Tom Bennett

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My thoughts on the History Curriculum part 2: This island Earth.


‘Et tu, Starkey?’

This is how the draft History curriculum describes its first few aims:

·         know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world
·         know and understand British history as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the story of the first settlers in these islands to the development of the institutions which govern our lives today
·         know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires; the achievements and follies of mankind

That last bit is my favourite: the achievements and follies of mankind. Let me only sketch a curriculum from my life and I’ll fashion you a puppet theatre of follies that would chill your kidneys.
Key Stage 1 is brief and broad enough. I’ve heard complaints that this curriculum is too packed. Yet within the sketch of the draft document I see no references to exactly how much time should be spent on each topic, nor the depth. ‘We’ll never cover it all,’ I hear people say. Well, I teach KS3, and I have a non-statutory curriculum too.  You pick the depth to which you want to descend, and calculate the time in which you want to achieve it. Curricular design isn’t a Meccano set; it’s more like an Etch-a-sketch. By the time you hit KS4, there are so many checkpoints to reach that it feels as edgy and spontaneous as a join-the-dots picture, but prior to that, there is a fluidity that can be unlocked.
‘Not tonight, (Keith) Jospehine.’ Sorry.
In all of the three key stages described there are dozens of points where a globally minded teacher could freestyle off into the world at large: ‘key events in the past’ (KS1) could touch on Christmas, pilgrims and faiths of foreign origin; the Crusades (KS2) easily encompass the Middle East, the Muslim empires, the rise of Kevin Costner; the Norman Conquest (KS2) could- and I’m sticking my neck out here- touch on France, feudalism, and mainland Europe and its relationship to these islands. Most teachers I know could invent such points of intersection in a heart beat. It might be telling that some of the complaints I have heard are from people who have never taught a lesson, let alone a history lesson.
I teach, at KS3 and 4, RS. I follow a syllabus like Miles Davis follows scales; it provides the notes, and I provide the music. At times I soar away from the sheet music, but I always return to the melody. And by the time exams come around, my students all know the tune plus any riffs and licks I wove into the sequence. So while I deliver, dutifully, the required ‘Big 6’ religions in year 7, for example, I also drive off the map into lessons on Rastafarianism, conspiracy theories, Wicca, Scientology….whatever brings the best of what I know to them. Sometimes I ask what they’d like to learn, and if I like it as much, that’s what we learn about.
The curriculum shouldn’t be a straitjacket. It should be a climbing frame; a launch pad. With thought and preparation, it can be. Anyone who has a problem with the idea of a democratically elected body (namely, the government) creating structure for the course, surely needs to take their issues up with the concept of democracy. Besides, there is so much a teacher can do with a syllabus, any syllabus. It’s up to us, as professionals, to take the opportunity and revisit what it means to be a teacher. We can be much more powerful, although God knows we have dragged the chains of high stakes accountability around with us for decades. No wonder we often lose the instinct for innovation within our own subjects.
If only the Carry-On team had more input into the NC
And for those who say this is a dead white man History, I say, a) you got a problem with dead white men? and b) The KS3 syllabus is bristling with opportunity to explore social emancipation, suffrage, and the recognition of the rights and liberties of the oppressed. I wonder if I’m looking at the same syllabus as some people. If there’s a strong emphasis on eg the British Empire, then that’s because the British Empire was enormously significant, and the ripples it generated still rock the water upon which we rest. And if you want a lens through which to examine the world, the Empire provides the perfect vehicle. This isn’t about getting kids to button up their tunics and strike up a chorus of Men of Harlech; this can simultaneously be Michael Caines Zulu as much as Dabulamanzi kaMpande’s.
As to the expertise of the Cassandras, I can only say that education is a battlefield of values as much as one of fact and expertise. There are some who believe that facts are less relevant in a Google age, when children can summon them from their smart phones like wraiths, proving that skills of critical thinking and discernment are more portable, more relevant to a new age.
And then there are teachers like me, who think this is well-meant flower pressing. That children don’t know what facts to conjure if they don’t know what they are in the first place; that knowledge becomes memorisation without context and understanding; that there are an enormous number of people in the field of education who wish subsequent generations of children to be deprived of the obvious benefits of the quality of instruction that they themselves enjoyed.
It is also ironic that, after so many centuries of teachers, we need to remind ourselves what teaching really involves, and why learning from history is important. Civilisations, like interest rates, can go up as well as down. Ask Gibbon.