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Learning to Teach History in the Secondary School


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Some views on the nature and purpose of teaching history in schools

One of the 'skills' which school history is supposed to develop is that of inferential judgement. As you have (presumably) studied history for more years than someone doing a science or languages degree, should you be better at making inferential judgements? Look at the quotes below and try to make an intelligent guess as to whether they were made by a) a politician, b) a historian, or c) an educationalist. Would history graduates (and those with a knowledge of history education) do better in this task than other graduates? And of what use is the ability to make 'good' inferential judgements? (See the quote by Van Oeck for an answer to this question, in 'Declaring a position' section).

1. To bring before the children the lives and work of English people who served God in Church and State, to show that they did this by courage, endurance and self-sacrifice, that as a result, the British Empire was founded and extended and that it behoved every child to emulate them.

2. The child should be brought to realise the solidarity of mankind and to have a feeling of community, indifferent to class or nation or race.

3. To use their reason as well as their memories, and to develop skills of analysis and criticism in a situation in which there cannot be a provably right answer.

4. History, properly taught, can help men to become critical and humane, just as wrongly taught it can turn them into bigots and fanatics.

5. History should be studied for its own sake and if we make it interesting we are doing all that is necessary.

6. We need more English history and not this non-existent history of ethnic entities and women.

7. It is obvious that you must have some history and some geography: you are not a complete person unless you have that general knowledge. You simply must know, roughly chronologically, how things happened, what their significance was and why.

8. If the country is to survive as a democracy it will depend on voters who understand how our political institutions have evolved and the events that went into their creation. A nation’s sense of its history is indistinguishable from its social cohesion.

9. History is concerned not with the conveying of facts but with the making of informed judgements, and to the display of the evidence on which those judgements are made.

10. As a tool to penetrate and deflate the hypocrisies of the modern world.

11. At best, school teaching in history can really only hope to do two things, to maintain a passionate interest in the past, and to create a willingness to think about the past as real.

12. History, well taught, is the demythologising of the past… Take any important issue of our time – Northern Ireland, Nuclear Disarmament, Race, The Welfare State, South Africa – and it becomes impossible to seriously confront any of them without understanding their historical background.

13. The historian’s insistence that the judgements of individuals and groups be based on evidence, and on constant opportunities to understand the predicaments and attitudes of other people. History helps its students living in an open society to decide between alternative attitudes, courses of action with some degree of knowledge, understanding and competence.

14. School history should help pupils understand how a free and democratic society has developed over the centuries, stressing Britain’s political constitutional and cultural heritage.

15. You can’t expect to learn everything but it’s important to know about key events in British history in order and some key international events. Children should have some idea of what people wore in the fourteenth century and what they did though not necessarily who all the kings and queens were.

16. The history class has a utilitarian function, for it is now designed to prepare students to live in a world of changing paradoxes. The teaching of history now requires a concern for behavioural objectives. To help ease social tensions, teachers of history are expected to concern themselves with the affective domain as well as with cognitive skills. The concern for behavioural, procedural, and substantive values leads teachers of history into regions they had formerly avoided in many of their classes.

17. One of the justifications given for teaching history is its role in the ‘orientation’ of pupils, hence concern that pupils might leave school ‘without an adequate mental map of those things which have led us to where we are now and without the wherewithal to form even a preliminary judgement on what was good or bad, glorious or inglorious.’

18 History will help to remedy intellectual faults such as excessive concentration on one line of thought, absence of understanding for other points of view, belief in simple solutions, lack of balance of mind, absence of an imaginative understanding.

19. They cannot play their full part in operating and improving the institutions of our society or in preserving, constructively criticising and adapting its values, unless they have a well developed sense of our national past. They need to have some feeling of the ebb and flow of events that have led to where we are, how our present political and social fabric and attitudes have their roots in the English Reformation, the Reform Bills, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Suffragette Movement, and how our national security, our place in the world, was shaped by Waterloo and El Alamein.

20. They are constantly confronted by persuasion from political parties, pressure groups, the media and advertisers. At 16 some will be members of a trades union; at 18 all will have the vote. Young people will be helped to cope with a bewildering world if they have some understanding of political and economic history, demonstrating the use and abuse of political power, the long-term effects of policies, and the complexity of cause and effect. But their effectiveness as citizens will depend above all on the crucial historical skill of assessing and evaluating the record of human behaviour.

21. A curriculum which must give young people a sense of purpose and an awareness of the potentialities for their lives when they will not be working. Whatever we feel about the future of unemployment, all young people are going to be living in a world where they will retire younger, work shorter working weeks, and enjoy longer holidays. If the curriculum as a whole, and history in particular, does not defend its contribution to the use of leisure in a powerful, convinced and publicly unapologetic way, it will have contributed to major social problems for which the tax-payer retrospectively may well justifiably criticise the school curriculum.

22. History teaches many useful skills – information gathering, problem solving, the public presentation of arguments and assessments. But that should be secondary to the broader objective of discovering how we were and how we got to where we are. It is not my aim to turn out tunnel-visioned computer operators concerned only about where their next Porsche is coming from. I seek to awaken in my students an open minded broad visioned humanity, informed by a love of learning, a love of ideas, a love of books, a love of argument and debate.

23. Thinking historically constantly demands the questions ‘What is it like to be someone else?’ and ‘How do I know this is true?’ These questions are assertions of intellectual independence. They do not encourage deference nor always give comfort. They are not likely to be welcomed in a closed or authoritarian society. Thinking historically is not only one manifestation of an open society, it is also one of the guarantors of its continued existence.

24. A subject that insists on the critical evaluation of evidence … and encourages the analysis of problems and the communication of ideas, not only contributes to pupils’ general education but develops skills and perceptions that increase the employability of young people.

25. It is only through knowledge of its history that a society can have knowledge of itself. As a man without memory and self-knowledge is a man adrift, so a society without memory (or more correctly without recollection) and self-knowledge would be a society adrift.

26. History teaching should teach pupils to understand the development of the shared values which are a distinctive feature of British society.

Answers: Who said what?

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