Teachers’ perspectives on teaching Black History

Thanks to Simon Beale, Associate Assistant Headteacher and Subject Leader of History & Politics, and co-founder of the History Teacher Book Club, for sharing the key findings of some teacher to teacher sampling that he did earlier this term. It raises interesting points to add to discussions about future work, as it gives a perspective from teachers about what they think will help them make a difference. 

In June, Simon asked fellow history teachers for some responses via Twitter using Google Form to a set of questions about their knowledge and teaching of Black History. Many more colleagues replied than expected, which in itself suggests that there is both a widespread engagement and a concern out there amongst history teachers to improve and change practice. While it is important to acknowledge that this was not formal research and that people may be bringing very different definitions to their responses in this sampling of teachers, there are some important points and challenges raised that add to the knowledge we have from which to take action. Firstly, over 70% of respondents on Simon’s form felt that they did not have specific training about how to teach diverse histories in their initial teacher training. A similar proportion felt that they have not yet had enough opportunities to gain the subject knowledge they need to confidently teach Black History in particular. While almost all of the respondents said that they taught the transatlantic slave trade, less than half taught about the African kingdoms from which most of the people enslaved were taken. Most respondents said that they taught something about US Civil Rights and the British Empire, but few taught decolonisation or the history of Black British people in the 20th Century.

Almost 70% of teachers reported the addition of Black history topics to their curriculum in the last five years. In comments made in response to Simon’s questions, there was an overwhelming desire from teachers to do more and also an openness about how they feel that their knowledge is not yet good enough to do so. Therefore, such sampling of teachers adds knowledge to support the argument for many and concerted efforts to support work to improve teacher knowledge.

Firstly, teacher knowledge of a wider range of Black History. The recent example of webinars on African Kingdoms run by Nick Dennis, Dr Toby Green and Dr Trevor Getz were an excellent example of this. So too was the National Teacher Learning Day at the start of this month, when Dr Emily Manktelow’s presentation on five controversial questions on Empire was followed by David Hibbert’s suggestions for possible enquiry questions. The Historical Association will continue to add to its range of webinars and podcasts from historians sharing their work. You can find that list here: https://www.history.org.uk/podcasts.

Secondly, teacher knowledge about the current scholarship of historians in relation to topics such as decolonisation and Empire, so that teachers feel confident to construct historical enquiry questions that genuinely reflect the latest historical debate. Examples of this positive work include the work of Miranda Kaufmann in relation to Black Tudors, including with the History Teacher Book Group. Chris Lewis’ Triumph’s Show in Teaching History 173 and Kerry Apps’ article in Teaching History 176 give great examples of how history teachers have applied their learning from this scholarship. The forthcoming HA webinar series led by Justice2History is the first in a range of initiatives for the new academic year.

Thirdly, there is a need to support teachers to know how to approach matters that are emotional and sensitive in the history classroom. Again, this is a topic which the HA will be working to support. For example, with materials to support teachers to talk about, and not avoid, the topic of race in their history classrooms.

On Saturday 13th June the HA was a signatory to a letter to The Times that called for structural investment to “support teachers with an evidence-informed approach to professional development in relation to developing effective teaching of British histories of migration and empire” in line with the recommendations of the TIDE-Runnymede report Teaching Migration, Belonging, and Empire in Secondary Schools (August 2019). This would be in the form of a similar approach as that taken for Holocaust Education. That is, the provision of a Centre that provides “a national programme of teacher education, online materials and resources, continuing professional development, and a Masters-accredited online learning course.” Simon’s sampling of teachers suggests again that teachers would welcome such an initiative.

Please contact Simon via Twitter if you would like to see some of the sampling he carried out.  

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