Decolonisation in the history classroom: wider perspectives and more critical questions

Thank you to Sarah Jackson, Head of Department at Sawston Village College in Cambridgeshire for this blogpost. Sarah has been imbibing the wealth of CPD on offer to history teachers. Here she explains how this has shaped her thinking, her experience of trying out ideas to reveal the constructed nature of the curriculum with her own pupils, and her current thinking about best ways forward from here.

Like many other history teachers, I have been hugely inspired by the events of last summer and the wonderful CPD opportunities that lockdown brought to think carefully about the nature of our curriculum. As a department we have committed ourselves to creating not just to a more diverse, but – ultimately what we hope will be – a more decolonised curriculum. At the centre of our departmental vision for a decolonised curriculum is the desire to get both ourselves as teachers, and crucially our students, to think critically about whose viewpoint our enquiries are coming from in order to challenge the Euro-centric perspective that our existing curriculum was undoubtedly guilty of. As Clare Holliss described so brilliantly in her Curricularium talk: more representative History is simply, better History. Similarly, getting students to interrogate existing knowledge, and place it in the context it was produced in, is also better History. Therefore, as history teachers, we are duty bound to make such changes, but the question is how do we make them? We have to think carefully about how to do this in both meaningful and effective ways, to enable our students to experience wider perspectives and to encourage students to start to question the narratives they are provided with. I’ve outlined a few of our main approaches below. These aren’t meant to be exhaustive, but to give a sense of the work we have been doing this year. Neither are all strictly connected to decolonisation – some are focussed on diversifying the curriculum; but we felt that both were essential to opening up discussion and awareness of non-European voices.

Some approaches to decolonisation and diversification in History teaching

New topics that reframe students’ understanding of History 

One crucial aspect of decolonising the curriculum is to challenge euro-centric narratives by including new schemes of work that tackle students’ world views. This could include previously neglected areas of History in the school curriculum, such as schemes on pre-colonial Africa, Early Empire and decolonisation (Hannah Cusworth and Kerry Apps’ work has been so helpful here). Developing these new schemes is hugely important work, and something that is essential for achieving a decolonised curriculum. One example that we have introduced this year is: ‘How different were people’s experiences of the Early British Empire?’ We felt it was important to introduce this scheme to enable students to appreciate how much the development of Empire was central to the growth of European wealth and expansion. Our enquiry enables students to think carefully about both the colonisers’ experiences of early exploration and settlement, but also indigenous experiences and crucially their resistance across America, the Caribbean, Ireland and India. The scheme also allows us to provide students with a basis for understanding crucial narratives such as the development of racial ideologies which are so important for explaining the development of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  Obviously, new schemes of work like this take considerable time and investment, so the “meanwhile, elsewhere project by Will Bailey-Watson and Richard Kennett is hugely valuable for teachers as it provides us with a quick and easy way for students to access alternative narratives easily. In the Early Empire scheme, we get students to complete the “meanwhile, elsewhere” on the Songhai Empire at the start of the scheme to aid pupil understanding of what different Empires might look like, but also to give an appreciation that Europe was not the only region to develop an empire in this period. 

Teaching traditional content from an alternative lens or viewpoint

However, as much as we need to introduce new topics to diversify and decolonise, it is sometimes difficult to know what we can replace in our already packed curriculums – trying to find the right balance is certainly one of my biggest tasks as a Head of Department. Paula Lobo-Worth’s amazing work with David Olusoga’s The World’s War (see her blog post) shows a really helpful way to achieve this. By looking at the Western Front through the perspectives of soldiers from the Empire, she enables students to develop their understanding of a traditional topic, the Western Front, at the same time as revealing otherwise neglected perspectives. As a department, we have also developed our First World War enquiry to consider these forgotten stories, as well as looking at some experiences of soldiers from our own village alongside Imperial regiments outside the Western Front in Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, to further diversify students understanding of the conflict.

Slot-ins or integrating diverse stories into existing enquiries

There are other very practical approaches to covering a wider range of narratives in existing schemes of work. As Helen Snelson and Ruth Lingard showed in their article in TH173 ‘slot’ in stories about marginalised groups can provide students with a range of narratives in meaningful ways. This theme was also picked up in Polly Simson in her HA conference talk on diversity, with her ‘Most… but some’ approach that challenges students’ preconceptions of what it meant to be a Chartist or an inventor in the Industrial Revolution. The importance of these small changes to our curriculum will enable students to see topics through alternative, more marginalised voices. A small change we made to our Age of Revolutions units this year was to expand our geographical range to include the Haitian Revolution, rather than just focussing on the French and American Revolution. Previously we had covered the Haitian Revolution as part of an enquiry into slave resistance as part of scheme on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but by covering it in more detail alongside ‘western’ Revolutions, we felt this would help change the perception of what being a revolutionary in this period meant and ensure that non-Western examples were not confined to topics which just focussed on marginalisation.

Integrating a range of non-written source materials into the curriculum

Another exciting aspect to explore with decolonising the curriculum is the nature of the source material we look at. I, like many others, have really enjoyed reading Silencing the Past by Trouillot and what it reveals about how history is produced. Trouillot shows how there are four crucial moments at which silences enter the process of historical production fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance). As teachers such as Dan Lyndon-Cohen have reflected (in his Be Bold History talk), this has led to many non-written sources being forgotten on ill considered, illustrating this with a fascinating example of cornrows in hair as a form of resistance in South American communities such as San Basilio de Palenque. Toby Green and Trevor Getz’s series on African Kingdoms showed teachers how we could use a range of interesting and diverse source materials to reveal or open up non-Eurocentric perspectives. One way we are planning to do this in our department is by looking at the Epic of Sundjata to explore oral traditions in our new scheme of work on the Malian Empire.

The curriculum as an interpretation

All the above approaches however, while crucial and important, still don’t necessarily get students to question the narratives that they have been given in our curriculum. Teachers have an active role to play in the process of ‘silencing the past’; we provide the ‘archives’ for our students by the sources we show are students, and we choose which narratives we show our students, but as Catherine Prigg’s article in TH179 shows, we can do something about this by making students aware of curriculum as a construct, getting them to engage with it in a metacognitive process Through engaging students with the curriculum itself, Priggs reflected “to attempt some reflection on how their current understandings might have been altered had they been taught differently”. This seemed like a really meaningful approach to take, as through making students aware of how we have constructed the curriculum, we will also be enabling them to be aware of how the choices we have made as a department we have narrowed their understanding of History. 

So, where did all this thinking get me? Simply, that we should explicitly talk to students about the choices we have made so that we can expose the silences we have created to our students and ensure they feel empowered in the construction of curriculum. This feels particularly important given the number of petitions to the government calling for diversification from students last year! I love Priggs’ model for doing this but I wanted to think about what I could do today, immediately, in the classroom to get these conversations occurring. My ideas came together when I saw a post by Katie Amery on Twitter where she shared some slides on a new significance enquiry that she was creating on the Peasants’ Revolt. Her first slide was a range of famous historical figures and events and got students to question why those events are in history books and television shows, but crucially, why they are in your school curriculum? This seemed to me a great way of opening up debate about curriculum construction with our students. So I decided to do the same with our first Year 7 significance enquiry, but my slide included the events we had already studied, those that were part of our curriculum.

Yesr 7 PPT slide

I wanted to get students to think about why those events we studied were significant and why were they worthy of study. This would help develop their understanding of significance as a concept in itself, but would also be a hugely beneficially way into questioning our curricula choices. I then felt that sharing an example of what we hadn’t taught (in this case Charlemagne) would reveal some sense of the narratives that we hadn’t included in our curriculum. I hoped that explaining this rationale to our students would open up a really interesting dialogue with them. I also thought I would make students aware of the Trouillot book with my students (not to explain the theory in totality) but to show that this idea of silence in History was important enough for someone to write a whole book about it.

Unfortunately, these conversations were all done online as I did this during lockdown, so my sense of reaction was somewhat limited compared to normal. What was really nice about the conversations we did have, is that students were meaningfully able to talk about why the events they had studied were significant but also able to offer their views on the choices we made. On reflection, the example I used of Charlemagne perhaps wasn’t ideal; as students hadn’t heard of or studied him before, so their understanding of his importance was limited to my quick explanation. I think this may therefore have limited their ability to engage with the discussion of the curriculum in a more critical way.

Where to go from here? Well, I know I want to continue to drip feed these conversations into our schemes of work (not every scheme, but where it seems appropriate) to develop student confidence. Significance enquiries seem a very obvious place to me, but I can also think of other places where these conversations might naturally fit as well. Based on my reflection above, I think it might be more beneficial to ensure students have better knowledge about the ‘alternative’ curricula choice. This could be a whole lesson where we study an alternative option, or could be, for example, when students complete a “meanwhile, elsewhere” task for homework, after in-class review, we could take more time to pause and get students to think about why they think we thought they should learn about this ‘extra’ piece of History, but also we could have a conversation about why we chose it to be as an addition to, rather than central to, the enquiry. I hope these kinds of conversations will empower our students in the long run to actively think about and question our curriculum choices, just as Priggs managed with her much more developed project. Hopefully, with growing confidence they might feel confident enough to debate some of our choices. To me, this seems to fit in perfectly with the idea of a decolonised curriculum, enabling our students to question whose viewpoint the information they are receiving is coming from. 

As for the scheme of work itself, ‘What does the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine reveal about the High Middle Ages?’, it was absolutely brilliant to teach. Simply, her story is remarkable and the kids just found it fascinating. I made the decision to move to this scheme of work from a traditional ‘power of Medieval kings’ unit, as I wanted to try and provide students with an alternative voice. They had just studied the impact of the Norman invasion, and therefore had largely focussed on a white, male narrative (although we do cover the impact on day-to-day life in England). Eleanor’s story enabled us to still focus on some of the traditional Year 7 key events, such as the murder of Thomas Becket’s death, but through an alternative lens. The focus on what her story reveals has enabled our students to be able to draw out really perceptive points about what gender, religion and power meant in the medieval period; far more than they ever did with the old unit. 

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this approach and to hear what you and your department’s approach to decolonisation is. As you can hopefully see from my post, it is clear that I am heavily indebted to the teaching community in the development of our ideas and the more we discuss and share, the easier this very hard project will be.

Electronic sources are linked in the text and Trouillet’s book is:

Trouillot, M., & American Council of Learned Societies. (2015). Silencing the past : Power and the production of history / Michel-Rolph Trouillot. (ACLS Humanities E-Book). Boston: Beacon Press.

If you have been taking part in history teacher CPD and putting ideas from it into practice in a similar way, please do consider sharing what you have learnt via #OBHD. Contact: enquiries@history.org.uk

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