The over-simplification of History teaching (& learning!)

In the last couple of weeks I have been emphatic about the need to respond to the National Curriculum consultation, in particular to make changes to the unwieldy and unhelpful History curriculum. My views are broadly in line with those of the Historical Association, The Royal Historical Society, the British Academy and History UK. But, of course, as with all such changes, there will be those whose views differ.

Yesterday, Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) posted a thought-out blog on the History proposals at . Now, I’ll confess to never having been a fan of the “behaviour guru” (a moniker which even he notes is over-the-top, so don’t hold that against him). But this blog struck me in a few ways.

Firstly, despite being a fan of integration of the humanities, I note that he is not a History teacher, but an RE/Philosophy teacher. Neither of these subjects are directly affected by the National Curriculum, and perhaps more significantly, most authorities’ Agreed Syllabuses for RE are substantially light on content than the proposed History draft. Mr Bennett proudly boasts that he can “follow a syllabus like Miles Davis follows scales” – a task Mr Davis might find harder if the score he was provided with was Beethoven’s fifth!

That all being said, it is quite possible that as a head of Humanities he is required to do some History teaching. Now, I am not a History specialist, so can claim no greater qualification to judge, but I am an experienced teacher in the primary curriculum. As such, it was comment’s about the primary curriculum that most riled me. I imagine there are swathes of secondary teachers who are not thrilled about the KS3 PoS, but I’ll stick to what I know.

Firstly, TB describes the KS1 curriculum as “brief and broad enough” and confidently advises us that “there are dozens of points where a globally minded teacher could freestyle off into the world at large”. Now, forgive me if I am wrong, but I haven’t noticed any KS1 teachers complaining that there isn’t scope to go off into other things. The matter is quite the reverse – that the expectations required of the new draft are simply inappropriate for five-year-old children.

Of course, we can over-simplify. The KS1 draft requires that by the age of seven children know and understand concepts such as civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, and war and peace. Now, monarchy kids gets: Kings and Queens. Parliament and democracy we can talk about: we choose who’s in charge. War and Peace… easy. They’ve seen weapons. Of course, none of this is really teaching anything but a vague awareness of some complex vocabulary. How do you really teach a six-year-old – someone who has virtually no autonomy themselves – about the various options for governance of a nation. And civilisation!? What does that even mean? Is it just people living in a place? Are we comparing civilised communities to barbarians somewhere? The list is just a nonsense.

But my concerns about KS1 don’t come close to those of KS2. A race through more than 1700 years of history will do nothing to broaden children’s understanding of chronology or the world around them. One lesson on Clive of India – maybe two at a push – can do nothing to explain the ways in which Britain developed an empire through a combination of private enterprise. For all the superficial understanding children will gain from this type of march through history, we might as well just use clips like this:

It’s not quite historically accurate, but it covers the gist.

TB states himself that “The curriculum shouldn’t be a straitjacket”, but in the case of KS2/3 History that’s exactly what it is. He provides plenty of examples of how he sees history teachers can depart from the required curriculum, but shows no awareness at all of the time needed to cover what is already included.

Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) put together an excellent draft of what the curriculum might look like in KS2, which you can download from the bottom of his blogpost here: (The post itself is well worth a read too)

In his blog, TB suggests that “the Crusades (KS2) easily encompass the Middle East, the Muslim empires, the rise of Kevin Costner; the Norman Conquest (KS2) could […] touch on France, feudalism, and mainland Europe and its relationship to these islands”
Looking at Tim Taylor’s blog you can see that all this would need to be fitted into a single term – approximately 10 hours of history teaching.

Now, I currently teach in Y7, and we do cover the Norman conquest. It takes nearly 10 hours just to properly study the events of 1066, let alone to get on as far as the Crusades. The suggestion that we could cover the same in 10 hours in Year 4 with time to spare is nonsense. Remember that most of the children studying this will not be 11 or 12 as they are now, but barely 8!

Of course, again we can simplify: an hour on the death of Edward the Confessor and its implications, an hour on Stamford Bridge, an hour on the Battle of Hastings, an hour on the Bayeux Tapestry, an hour on feudalism… and children will miss out a swathe of historical skills and understanding.

At what I understand is TB’s own school, the Y7 History curriculum is devoted to medieval history with a start on the Tudor period. His suggestion is that this could all be covered in the half the time with children aged 3 or 4 years younger. It rather begs the question what his school is wasting its time on!

Via Twitter this morning I engaged with TB about his views, and his responses only further entrenched my view that he has a wild misunderstanding about the nature of the teaching of history. His views seem largely predicated on the premise that if content is taught in an interesting way then it will also be learned. That once it is taught, it is also learned:

No, while I’m sure JK Rowling would be flattered to have the intricacies of her plots be compared to something so extraordinarily complex as our nation’s history, I suspect that even she might raise an eyebrow. And of course, there are very few 9-year-olds who can give but the most fleeting recollection of key points in the story. Those who really know the “entire Harry Potter plot cycle” are those who have re-read and re-visited the text in different forms at different times – a process that simply isn’t allowed in the new draft curriculum.

To suggest that simply by imparting knowledge in chronological order that students will suddenly have an understanding of the full sweep of British history suggests a complete underestimation of the role and worth of teachers. If it were true that simply by exposure children could be made to know, retain and understand facts then we would have no need for education beyond the age of 8. We could simply teach children to read, and then provide them with textbooks.

I have no doubts that Mr Bennett prides himself on being an engaging teacher who selects the best approaches to bring a curriculum to life for his students in his RS and psychology lessons, building on an initial framework to draw on his own expertise and wonder to provide exciting learning opportunities. In supporting such a content-heavy curriculum for KS2 and KS3 History, he is denying his history-teaching colleagues the opportunity to do likewise.

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One thought on “The over-simplification of History teaching (& learning!)

  1. The national curriculum storm 24 February 2013 at 1:40 pm Reply

    […] @MichaelT1979: The over-simplification of History teaching (& learning!) […]

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