Gemma Hargraves (@History_Girls) of HA Secondary Committee continues our series of blogposts where a colleague reflects on a previous edition of Teaching History, and shares some thoughts about an article within it, with reference to where we are today.
I recently read, for the first time TH 127 (June 2007) ‘Sense and Sensitivity’ edition. Although I wasn’t teaching when it was first published, this edition seemed like a good place to start as I reread some older editions of TH in preparation to get my head back in to History teaching ready for my return from maternity leave.
On scrolling through TH127 I could not look past ‘Teaching History Hurts’ by Kay Traille as it immediately resonated with me and the discussions within education at the moment about how to effectively and appropriately teach Black history and the history of empire. Traille completed her doctoral research with students of African-Caribbean descent and their mothers on their experiences of, and attitudes to, school history. The introduction to the article states ‘It makes for stark reading’ and even today this remains the case. The discourse around teaching Black history can feel overwhelming at the moment; so much to read, to learn, to reflect on.
Traille found that ‘mothers and their children focused on history as a compass used for navigating the self and society.’ And we cannot escape those echoes today, most recently regarding the debates around statues. The idea of history as fundamental to a sense of self is also entrenched in popular books such as the brilliant Natives: Race and Class in the ruins of Empire by Akala.
The article reports that: History taught lessons of respect…. It helped people fit in. For the respondents of African-Caribbean descent the empirical data indicated that they saw history as having power to grant legitimacy or illegitimacy… This they assumed was a key factor in accounting for the way people perceived other people. They thought that, along with this legitimacy often came status and glory, or, stereotyping and ignominy. There is much to unpack here, but at a basic level it shows us that pupils do realise that History is more than just dates, and that there is a feeling, even amongst pupils, that history and power are deeply intertwined, and intentionally or not, ‘soft skills’ are taught in history classrooms.
The article found that several issues sometimes present in History teaching that negatively affect Black pupils’ engagement, and I fear many of the following issues may still be reported if the research were conducted today:
1 ‘Imposed identity’ – pupils were implicitly and explicitly negatively stereotyped by teachers and peers because of their black heritage. Now may be a good time for teachers’ to explore their (unconscious?) biases, and take some time to conduct some anti-racist reading and reflection. This links to point 3.
2 Stereotyping and insensitivity – some students of African-Caribbean descent thought of negative attitudes of peers and teachers about black people in history as personal attacks on their identity. These first two points made me particularly grateful for recent CPD such as Hannah Cusworth’s Curricularium talk where she discussed her own experience of History as a pupil, and how we must do better (Find her on twitter – @hannahcusworth )
3 Teacher attitudes and sins of ignorance – there must be a more explicit process that encourages teachers to examine and face their own prejudices, attitudes and beliefs towards others in society. The author acknowledges that this is not a ground breaking observation but I feel it is one worth revisiting. It has been pleasing to see so many teachers take advantage of opportunities like the HA Teacher Fellowship on Britain and Transatlantic Slavery and more recently many teachers engaged with the series of webinars on African Kingdoms arranged by Nick Dennis.
4 Significant silences – sometimes it is not the spoken but the unspoken word that damages. The silence of teachers speaks volumes. This, in light of recent Black Lives Matter protests, seemed particularly pertinent, and brings to mind protestors signs stating ‘Silence is violence’.
5 Classroom Practice and Academic Performance – the findings in the study indicated that students are unlikely to relate well to a lesson if they feel excluded or belittled by the topic or how a topic is being taught. This finding has been confirmed by more recent research by the Royal Historical Society report from 2018 which highlighted that BAME pupils are less likely than their peers to choose history for examination courses, which has an impact on under-representation in UK history departments.
A powerful concept in the conclusion of the article is that of ‘collective memory ghettos’. Traille states that if students (whether of African-Caribbean descent or not), fail to see the big picture and to grasp properly how history works, then there is a danger that they will form collective memory ghettos…’ I feel that here she has really grasped the power of History teaching but also the potential dangers. She argues that we must be careful not to disenfranchise any pupils, and we must not remain silent for fear of causing disharmony. If we allow pupils to become ‘cultural amnesiacs’ this will be detrimental to them and society more broadly.
In closing Traille says ‘Young people hold the future in their hands and the way they think and feel about history is relevant to the present and probably significant in shaping futures. We can, if we are daring enough, teach history in ways that will give them tools to view the past, the present and future, through a variety of windows that will empower them.’
This article reminded me that teaching History is a privilege, a challenge and a huge responsibility. We must all keep reading, learning and reflecting. And if all this feels rather overwhelming, you may, like me find comfort in the words of Maya Angelou, to paraphrase; ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.’
If you would like to revisit a previous Teaching History, explore its resonance for our practice today and write a blogpost, we would love to hear from you. Meanwhile, please follow the HA on Facebook and @histassoc.