In praise of history teachers
I learned more about the nature of the discipline of history during my PGCE and year as a Newly Qualified Teacher than I have in all of the rest of my academic study combined. It might be that I’m a poor academic historian, but rather I think it says something about the immense value of the PGCE course I undertook, and the incredible work that many history teachers across the country do every day in striving to keep our discipline alive.
Unfortunately, however, the reflective approach which characterises PGCE training is under threat. Cuts to allocations of places for university-led teacher training in favour of more “on the job”-based training programmes has resulted in even Ofsted-rated “Outstanding” university-led courses having to drastically cut their provision. It might sound sensible to base teacher training at schools – after all, that’s where they’ll have to work. But, for historians at least, the idea is not as good as it sounds.
There is nothing like knowing that the entirety of a child’s compulsory historical education at secondary level has to be crushed into two years, with only 1-2 hours of teaching per week, to make you consider what you really want pupils to get out of their historical education from a young age. Knowledge is incredibly important; history is nothing without the facts. But history is infinitely large, and you can never teach everything (as debates about the history curriculum make all too clear). What you can do is teach pupils to ask historically minded questions that enable them to unpick the past for themselves.
My university-led (but with plenty of in-school experience) PGCE course taught me the importance of ensuring that key concepts of history – causation, change, historical significance, historical interpretation, similarity and difference – were at the heart of pupils’ learning. Lessons based around trying to get to the heart of an enquiry question made pupils need, and sometimes even savour, the knowledge they were gathering. I saw the immense value of this approach in the many fantastic lessons I observed colleagues teach, and in my own (much-cherished) moments of teaching triumph. Focusing on the conceptual basis of good historical thinking allows teachers to work out how to help pupils to understand the nature of history for themselves, and, eventually, build the skills to ask and answer historically minded questions of their own. This is an approach built on the careful reflections and debates of many generations of history teachers dedicated to maintaining and advancing their discipline.
There are many arguments to be made for the advantages of historical thinking for the majority of children who will not go on to become historians. Quite apart from its merits in helping us understand our own culture and that of others, historical knowledge and thinking is valuable to a range of trades and professions from lawyers and teachers, to politicians and economists. But less often is praise given for the value of secondary school teaching for the historical discipline itself. In fact, research into the perceptions of teachers of undergraduates about the level of history education at secondary school has painted a very gloomy view. It further suggested that students were arriving at university with fundamental misconceptions about what history actually is. This, combined with the suggestion that students arrive at university ‘unable to write essays’, implies that even if history teachers are preparing pupils in some sense for the world, they are certainly not having much success in preparing them to be historians.
Yet, anecdotal as my evidence is, this was not my experience. Even the best of students at A-level will have had to juggle history alongside at least two other subjects, so it is unsurprising that they lack the concentrated conceptual depth that might be hoped of at degree-level. And yes, the need to pass exams may well have led to some fairly dull approaches to essays. But in many cases an initial tendency towards formulaic exam-focused writing among students may be a misleading indicator of their level of historical understanding. The teachers I know and worked with put the very essence of the historical discipline at the heart of how they teach it, with the result that even younger pupils showed advanced disciplinary thinking, often in highly creative ways. If this ability becomes somewhat buried behind a sharply-refined exam technique by the time students arrive at university, it shouldn’t be too hard to dig out. It’s been drilled into them for seven years.
The best secondary school history teachers are constantly developing and reflecting on their practice in the classroom through engaging in a thriving community of history teachers ever keen to sharpen the conceptual underpinnings of what and how they teach. Many of them do so off the back of the time for reflection and deep thinking that university-led PGCE programmes gave them, and they continue to nurture this practice through mentoring new teachers going through similar programmes themselves. If we are interested in undergraduates arriving at university with a strong disciplinary understanding that will provide a firm launching-pad for their undergraduate careers, we should encourage teacher-training programmes that allow teachers sufficient time and space to reflect on how they can facilitate this. We should cling on to the contact between history teachers and the academy that university-led teacher training represents. Without school history teachers our discipline has no future. It is more important than ever to acknowledge what they do.
Image: Child in Kentucky School, 1946. Russell Lee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ea/Coal_miner%27s_child_in_grade_school._Lejunior%2C_Harlan_County%2C_Kentucky._-_NARA_-_541367.jpg