I remember two things from my primary history education. One was a theatre company coming in, I don’t know what they did. The other was painting a massive portrait of Elizabeth I. I got to do a tiny bit of her dress as, to be fair, we all got to do a bit. Each child, responsible for the breadth of a gnats wing. Eventually the portrait went up on display like a cross between a Halloween mask and a poor mans version of Munches’, The Scream. That was it. The entirety of my memory of being taught history in my primary school. Fast forward 20 years and I now own a collection of weaponry and daily life pieces, run a history club and spend many weekends visiting re-enactments and ruins. Is education really supporting things like history? What about geography?
Ofsted have recently claimed they want to see a broad curriculum but schools up and down the country are scared that in doing so they will take time away from English and Maths and jeopardise test results. Test results drop and who come calling like the grim reaper? Ofsted. It’s almost laughable and lazy to suggest this isn’t the case. People not even involved in education see it. At least Ofsted Director Sean Harford apologised for the undeniable role that his organisation have had in narrowing the curriculum at a conference I attended recently.
So what’s the answer? Quite simply we need to move away from the abstract into the concrete. The same way we do in maths. Rather than just talk off a PowerPoint, something I am entirely guilty of, we need to make History a living breathing entity. A tangible object. Dirty, smelly, at times potentially upsetting. It isn’t like other subjects, hypothetical, it’s true and it’s raw at times.
Now I’m not advocating talking to 5 year-olds about the holocaust nor am I saying that we should remove all common sense from our education system. But I am saying that we need to actually let children feel the history they are learning about. An experienced colleague of mine explained this week how to give her class a glimpse of what the holocaust trains would be like they entered her teacher cupboard in small groups and switched off the lights. They discussed how they would feel, the emotions. One even said ‘you wouldn’t treat animals like this’. No need to show inappropriate photos of dead, emaciated corpses or watch borderline films. Making it an experience worked wonders. Now yes we can’t evidence this piece of learning, we can’t ‘prove’ it happened or whack a verbal feedback stamp on it. However, I believe that certain lessons transcend the normal educational goals or establishment.
Heritage, culture, sacrifice. These things need to be taught. We do owe it to past generations, it isn’t a game, it isn’t about sheltering our children. I am all for withholding the horror of mustard gas from a 9 year-old. But an 11 year-old leaving our school system should know that villages were sucked of their men, should know that women left their homes to work the land, should know that nearly 100,000 Indians died in WWII. We don’t have to scare them but we owe them and their ancestors the basic service of being honest with them and giving them a chance to access this learning beyond a PowerPoint and making notes.
History is all around us, few places don’t have it, local museums and war memorials should be visited. Whether it’s the canals of Birmingham or Manchester, the castles of Wales or the hill forts of Hampshire there is living, breathing history around us. It’s everywhere. It may be a challenge to resource it or prep the lessons but ask yourself, what do they need to know. If that doesn’t always fit the curriculum then so be it. Since when did the big O genuinely, honestly care about such subjects anyway? Nobody is fooled. Be true to yourself and what you got into teaching for. For me a big part of it was to share what being a student of the world really means. Studying the humanities is integral to that, inseparable in fact.