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the teaching of history in secondary schools, arguing that press attacks on ‘trendy’ teaching are ill-informed and out-of-date.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

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