In a speech today Michael Gove has accused some teachers of promoting an ‘infantilised’ view of history. The basis for his argument was the suggestion in an outline lesson plan that students could create Mr Men characters based on Hitler and in materials produced by the Historical Association on King John. One of the things that you’re taught as a historian is not to take sources out of context something, it appears that the Secretary of State is guilty of….grade ‘E’, I’m afraid minister, for recognising the value of the sources to your argument but the grade reflects your failure to provide any context at all resulting in a series of unsupported and biased statements. This reflects the increasing fractious nature of the debate on the proposed changes to the History National Curriculum.
Let me be clear, I love history, I always have and was fortunate to be taught it well throughout my school and university career. I loved teaching history in a succession of secondary schools and, if feedback from my students is to be believed, I was able to inculcate an understanding of and interest in the subject. I also strongly believe that Michael Gove has a similar attitude to the subject. I was taught the subject chronologically and though there were gaps (as there inevitably will be in any history curriculum) I found this to be an effective way in developing not only my understanding of the subject and the connections between different events but also in considering the problems with using sources and the different interpretations of historians. The problem is with how he is going about it. Having the support of eminent historians such as David Starkey and Niall Ferguson, is not enough for they, like me, look at their own historical education and think that’s how children should be taught today.
I was trained as a medievalist and applaud the increased emphasis on medieval history but for many teachers, especially non-specialists, this is a foreign land. The narrowing of university history courses so that students can get their degrees having never studied anything but modern history means that most teachers are ill-prepared for this move. Without the necessary knowledge of the subject, it will be difficult for them to teach it convincingly and at any other than at a superficial level. Producing lesson plans..the preferred weapon of the Department for Education…will not be enough; without the necessary knowledge of medieval history, teachers will teach ineffectively and learning will consequently not occur. The argument from teaching associations is that there should be a delay in introducing the new curriculum but that won’t solve the problem of limited knowledge…teachers who don’t know about Athelstan in 2014, won’t miraculously know about him in 2015. Politicians think about ends but tend not to take into account the means necessary to achieve those ends.