the spear carriers. (Richard Thorpe in the Daily Mail, 28th August, 1998).

The author was comparing the history syllabus for the old 16+ public examination – the GCSE. The comment is typical of attacks on the so-called ‘new history’ – those changes in classroom practice which began to transform history teaching over twenty-five years ago.

More than any other school subject, history is subjected to mischievous, sensationalist and often wholly inaccurate reporting in the press. Right and left, ‘traditionalist’ or ‘progressive’ are quick to enlist any out-of-context example as an endorsement for their own ideological position. One rarely finds a serious, balanced attempt to find out what the very best secondary history teachers have been doing.

Thorpe’s comments mislead in two ways. First, the old O-Level never encouraged anyone to ‘discuss’ anything. Mindless regurgitation could easily gain top grades. As for ‘empathising’, this was removed from the GCSE examination in 1992. It has never figured in the National Curriculum at all. ‘Empathy’ is not a proper area for assessment for it encourages the abuses which Thorpe rightly derides. History teachers jokingly call it, ‘Imagine you’re a badger’ history. Weak use of ‘empathy’ was a 1970s development. We are twenty years beyond it. The examination boards certainly do not sanction it.

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