Pearls of Wisdom from Teaching History 120

Continuing our series of looking back to a past edition of Teaching History, Secondary Committee member Emma Bevan has returned to edition 120 from September 2005. Here she gives some thoughts about what she has found there that resonates today. 

A rallying cry to be braver in the history classroom

When asked “why teach history?”, one of the most recurrent responses is that it allows students to understand the world around them. However, in “Teaching History: Diversity and Division”, this response is interrogated by questioning whether students’ understanding of the world around them is really being facilitated. Simply put, how is history supposed to help students to understand the world around them if we are not teaching them about it?

In the wake of recent events and rightly challenged by #blacklivesmatter, history teachers have been scrutinising their own practice, and recognising the power they can have within their own classroom to dismantle the inherent prejudices within society. Yet this scrutiny on the power of history is nothing new. In “Teaching History: Diversity and Division” this self-reflection is celebrated, but also pushed a step further, with an active encouragement for us all to step out of our comfort zones. 

The articles collectively provide guidance on how we can channel our desire to teach better history, by suggesting how we can be braver in the History classroom, and how we can invite controversy in. 

The key messages

Throughout the journal there is an emphasis on history’s role in facing up to the controversial by asking the right questions. In the editorial it is also recognised that “divisions and divides are not easy or comfortable to teach”

It is important to recognise that the 120th edition of Teaching History was published shortly after the 7th July 2005 London Bombings. In the context of conflict and division, Chris Culpin (Breaking the 20 Year Rule: Teaching Very Modern History at GCSE) argued that we should be tackling head on the big issues of the recent past. 

A much-debated issue among history teachers is how we can make content relevant to the generations younger than us. Culpin believes it is important to work with recent events and to unpick and uncover the roots of a current situation within the context of a history classroom

Culpin’s article centres around dealing with terrorism within the history classroom, arguing, according to the editorial, “at no point do events become immutable and uncontroversial, more that they go through a historical filtering process. If we are trying to bring history into the classroom, surely our students should be part of this filtering process too?” This has real resonance for us today and suggests we should be enabling students to engage with contemporary sources, and to dissect them using their acquired historical knowledge, in order to more fully understand current events. By using the discipline of history to interrogate the prejudice of the past, it is possible to tackle the prejudice of today.

Alison Stephen echoes this with reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict, where she argues “that it is our role to give students the confidence to join in the debate”. Stephen actively encourages teachers to become “risk takers”. By this she means a practitioner who engages with controversial topics using the discipline of history, allowing engagement with the roots of controversy. Shying away from topics that spark debate does not make the debates go away, and only serves to leave students ill equipped to engage with them.

Crucially though, this confidence to become a “risk-taker” comes from a high level of subject knowledge. Often we have the problem of “not knowing what we don’t know”, which can also severely inhibit our ability to diversify our schemes of work. Subject knowledge is a powerful tool, and as Nicholas Kinloch suggests in his article, a teacher needs to find the “confidence in their own subject knowledge first”. It’s an easy trap to try and wedge in a crash course lesson to try and empower students, when in reality we haven’t truly empowered ourselves with knowledge first. We need to dig into the wealth of knowledge out there, and stay motivated to diversify. 

How has this helped me reflect on my practice? 

In the context of recent events, by broadening our own knowledge, we are becoming part of the process of reclaiming and reconstructing a whitewashed past. The whitewashing of the past should make us angry, but we should take that anger and use it as fuel to reconstruct a better history in our classrooms.

Reading this past edition in the context of all that is swirling around us has enabled me to set these goals for myself:

  • First become empowered with rich subject knowledge
  • Integrate diversity consistently and systematic into history lessons
  • Be brave, and be a risk taker who uses the discipline of history to tackle controversial issues
  • Examine current situations through the lens of history.
  • Ask questions, with students, that deepen understanding of the present and the past together. 
  • Be active in deconstructing a white-washed past. 

Here is TH120 if you would like to revisit it yourself. Why not look back at an edition or article and write a similar blogpost? Meanwhile, follow the HA on Facebook and@histassoc.  

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