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Teaching WWI: let’s not go over the top

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 January 2014

 Jerome Freeman and Stuart Foster
As we approach the centenary of the First World War, it comes as no surprise that the controversy around how it should be remembered is gathering pace. The debate heated up over the past week with Education Secretary Michael Gove’s intervention in the Daily Mail, criticising so called ‘left wing’ historians and TV programmes such as Blackadder for depicting the war as a ‘misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite’. This view, he argued, has served to “denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage”.  He also argued that the ‘pitiless’ and ‘aggressive expansionism’ of Germany was to blame for the outbreak of the war.
Predictably, those criticised have hit back. Sir Tony Robinson, Blackadder’s Private Baldrick, responded: “It’s not that Blackadder teaches children the First World War. When imaginative teachers bring it in, it’s simply another teaching tool”. Historians R J Evans and Margaret MacMillan challenged his ‘overly nationalistic’ interpretation of Britain’s role in the war, in which the gallant British Tommy joined up to defend the western liberal order.
One of the challenges for the IOE in running the Government’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme will be to help teachers and their pupils to engage with these different and increasingly controversial interpretations, to think critically about the war’s causes, to try to understand how the war was perceived at the time, and to go beyond some of the popular myths that have since emerged.
We have been working with the Universities of Northumbria and Exeter to carry out the first ever national survey of history teachers into how the First World War is taught in schools. The results of the data analysis, due later this term, will give us an indication of the extent to which teachers feel confident enough to tackle some of the complexities of the First World War in the classroom and beyond (whether that is on the battlefield sites of the Western Front or in their local communities).
The results should also reveal the degree to which pupils are given opportunities to pursue their study of the First World War through historical enquiry and whether they are given access to a sufficient variety of sources to allow for detailed and meaningful investigation.
From our perspective we want to move beyond a simple process of handing on a fixed narrative to young people and simply telling pupils what they should know. Rather, we want pupils and teachers to ask difficult questions and actively find things out. A really positive outcome of the project will be achieved when pupils and teachers share the results of their genuine historical enquiries with their schools and local communities.
In addition, our plan is to encourage schools not only to conduct local enquiries but also to ask the big questions, stimulate debate, address controversy and challenge accepted interpretations. To do this we are working with all the major Centenary Partners (such as the Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and a number of leading historians and commentators. One of our biggest challenges is to make a profound and complex history accessible to teenagers, many of whom will be 13 or 14 when studying the Great War. As educators we believe we can achieve this ambitious goal and ultimately help schools approach and understand the First World War in more sophisticated, thoughtful and meaningful ways.
Jerome Freeman is director of the First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Project. Stuart Foster is executive director of the project.

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