Friday 1 March 2013

Q. Gove is Napoleon. Discuss.

When politicians start talking about the history curriculum, you know that this is when their megalomaniac delusions start to take flight. They start to imagine themselves talking to the mass of teachers and pupils, telling them what's great about 'this country', what's important about the institution they are part of, government, parliament, the monarchy - the ruling elite. It's the gas they run on, the justification for their lives so of course they are going to come up with a model of history that justifies themselves. After all, very few other people will. As they swill around in the trough of scandals, laughing as they and their even richer colleagues cut the subsistence earnings of the very poor, they will be hard put to find people rushing to say how worthy and important they are as individuals.

So, they come with a curriculum.

It's easy to critique a history curriculum. You offer an alternative view of history. The problem with this is that it misses out the key part of the process: the students. People engaged in this debate keep missing out the 'how' of learning and teaching.  Put it this way, I could come up with a history curriculum where I thought that this or that was a good thing to teach. I could then stand in front of a group of children or students and demand that they listen to me, punish those that aren't listening, test them at the end of every lesson, week and month and make myself and the subject unpleasant and unlikeable. I would have made history, my take on history an area that that child or student wouldn't want to be part of ever again.

So, my view of this whole debate about the history curriculum as being skewed by the dominant model of education: a teacher should tell a child what the knowledge is. A child should just receive this knowledge. Those that do, pass. Those that don't, fail. History becomes the slave of a wider objective: the need of education to pass and fail people.

So what are the alternatives?

At the primary school level I would argue that it hardly matters at all which particular aspect or topic or subject of history is the piece of knowledge or slice of history being talked about. The key matter is how is the child going to learn about it? Doing worksheets? Reading pages in a text book? Or do we find ways in which young children can investigate and discover things about history? Are there things that they want to find out about? And is it the job of a teacher to enable and facilitate those journeys of investigation and discovery?

Two stories: I observed a truly original research project by a group of Year 6 pupils who discovered that very near to them some early aviation pioneers had tried out their prototype planes. In the end, their discoveries were so important they were the cause for a blue plaque being put up on the site. Second story: a teacher asked first what topic of history or geography (or both) would the children most like to know more about. They narrowed it down to what at that stage they called 'Red Indians'. The teacher then asked them to get into pairs and groups to come up with some questions they wanted answers to. The class gathered together all the questions, set themselves up into small groups to find answers to the questions. After a spell of investigation and research they came back to discuss the answers and what they might want to do with the answers, who to tell and how.

Both of these processes seem to raise fundamental questions about learning and as you might guess, I regard the 'how' they worked as much more important than the 'what' - or at least much more important than Michael Gove deciding the 'what'. These two stories show teachers giving children a good deal of control over their learning.

At secondary level, I can concede that it's probably a good idea to start talking more abstractly about historical processes and - most importantly - these processes are up for debate.  There is no universal agreement about cause and effect in history. There is no universal agreement about how power is created, maintained and lost. There is no universal agreement about whether society is good for all. There is no universal agreement about what 'this country' is let alone what 'this country's history' is!

So, as I always maintain, this can only be resolved by turning away from the ludicrous top-down, the-secretary-of-state-knows-all way of running schools. The best way to develop a history curriculum - or several curricula from which schools could choose, perhaps - would be to enable teachers, researchers, historians and interested parties to talk about the pedagogy of history ie how history can be taught and learned, what kind of history can be taught and learned and why. This could emerge out of true discussion based on observation, research and experience, showing how different kinds of students enjoy and run with different kinds of historical material.

This is not utopian. This is how a literacy curriculum was developing in education at the end of the 80s before it was squashed by government.

To demand or request that we should have this or that kind of history curriculum cedes to the Sec of State the right to be the final arbiter and determiner. Ironically, this in itself is a product of a kind of history which has kept ceding power to the centre as if the centre holds wisdom and morality, or is in some way better able to decide and run things than we are.

Aha, I've just thought of the topic I would most like to investigate, Miss. Can I investigate how and why Mr Gove thinks that he has the right to have the kind of power that he has? Where does this come from in history? Napoleon? Cromwell?