This sentence draws on historical knowledge, which is where the joy of learning begins, and the trouble starts. A reader might just recognise the expression, but to appreciate why I've chosen it, they might also wish to know that the knot was too tangled to be undone, that Alexander the Great decisively solved the problem and that he subsequently conquered the majority of the known world. In employing this metaphor when writing about London schools, Joe Kirby (from whom I stole the idea of this as a hook) was careful to clarify this. Without historical knowledge this statement risks meaninglessness.
Some examples of history helping to explain maths, popular culture and philosophy. These are all from my marking of Year 7 exams on Friday.
"One teacher found her pupils confused over whether Iran and Iraq were the same country; whether Sydney was in California; and whether Henry VIII is the Queen’s son. Another teacher mentions here that 16 year olds couldn’t place their city on a map of Britain, list the four countries that make up the UK, tell the difference between England and Great Britain, or name the date of one significant historical event. Still another teacher and education blogger I know told me that her pupils thought Manchester was in Scotland, Wales was an island and the Romans came from Portugal."
The interpretations placed upon these polls compounds the problem. Derek Mathews' excoriation of history teachers claimed that "This collapse in historical knowledge is a relatively new phenomenon. A recent survey by the BBC found that while 71% of over 65 year olds knew the significance of the battle of the Boyne only 18% of 16-24 year olds did so (p.1)." I doubt this proves anything about how much better history education was fifty years ago; it is more likely to prove that people keep learning once they leave school.
"They're commissioned by organisations with a vested interest. They ask blatantly obvious questions. They come up with tempting yet not terribly convincing conclusions. Then some PR demon rushes out a press release stating the conclusion they knew they were going to publish anyway, which coincidentally happens to recommend one of the company's products or services. And finally, every time, lazy journalists across the media treat the outcome as proper news and reproduce the press release word for word in an orgy of free publicity."
He has collected some fun examples here.
Historical polls are no different: the BBC's survey discovering ignorance of the Holocaust preceded their programming on the subject; one might guess UKTV Gold had similar aims and Michael Gove's Premier Inn poll suggested historical ignorance "can be rectified by visiting all the fantastic landmarks and places of interest the UK has to offer."
This particular survey tested knowledge of:
- Britain's wartime prime minister
- America's wartime president
- Germany's wartime leader
- the location of D-Day
- the names of two of the landing beaches
- the Supreme Allied Commander's name
Were I seeking to be score points, I might suggest the obvious solution. Premier Inn could take over part of the history curriculum. The BBC, having revealed half of adults were unaware of Auschwitz in 2004, were able to celebrate that this had rocketed to 94% a year later, implicitly linking this massive work of public education to their programming.
As someone who loves history so much I have chosen to teach it, I'm entirely in favour of improved historical understanding. Nor would I pretend that the numerous flaws with the data given above invalidate the merits of improving historical knowledge, among students and the British people as a whole. I would just prefer that we approached the issue of history teaching and the curriculum with a greater dose of realism and intellectual honesty. Doing so might help us to consider other factors limiting historical understanding more closely.
Achievement was weaker in Key Stage 3 than in Key Stage 4 because of a number of factors: more non-specialist teaching; reductions in the time that schools allocated to history; and whole-school curriculum changes in Key Stage 3 in an increasing number of schools. (Ofsted, History For All, 2011, p.6)
Inspectors found so much good and outstanding teaching because the teachers knew their subject well. (Ibid., p.23)
Overall, achievement was weaker in Key Stage 3 than in Key Stage 4, and was weaker in Years 7 and 8 than in Year 9. This relative weakness was frequently associated with the deployment of non-specialist teachers. (Ibid., p.12)
It is entirely possible for students not to be taught history by a specialist history teacher at all during their school career. (Ibid., p.47)
In England, history is currently not compulsory for students beyond the age of 14 and those in schools offering a two-year Key Stage 3 course can stop studying history at the age of 13. England is unique in Europe in this respect. (Ibid., p.8)
In 14 of the 58 secondary schools visited between 2008 and 2010, whole-school curriculum changes were having a negative impact on teaching and learning in history at Key Stage 3. Some of these changes included introducing a two-year Key Stage 3 course, assimilating history into a humanities course or establishing a competency-based or skills-based course in Year 7 in place of history and other foundation subjects. Where these developments had taken place, curriculum time for teaching had been reduced and history was becoming marginalised. (Ibid., p.12)
I'm not pretending that History is unique in its struggles. Ofsted's History for All report referred to similar pressures on other Humanities subjects. Core subjects employ many non-specialist teachers too. Every Head of History I have ever known works hard to staff their department well, resist two-year Key Stage 3, ensure high numbers of students choose a history GCSE and so on. The point I wish to make is that we need to be realistic about the constraints upon how much history students can learn in school under the present conditions.
We can make as many lists of unanswered questions as we like, but the time to provide those answers is sorely limited. We should also remember that not every single detail of every lesson will etch itself onto our students' memories first time - we need time for repetition and consolidation. As the example of Gandalf's discovery of America suggests, we also need to deal with students' preconceptions, whether derived from Call of Duty, The Lord of the Rings, or Illuminati websites. So let's allocate even more time for dealing with existing and emerging misconceptions.
With the best will in the world, and the best students in the world, in 60, or 180 hours, I am not going to convey the entire cultural heritage of Britain and the world to every student. I am going to struggle to ensure understanding and retention of Pitt, Peel and Palmerston; the Boyne, Boer War and Battle of Britain; Magna Carta, Michael Faraday and Mau Mau and everything else surveyed. Think about the D-Day survey... just memorising those individuals and understanding their roles is probably a lesson - and even then you'll be caught out by the next question: Who was the most senior British commander? What were the Mulberry harbours? Where was the decoy operation?
conclusion - when we plan a history curriculum we will need to...
1) An understanding of history is fundamental to human flourishing;
2) Even under optimal circumstances, our ability to ensure students' knowledge and understanding of every significant event and individual we would wish them to know is severely constrained.
I think I would be happy if history students complete their studies feeling a little like this:
(I have left the question of historical knowledge acquired in other subjects on the side for the time being).