- Being proud of our history? (below)
- Are we being honest about curriculum?
- Are we being honest about our discourse?
Being proud of “the community”
Over the years I have been teaching history (and latterly history teachers), I have developed something of a sense of pride in the way in which history, as a school subject, has engaged with complex issues in curriculum and pedagogy. I have even taken to referring to “the history community” in an almost reverential way. I am sure I am not alone. If you look at the discussions which happen, especially on Twitter, you will often see people expressing pride in “the history community” and its various achievements. Often the narrative we tell about “the community” is framed as a story of social justice in which pupils are liberated through carefully curated content and powerful pedagogical knowledge.
I have grown increasingly uneasy about this narrative I tell myself about "the history teaching community". This unease is exacerbated when our profession is challenged, when “the community” is asked to account for its actions or lack thereof. Too often I have found myself reacting to challenges by responding “oh, the community have already been thinking about that.” When there was debate about the revised curriculum in 2013 and its excessively British focus, I could look at my SHP inspired curriculum and be happy it wasn't all stale, male and pale; and could say “Don’t worry! SHP has been thinking about this for ages and promotes curriculum diversity.” When the “knowledge-rich” movement began to gain traction, I was able to point to many examples in Teaching History of history teachers bringing together both knowledge and second-order conceptual understanding in their work. And when Ofsted was arguing for the importance of focusing on the “curricular what” and not the “pedagogical how”, I was equally able to suggest that this had been a core theme in the “history community” over time. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I have been too quick to seek examples of what “the community” already does, and too slow to examine the reality. And this worry has become even more pronounced in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has asked groups right across our society to reassess the ways in which they conceptualise, reinforce, or challenge racism.
I am of course nowhere near the first person to have these worries. There are many examples of history teachers questioning stances in “the community” on social media, at conferences, and of course in Teaching History. In recent times, Mohamud & Whitburn (2014, 2016, 2019), Dennis (2016), Nascimento (2018) and others have challenged “the community” on whether it is doing enough in terms of tackling the concept of race in history head on. Similarly, Lockyer & Tazzymant (2017) and Boyd (2019) have asked us to rethink how we engage with sex and gender in our teaching.
Jason Todd wrote a fantastic editorial piece in Teaching History 176 in which he explores some of the ways in which “the community” have been wrestling with many of these issues over time. However, he goes on to show that the picture is far from universal. He notes how the advent of the “knowledge-rich” movement has downplayed student needs, and that doing justice to history is more than just making our curriculum diverse (Todd, 2019). As Mohamud and Whitburn argue, the challenge is also to directly address problematic concepts such as race as historical phenomena in their own right (Mohamud and Whitburn, 2016). Todd goes on to highlight that there is still much to do to re-imagine the place of history and question the importance of “nation” as the central concept in history teaching. Indeed, the Runnymede Trust and RHS have noted a whole range of ways in which history teaching could and must improve (Atkinson et al., 2018; McIntosh, Todd and Das, 2019). This directly challenges that cosy vision I had of a “community” who had these issues well in hand.
In many ways then, these blogs are seeking to answer Todd’s call that we “examine the given nature of things…[and recognise that] we ourselves are products of both history and the associated operations of power” (Todd, 2019, p. 7). Rather than focusing on issues of taught curriculum however, I want to turn this examination onto the discourse of “the community”.
The need for honesty
Korthagen et al. note that one of the main factors in enacting change in teacher action is for teachers to be aware of the need for change internally. When we fail to see a need for change internally, we seldom change what we do externally (Korthagen, Kessels, et al., 1999). This was certainly true of my own approach to history teaching.
In some ways, having a small body of work which has engaged with the challenges presented by Black Lives Matters made it easier for me to ignore the problem It allowed me to reach the mistaken conclusion that we are addressing these concerns well, when in fact, despite amazing work being done, we were still a long way from addressing those same concerns. The comforting knowledge that some people in “the community” are working for change reinforces that internal voice that says no personal change is needed. We have seen this exact problem in politics in recent times, with the Remain campaign and the Corbynite project both failing to critically examine themselves. We already know how that ended. By telling ourselves that “the community” has “always been doing that”, we fundamentally fail to question whether what we have been doing actually matches the current challenge as outlined by Todd, or in the worst cases, ignores the fact that we, as individuals or groups, might not have been doing anything at all.
If our response to challenges is to try to absorb threats into a self-confirming narrative, then we are missing a major opportunity for intellectual and professional honesty. Without this we cannot move forwards but risk becoming trapped in a self-referential bubble. Two things really brought this home to me recently.
First, I have spent a good deal of the last eighteen months wrestling with criticisms of textbook projects I have been part of. I was mortified when a girl contacted me in 2018 to express her disappointment of my portrayal of Mormons in my “Making of America” textbook. My first reaction was to be intellectually wounded. Our human instinct is to believe we have done our best and that we should move on. My self-narrative as an author was of someone who cared about representation, about research, about accuracy, about respecting the people of the past. I looked into her critique, but my aim was ultimately to confirm this self-narrative. I checked my sources and stood by my decision. I sent her school a letter explaining my research and my choices of language. But the there was a nagging feeling which would not go away. I let it sit a week. It still wouldn’t rest. Over the next month or so, in my spare time, I began to read around the issue. I sought out new interpretations. I reassessed my frames of reference. She was right – I had been lazy in my narrative. What I had engaged in was an act of self-preservation and self-justification, rather than an act of honestly. The reality of this action was that my work had directly caused that child to feel uncomfortable and angry enough to write to me as an author. Without an honest assessment of our self-narratives, this is always the risk.
This first experience with a person being (rightly) critical of my portrayal of history in a public work was not the last. This in turn caused me to rethink the comforting narrative I had begun to tell myself about “the community”. Not long after, the RHS Race Report confirmed that this doubt was well founded. The harsh light of research made starkly evident that BME pupils are less likely to choose history; that only 11% of history students at university come from BME backgrounds; that school history curriculums continue to be narrow and to alienate BME pupils; that 96.1% of university historians are White, and so on (Atkinson et al., 2018). Whatever the achievements of “the community”, and as Todd would note in his 2019 editorial, there was much further to go.
Critical engagement not self-flagellation
Now if all of this sounds like so much chest beating and self-flagellation, I apologise because that is not the point of this blog series. I am well aware that many attempts at honest self-reflection these days are dismissed as so much value signalling. I recognise of course that this is a risk, even if it is not my intention.
What I want to do therefore keep the challenge of being honest about realities of history teaching and “the history teaching community” central so that we can see where the problems lie and not be complacent. Crucially I want to engage with the legitimate challenges raised by Black Lives Matters in relation to history teaching; to be honest about the realities; and to suggest some practical ways we could move ourselves on.
- Being proud of our history?
- Are we being honest about curriculum?
- Are we being honest about our discourse?
- Atkinson, H. et al. (2018) Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change. Royal Historical Society, p. 122.
- Boyd, S. (2019) ‘From “Great Women” to an inclusive curriculum: how should women’s history be included at Key Stage 3?’, Teaching History, (175), pp. 16–23.
- Dennis, N. (2016) ‘Beyond tokenism: teaching a diverse history in the post-14 curriculum’, Teaching History, (165), pp. 37–41.
- Korthagen, F. A. J., Kessels, J. P. A. M., et al. (1999) ‘Linking Theory and Practice: Changing the Pedagogy of Teacher Education’, Educational Researcher, 28(4), pp. 4–17. doi: 10.3102/0013189X028004004.
- Lockyer, B. and Tazzymant, A. (2017) ‘“Victims of History”: challenging students’ perceptions of women in history’, Teaching History, (165), pp. 8–15.
- McIntosh, K., Todd, J. and Das, N. (2019) ‘Teaching Migration, Belonging, and Empire in Secondary Schools’, p. 20.
- Mohamud, A. and Whitburn, R. (2014) ‘Unpacking the Suitcase and Finding History: Doing Justice to the Teaching of Diverse Histories in the Classroom’, Teaching History, (154), pp. 40–46.
- Mohamud, A. and Whitburn, R. (2016) Doing justice to history: transforming black history in secondary schools.
- Mohamud, A. and Whitburn, R. (2019) ‘Anatomy of enquiry: deconstructing an approach to history curriculum planning’, Teaching History, (177), pp. 28–41.
- Nascimento, S. N. (2018) ‘Identity in History: Why It Matters and Must Be Addressed!’, Teaching History, (173), pp. 8–19.
- Todd, J. (2019) ‘HA Update: Thinking beyond boundaries’, Teaching History, (176), pp. 4–7.