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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


The end of History? Let’s make sure it’s not

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 February 2013

Chris Husbands
I should begin by setting out my stall. I graduated with a history degree. The first thing I did with it was to complete a PhD on Seventeenth Century demographic and economic structures. The next was to teach history in comprehensive schools. I was devoted to my subject and worked hard to encourage pupils – many of whom thought that history had nothing to tell them – to learn about the past and to comprehend what it had to do with their own lives.
I have written history textbooks and books on how to teach history, and have examined the subject at A-level. I think history is incredibly important: I believe that an understanding of history is an integral part of every young person’s general education, and that it does not make sense for anyone to stop studying history at 14. One of the delights of my job as IOE Director is that I get to work with fantastic teachers who excite, stimulate and enthuse their pupils. Ofsted agrees with my view of history teaching: its evidence shows that history is one of the best-taught subjects in the school curriculum.
It’s from this perspective that I read the Government’s draft national curriculum for history, and I have two basic questions: is it good history, and will it promote good learning?  One of the fundamental problems which history poses for the school curriculum is that there is just too much of it. That means that any curriculum has to make a selection, and that selection has to be made on the basis of some coherent set of principles. If not, history, as the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay observed, is “just one damned thing after another”.
The draft national curriculum is not short on things: once primary children have been introduced to the concept of the nation at five, they will be treated to an introduction to classical civilisation and then a strong chronological narrative taking them through the Heptarchy (look it up), and the Middle Ages (including “the Black Death and chivalry”), ending their primary career by encountering the Glorious Revolution.
Secondary pupils’ history career will begin with General Wolfe at Quebec, and will move both through the British Imperial past – the Indian Mutiny, the Great Game, Gandhi – and the economic and political history of Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, up to the election of, but not, it seems, the government led by, Margaret Thatcher. In the House of Commons, the Secretary of State commended a history curriculum which would place the inspirational stories of heroes and heroines at its core.
Is this good history? Few appear to think so. The Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, Sir Richard Evans, wrote in the Financial Times that it could portend the end of good history teaching in schools. History teachers, including the Historical Association, have been vehement about the proposals’ shortcomings.
The word history carries two distinct meanings: from the Greek work ἱστορία, literally an inquiry, and the French word l’histoire, which is, of course, a story. History as an academic discipline is both a story, and a mode of inquiry. The national curriculum draft realises this in the preamble to Key Stage 3, but it separates historians’ ways of working absolutely from the narrative, and the Key Stage 2 programme of study emphasises story at the expense of inquiry: it is chronicle rather than history.
In a powerful speech to the Social Market Foundation, the Secretary of State cited the influential work of the American cultural critic E D Hirsch in his defence. Hirsch emphasises the importance of a “core knowledge” curriculum, setting out – often in great detail – year by year slabs of knowledge to be taught to children. But Hirsch’s model, and its English imitators are incurious about two things: first, about child development, and the ability of children to master complex ideas at different ages, and secondly about the relationship between “knowledge” and “understanding”.
Knowledge is of fundamental importance – and most curricula that play it down are not very good. But understanding matters just as much. I may be wrong, but I find it difficult to believe that a seven-year-old can make much sense of the Heptarchy, or an 11-year-old the issues at stake in the Glorious Revolution. We can – and history teachers do – do much better than that.

Whose cultural capital?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 26 October 2012

Diane Hofkins
My mother invented a curriculum for cultural capital way before E D Hirsch. In the late 1960s she created a special course to help the brightest students at her New York City girls’ high school to pass the New York State scholarship test. Winning a scholarship would mean several thousand dollars worth of university tuition fees for the students, mainly children of immigrants and ethnic minorities.
In those days, it would be fair to say, the scholarship test’s assumption of a substantial level of general knowledge discriminated against the least privileged. My mother’s Scholarship Class set out to teach these Hispanic, African American and Chinese girls what her own daughter had picked up by living in an educated New York household and hanging around with kids from similar families. Her course could have been called What Every Educated American Should Know.
Over a year, she led the girls through the history of Western civilization, Bronowski-like, showing pictures from the Metropolitan Museum, discussing Greek myths, playing Beethoven. The course won awards, I don’t think that many students actually won scholarships (even my mother couldn’t compensate for 16 years of a different existence), but they loved the course. It changed lives.
About a decade after my mother devised her Scholarship Class, an English professor at the University of Virginia named E D Hirsch, Jr was thinking about similar questions.  During his investigations of what makes prose more or less readable, he discovered that even more important than the “readability” of the text was the background knowledge brought to it by the reader.
The example he gave to Fran Abrams in her excellent Radio 4 Analysis programme this week, was that many of the poorer students he taught at the University of Virginia not only lacked basic knowledge about the US Civil War, but this gap made it hard for them to read passages about it, even though their reading was fine when it came to familiar subjects.
“This and related discoveries led Hirsch to formulate the concept of cultural literacy – the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge, “ according to Wikipedia. “He concluded that schools should not be neutral about what is taught but should teach a highly specific curriculum that would allow children to understand things writers take for granted.” His goal was to improve social mobility.
He wrote Cultural Literacy: What every American Needs to Know in 1987, followed 10 years later by the Core Knowledge series, with each book titled What Your ____ Grader needs to know. As readers of the IOE London blog will know, Hirsch’s ideas have had a powerful influence on Michael Gove’s thinking about the forthcoming new curriculum.
In the US, Hirsch, an American liberal, was lauded by the Right and condemned by the Left, just as he has been over here. My mother, whose work preceded such labelling, would have been horrified if her course had been called right-wing. But it is at the junction of social mobility and cultural capital that the battle lines cross. Who is qualified to decide which set of facts all children should learn? How can we make sure it is taking the country into the future and not languishing in the past?
There is a very lumpy circle to be squared. My mother’s scholarship students gained knowledge that would help them succeed at university and in the world of work, but those Chinese, Hispanic and African American girls did not learn about their own rich cultures. If the school curriculum – by sustaining and building a common culture — helps to shape society, shouldn’t we be finding ways to broaden our ideas of what every educated person should know?
Diane Hofkins edits IOE London blog