Teaching history well – a reflection

As we come to the end of a very long term and the end of a very long year, Anne Hudson and Gabrielle Reddington share an important conversation. It will hopefully summarise messages received in 2020 and provide food for more thought as we unwind in the break and start to look ahead to 2021. Anne and Gabrielle have taught pupils and trained teachers through many iterations of curriculum change and emphasis. This reflection is based on their conversation about teaching about diversity not being an ‘extra’ but as being at the core of good history teaching. They carried on talking and will be back with the second part of their conversation in a future OBHD in 2021.

It is fair to say that we have experienced numerous curriculum initiatives, marked many history focused months, and led countless departmental meetings linked to what we now refer to as diversity in the curriculum. We have taught and developed history teachers in very different communities during our careers, but share a conviction that the teaching of history is at its best when it is rooted in the rich diversity of our communities throughout the school year and across the key stages.

When we teach history well, we allow all members of our diverse communities to see themselves reflected in the mirror of the past. We are clear with our pupils that those reflections can be tricky to see, may be obscured or even distorted.  Our subject expertise enables us to bring the complexity of human experience to the classroom via the narratives we share with pupils, the range of sources we make available and the historical writing we select. Doing this well requires us to keep on learning ourselves and engaging with the multiple voices of our communities. We need to keep on ‘getting better’ at history. This need for ongoing professional development was thrown into sharp relief on the day we began to discuss our blog by a question from a colleague about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller history. The request brought us back to that need to acknowledge a gap, find the expertise and search for the sources.

Jason Todd reminds us (2019, TH 176)  that we must widen our horizons as we plan our history : ‘Consider the impact of drawing the boundaries of the spatial unit (the nation) but also of the discipline, too narrowly.’  This resonated with us both as we looked at the calendar of ‘months’ allocated to the history of different groups – Black History month, Women’s History Month, LGBT+ History month and so on. Whilst there is no doubt that some valuable new resources have emerged from the focus ‘a month’ gives to a community’s past; good history teaching does not narrow the consideration of the experience of women to just February, only mention local history in May or the histories of black communities in October. 

It is not enough to confine recognition of any group’s diverse experiences of and role in shaping the past to a potentially tokenistic, celebratory month or designated topics. If we think, for example, not only of our pupils of African descent, but the perception of all ethnic groups of their identity and common human origins in Africa, we need to recognise the inadequacy of a curriculum which only considers the Black experience during October as part of Black History month. We also need to consider the negative effects of first encountering black people through the lens of slavery. Research like Doharty’s (2017) suggests this type of history curriculum can be damaging, particularly for black students. One off special topics or once a year coverage,  also contribute to a distorted narrative for white students, whose mental map of the past excludes any awareness of the powerful African civilisations that interacted with and helped shape Europe throughout  the past. Students are left unaware of their own ancestors’ experiences on an island historically populated by waves of immigrants.  It is not good history teaching,

Recent work with colleagues developing the history curriculum in special schools has shown very powerfully how hard it is for students to see their reflection in a mirror of the past. The experience of the disabled and those with special needs is rarely present in any commercial history textbook. This not only prevents our students with different needs seeing the roles, experiences, triumphs and challenges of their community in the past, but also prevents other students developing an awareness of the diverse experiences of their forebears. The lack of diversity leads to weaker history for all.

As we endeavoured to answer our colleague’s enquiry around Gypsy, Roma, Traveller history, the challenges were clear.  A local archive in an area with one of the largest traveller communities in the North  East has only 5 primary sources and the last significant work on this community’s history  was over twenty years ago. 

Ensuring that our history curriculum offers meaningful opportunities for our diverse communities to see, rather than glimpse, their reflection in the mirror of the past is not always straight forward; but striving to do so is both an imperative and joy of our jobs.

In the second part of our blog, we will return to this theme and look at some ways of weaving greater diversity into our practice.

SOURCES

Doharty, N (2018) “I FELT DEAD”: Applying a racial microaggressions framework to Black students’ experiences of Black History Month and Black History. Race Ethnicity and Education, 22 (1). pp. 110-129. ISSN 1361-3324 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2017.1417253

Todd., J (2019) ‘Thinking beyond boundaries’ in Teaching History 176, September 2019.

Collins, J. (2000). Are you talking to me? The need to respect and develop a pupil’s self-image. Educational Research 42(No. 2): 157 – 166.

Fryer, P. (2018) Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, Pluto Press, London,

USEFUL RESOURCES

Mohamud, A. and Whitburn, R., (2016) Doing Justice to History, London, UCL Institute of Education Press

Mohamud, A. and Whitburn, R., (2016) AQA GCSE History: Migration, Empires and the People , London, Hodder, 2016

https://africankingdoms.co.uk/

https://www.travellerstimes.org.uk/features/gypsy-roma-traveller-history-education-pack

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