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Object of mockery: Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Napoleon 

When Winston Churchill appointed R.A. Butler as the president of the Board of Education in 1941, he advised him: "I should not object if you could introduce a note of patriotism in our schools. Tell the children that Wolfe won Quebec." Butler believed it would be too autocratic to dictate to schools what lessons they should teach, and it was not until 1988 that Kenneth Baker imposed a national curriculum on Britain's state schools. 

Since the arrival of the national curriculum, public debate on school history has focused almost exclusively on what topics should be taught, namely whether the emphasis should be on British or world history. This debate has been fuelled by a steady stream of surveys revealing the ignorance of today's school-leavers. One commissioned last summer by Lord Ashcroft found that while 92 per cent of 11- to 18-year-olds could identify the animated dog from the car insurance advertisements as Churchill, only 62 per cent could identify a photograph of Britain's wartime prime minister. Fewer than half knew that the Battle of Britain took place in the sky. 

However, having become a history teacher at a state secondary school two years ago, I have realised that such debates miss the real problem. I was surprised to learn that since its inception the national curriculum has stipulated a sensible split of British and world history: every pupil between the ages of 11 and 14 is expected to study a chronological sweep of British history from 1066 to the present day. To understand the degradation of history teaching, one has to focus not on what history is taught, but how it is taught. 

I was inspired to become a teacher by a desire to emulate two history teachers I was fortunate enough to have at school. They loved history, liked children, and had a gift for communication. But once I embarked on my teacher training, everything I was told about good practice opposed such a vision. Apparently, such teaching is old-fashioned. I was quickly accused of having a tendency towards "didacticism", a cardinal sin in today's state sector. 

This was my first introduction to the progressive ideas of child-centred education. It is hard to overestimate the extent to which such ideas now dominate in our state schools. An organisation established at Leeds University in 1972 called the Schools History Project (SHP) has done untold damage to the teaching of history. The SHP was formed with the belief that history should be used to transmit "attitudes and abilities rather than the memorisation of facts". Classrooms should "create an active learning situation for the pupil, rather than those which cast the teacher in the role of transmitter of information". This conception of the subject was dubbed "New History"an oxymoronic moniker apparently lost on the SHP. Since its formation, the SHP's philosophy has influenced everything from the national curriculum to teacher training, textbooks and GCSE examinations. 

The main tenet of a child-centred view of history teaching is the idea that pupils should not be "passive" recipients of a teacher's knowledge, but "active" individuals empowered to find things out for themselves. As a result, "chalk and talk" teaching from the front is heavily discouraged. After a senior member of staff observed one of my lessons, I was told that my role was to be the "guide on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage". 

Instead of learning through listening to teachers or reading books, pupils are expected to do so through projects. It did not take me long to work out why pupils are so ignorant of British history, despite spending over a year studying it (as laid down by the national curriculum). To study the Norman Conquest, pupils would re-enact the Battle of Hastings in the playground, conduct a classroom survey to create their own Domesday Book, and make motte-and-bailey castles out of cereal boxes. Medieval England would be studied through acting out the death of Thomas Becket, and creating a boardgame to cover life as a medieval peasant. For the Industrial Revolution, pupils pitched inventions to Dragons' Den and lessons on the British Empire culminated in the design of a commemorative plate showing whether it was or was not a "force for good".  

Such tasks allow pupils to learn about history in an enjoyable and engaging wayor so the theory goes. In reality, all content and understanding of the past is sucked out, and the classroom begins to resemble the playground. An unfortunate side-effect is that pupils are frequently confused by the inevitable anachronisms involved in making history "relevant". "Sir, how many Victorians would have had a TV?" I was asked. Imaginative tasks and projects can be excellent supplements to a history lesson, but when they become the mainstay of classroom activity, the consequences are disastrous.

Proponents of child-centred education are impervious to such criticism because progressive teachers have long denied the importance of knowledge in the first place. Instead, skills are seen as paramount. When I first visited my current school, the assistant head asked me how I intended to prepare for my new career. I responded that I was going to spend a few weeks boning up on my general historical knowledge. "I wouldn't worry about that," she said. "History is a skills-based curriculum. You should really be able to teach it without knowing anything at all." 

In the case of history, the main skill we teach is "source analysis". In line with the SHP's recasting of history during the 1970s, pupils are now taught to become junior historians, building their own knowledge of the past through the first-hand study of historical evidence. According to the soon-to-be-revised national curriculum, history should teach "key processes" such as the ability to "identify, select and use a range of historical sources" or "evaluate the sources used in order to reach reasoned conclusions". Bemused parents have frequently asked me why their child is being taught to be a historian instead of being taught history. This is why. 

Progressive educators tend to cast skills and knowledge as a dichotomy, when in reality they are a sequence, and knowledge must come first. Trying to exercise historical skills such as source analysis or understanding causation without a solid grounding in a historical topic is impossible. It is like trying to run before you can walk. Pupils find the whole process frustrating and confusing. 

This became clear to me when I taught a class of 13-year-olds about Napoleon. Still under the baleful influence of my training, I started the lesson by showing them a source-Jacques-Louis David's famous painting Napoleon in his Study. I then asked them to infer from this source what sort of man Napoleon was. The class fell about laughing at his effete stance and tight trousers, and repeatedly inferred that he must be gay. I angrily explained that he enjoyed a particularly passionate marriage to a lady called Josephine, and asked them to infer something else. There was a pause. "You must admit, he does look pretty camp," came the next response. 

My pupils could not take an interest in Napoleon because they did not know his story. With minimal context offered, one of the greatest figures of modern European history appeared to them as remote and risible. I decided that for the next lesson I would photocopy "The Last Conqueror", a chapter on Napoleon in Ernst Gombrich's A Little History of the World. We read it as a class, and they were fascinated: "How could so many French soldiers die retreating from Russia? . . . How was Napoleon allowed to give his brothers whole countries to rule? . . . Why were the English allied with the Germans at Waterloo?" Facts are easily derided, but facts are what make history come alive. Only when pupils become interested in them will the skills begin to emerge.

Sadly, most of the skills that are taught today are entirely bogus anyway. As Robert Tombs , professor of history at St John's College, Cambridge, wrote in a recent report for the think-tank Politeia, "The ‘skills' required are often hollow and mean little to those forced to acquire or indeed teach them." Worst of all, the GCSE examination questions designed to test these meaningless skills lead to the worst kind of teaching to the test. Generations of 16-year-olds are being taught that the most important thing to know about history is how to parrot the phrase, "this source is biased because . . . "

There is another more ideological justification for history as "source analysis". Our history classrooms are hobbled by a radical relativism which states that no one historical account should be given predominance over another. Instead of narrative textbooks, most school history books are now made up of bitty excerpts from primary sources-a photograph here, a heavily-doctored diary entry there. It is claimed that through investigating this primary evidence for themselves, pupils are empowered to construct their own version of the past. 

Of course, the very process of selecting the evidence automatically renders it subjective. The GCSE syllabus I teach (designed by the SHP) is a perfect example of this: our 2,000-year study of Medicine Through Time is a teleological narrative of the triumph of science over religion, culminating with the crowning glory of the NHS; our in-depth study of the American West is a story of European racial genocide against the peace-loving Native Americans; and for our study of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the textbook ignores the IRA's mainland bombing campaign. The result is doubly duplicitous. Pupils are told they are constructing their own historical narratives, while simultaneously being fed the soft-left worldview of the educators who put together the textbooks. 

Today, traditional history lessons are invariably seen as boring, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Have you ever heard someone reminisce about an inspiring history teacher who was a "guide on the side"? Great history teachers draw upon a passion for and knowledge of the subject to tell stories, explain ideas and bring the past alive. They do not have to rely on nonsense "learning activities" to make the subject engaging, for discussing the story of humankind is interesting in its own right. In short, they teach from the front. 

A pupil from a 1950s grammar school interviewed for David Cannadine's recent book The Right Kind of History sums up what this kind of teacher can achieve. "We sat in rows, facing the teacher . . . kept quiet, listened, asked questions. We had textbooks and homework and, I think, weekly informal tests." Today, such a teacher would be derided, but the pupil remembers this teacher as "fantastic". She "had a good degree and loved her subject [and] made lessons fun and interesting". Chalk-and-talk teaching does not make history boring. It is the anti-teaching, anti-narrative and anti-knowledge dogmas within state education that make history boring. Less than a third of today's schoolchildren (the beneficiaries of New History) choose to study the subject for GCSE. This is fewer than those who chose to study the considerably more challenging history O-level or CSE exams 30 years ago. 

Most members of the public are unaware of how debased the teaching of history has become. For this reason, the significance of Michael Gove's reforms is frequently misunderstood, and they are repeatedly parodied as rote learning the kings and queens of England. Gove is an intelligent man and he should be given more credit than this. He is the first Secretary of State for Education to have really taken on the insidious ideologies that distort modern classroom practice. But how can he overcome them? 

Draft programmes for the new national curriculum for history expected early this year will lay out in detail which historical topics pupils should study when, but this is not the answer. Quite apart from academies and free schools (now the majority in secondary education) being exempt from the national curriculum, the choice of topics has never been the fundamental problem. While I believe that a chronological study of British history, followed by forays into global history, is the best model, I am happy to accept that studying history from a global perspective can provide a first-class secondary education. Whether or not all pupils learn that Wolfe won Quebec will always be a political issue and is perhaps not for the government to dictate. The replacement of the history GCSE, due in 2015, is a more promising development. A knowledge-driven exam should give teachers a significant nudge to change their ways. However, what needs to change above all else is the received wisdom on what makes a good history teacher. A whole generation of child-centred teachers will have to be retrained or retire before this can happen. Only then will we stand a chance of producing school-leavers who can identify Winston Churchill—or even General James Wolfe. 

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David Mercer
October 13th, 2013
4:10 PM
The Students' Prayer- dedicated to Michael Gove. Our father, who art in Westminster, Hallowed by thy name. Thy whips will come, thy laws be done In Schools as it is in Westminster. Give us this day our daily key processes As we forgive those who lecture against us. Lead us not into didacticism But deliver us from experts For the sources, the power and the future are ours Forever and ever, Amen.

June 13th, 2013
1:06 PM
The comments from "Dan" and "Shaun" - especially the contemptuous terms in which they are couched- simply illustrate how very far we are from defeating the Blob and its defense of the unacceptable status quo, which appears to be regarded as Holy Writ by the NUT and ed-school types. "God forbid we teach them analytical thinking"! One has to have grist before one can grind- what sort of useful analysis do you think children (or adults) can perform without facts to analyze, or a factual context for a frame of reference? How do you expect them to determine if and in what way Macaulay may have been biased if they haven't the least idea what a Whig was? "Old-fashioned" blah blah blah- oh, yes, the invocation of the Great God Progress, as if change for the worse can't and hasn't happened, often. How horrified these folk seem to be at going "backwards" to a time when British pupils received decent educations! Do stop trying to defend the current pedagogical fashion: it is a *failure.* It is wretched, bad, unacceptable, not fit for purpose.

February 17th, 2013
2:02 AM
This week I presented some of my most able sixth form history students with a copy of the new curriculum and asked them for their thoughts. After a few minutes of silent intrigue the first hand shot up with a question; 'Sir, can I do anything to help stop this?' In my short time within the education profession I have certainly never known anything as contentious as the proposed National Curriculum. The problem with the document is each and every flaw is so blindingly obvious. Firstly, my sixth formers were quick to point out the narrow focus on white, male British history. Diversity should be at the heart of any good curriculum; otherwise the richness of the subject is simply lost. Secondly, the topics are often dull. The choices of topics like the Corn Laws reflect the work of individuals who have clearly never taught Year 7 on a Friday afternoon. Thirdly, the reliance on primary school history teaching to suddenly transform overnight is an incredible oversight. I would struggle badly to teach 8 year olds the complexities of rule in post-conquest Britain within 1 hour; so good luck to the primary practitioner who lacks a degree in history and has only Wikipedia to rely on. Fourthly, the prescriptive curriculum is so vast the only produce will be a watered down romp through time. It will lead to students who will excel on pub quiz nights, but lack the analytical skills which can only be developed by an in-depth examination of a historical topic. With year 9 I spend 6 weeks on the causes of World War 1 alone; this curriculum sanctions it an hour at best. That isn't to say history teaching in this country is perfect and the Historical Association and other bodies need to accept this. As far as I can see Gove's curriculum has been brought in to right two wrongs; a poor diet at primary school and a lack of chronological understanding in secondary students. These issues are real, but the curriculum is attempting to crack these nuts by destroying all the good of the skills based curriculum which saved my subject. So how do we solve these problems? The first step should be enforcing more time on the subject at primary level and proving better training to primary practitioners. The second step should be prescribing a few key broad topics of British history, but with a means to avoiding a straightjacketing the subject. One page, as opposed to six pages. This would allow practitioners to decide upon the more diverse elements based on their own expertise and interests. The third step should be enlisting the help of the academic historical community to support us. I can't help but think Mr. Ferguson's time would be better spent creating free resources for use in the classroom rather than sniping from the sidelines in national newspapers. For those academic historians who do care I challenge you to do more to help us here. It is travesty my sixth formers can't explore topics fully when it comes to their independent coursework due to their financial background. Forget writing textbooks, just make your journal articles freely available for students or write simplified versions for younger years. Finally, rewrite the GCSE curriculum. It is an inadequate bridge to A-level which curtails the development of extended writing based skills from Key Stage 3. Ultimately, the people who count are my sixth formers and students across the country. They deserve better than both the current curriculum and the proposed curriculum. The question is will they ever get it? The worrying account of Steve Mastin, detailing that the latest draft curriculum bares no resemblance to the suggested version proposed by his advisory party, hints that the answer is no. Mr. Gove seems a man on a set course. I have my fingers crossed that his ship either tacks sharply or sinks without trace into the blue. In the mean time I'll get on with my job. Dan Townsend, Teacher of History, The Highfield School, Letchworth

Darren Birchall
February 16th, 2013
6:02 PM
An at best weak and at worst hilarious defence of 1970s teaching methods. Good luck with engendering any real depth of learning in your mute charges and with your next Ofsted inspection with your dated and frequently disproved methods, and may God help the pupil who asks a question in one of your 'presentations' (sorry, find it hard to call it 'teaching'). Tell you what - let's stand your two years of presenting to naughty school kids up against the vast collective years of vibrant and inspiring history teaching amassed by every person who has opposed this archaic and politically motivated excuse for a revised curriculum, and we will soon see who endures. In addition, the slim possibility that a new teacher would read this and actually decide to follow your suede elbow-patched mantra makes me want to weep for their lost souls. By God if this was the Crimean war you'd have your sword snapped in half and be thrown out to swim back to jolly old England for gross misconduct.

History teacher
February 16th, 2013
5:02 PM
If you are only in your second year of teaching as your article suggests, that may help to explain your view. Perhaps you should reconsider the school you work in or the way your department teaches. In my department, we do occasionally (once a year) give the pupils a project a little like the ones you describe - although much more rigorous and research based. However, we also do much more research, wider reading and essay writing than any other department in the school. I really would question the teaching methods if you have pupils asking about Victorian televisions.

Ian Phillips
February 16th, 2013
12:02 PM
An interesting but inept overview of the current state of history teaching; it is also characterised by an odd view of history as an academic discipline, not sure what the history dept at your old university would think about the cavalier way you selectively fit your sources to your argument. For example the quote from Cannadine about the 'teachers' talk and pupils learn' model of instruction. Who was describing this experience - was it perhaps a history teacher? And they were describing history being taugh in what kind of school - a selective grammar for example? and writing about a supposed golden age perhaps - in the 1960s? As a historian you ought to know that these contexts are important. As I said with such disregard for historical method: fitting sources around the argument, one might almost assume that you are a marxist - except....... I would have hoped that someone so new to history teaching would at least have an open mind but life isn't perfect. Still it's not every recently qualified history teacher who can rightfully claim that Nail Ferguson has plagiarised one of his blogs.

February 8th, 2013
5:02 AM
Hi. Read this article in the Financial Review this morning. I found it very interesting and agree that when you speak to young people about the past, history is fast becoming history. Eric Hobsbawn once said he gets intelligent uni students asking him: You call it the Second World War: does that mean there was a First World War? What I was thinking when I read about your students' reaction to the Napoleon portrait, however, is that I would not have reacted to their laughter with anger. It was their honest response, and let's face it, Bonaparte does look pretty camp and faintly ridiculous in those pants and in that pose. As a teacher, I think I would have had a laugh with them and agreed that yes, fashions have changed since then. (Thank goodness) I would also have said that the man was in many was arrogant, self-promoting, and risible. Perhaps many of his contemporaries also laughed at the painting. Whatever else you believe about Napoleon, it pays, I think, never to take men like him as seriously as they took themselves. Charismatic leaders are, after all, usually responsible for the worst acts of aggression and violence. So anyway, just saying, I think it is important not to teach history in the old empiricist style of people like Leopold von Ranke. I would have got my students to find some other portraits of Napoleon and discuss what different responses they might have to them, and I believe some very fruitful ideas would begin to emerge. Maybe I would not have made a good history field is literature....but I do think the responses of today's students need to be respected, as they are products of a world very different from the one we grew up in. Which is not to say their ideas should not be challenged, just that it's good to begin from a point of mutual respect and understanding. Cheers, Chris.

January 14th, 2013
4:01 PM
I think many of the points in thi article are a little out-dated. In the last few years I have seen plenty of evidence of rigorous historical teaching taking place. Read an issue of the Teaching History magazine. People like Christine Counsell, Ian Dawson, Dale Banham are out front in pushing forward a narrative approach to History, where big ideas are considered. The new SHP series of books contains some great ideas and does tell the story. The Think through History is particularly good at encouraging extended writing skills based around important questions. Lastly, the national curriculum is extremely flexible - it is not prescriptive in telling us we must do source evaluation all the time. The teacher is the best source in the classroom and story-telling and questioning are two powerful tools every teacher should use

January 13th, 2013
6:01 PM
"I angrily explained that..." At this point, the students knew they had you beat. Also, if you are relying solely on the textbooks for your GCSE course, you were not a very good historian to begin with. Publishers are ruthless with their page limits (I speak from experience) so it is impossible to squeeze in everything that should be there. Please come along to SHP to see what it's actually all about.

January 12th, 2013
9:01 PM
I agree with some of the sentiment here, particularly about the modern flight from factual knowledge being useful, or the underplaying of the skill of a teacher in making those facts mean something by the construction of narratives to a class. A skilled teacher does more than regurgitate facts, however. They can provide the evaluative framework in which those facts can be best understood and they can model the thought processes whereby facts carry meaning. I will never forget being told in my teacher training course in History in 2009 that it didn't matter what subject a teacher taught, because lessons were there to develop generic skills. What a total retreat from understanding the value of a subject like History for developing students' understanding of the world, as something properly educational in its own right, rather than merely contributing to 'employability' which was sadly the major focus of my teacher training course.

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