Writing in Nazi occupied France, Jewish historian, Marc Bloch argued that “the scholar who has no inclination to observe the men (sic), the things, or the events around him will perhaps deserve the title…of a useful antiquarian. He would be wise to renounce all claims to that of a historian” (Bloch, 1992, p. 36). Nowhere is this more obvious at the moment than in terms of our understanding of race and racism. The last few months have seen a widespread outcry at our collective failures in Britain (and England especially) to face our colonial past and deal with the cancer of racism. And the challenge now is more than simply " being non-racist", but in being actively "anti-racist."
In some ways the positive assessment outlined might be considered true. For instance, the Schools History Project, which has been a voice in history since the 1970s, is built around six core principles, one of which states:
“SHP believes that the history curriculum is often too narrowly defined, and that it should continue to offer more opportunities for children and young people to study a range of periods in history, civilisations and cultures beyond Europe, family and local history and more social and cultural history. SHP campaigns for a history curriculum that reflects the continuing social, cultural and ethnic diversity of Britain. The Schools History Project promotes diverse content, diverse approaches to the study of history and a focus on the diverse experiences of people in the past.” (Schools History Project, no date)
Another SHP principle discusses the importance of history helping children to make sense of the world they live in:
“As history educators we need to make our subject meaningful for all children and young people by relating history to their lives in the 21st century. The Project strives for a history curriculum which encourages children and young people to become curious, to develop their own opinions and values based on a respect for evidence, and to build a deeper understanding of the present by engaging with and questioning the past."
"The community” might equally point to the many workshops at Historical Association conferences on themes such as globalising the Second World War, teaching the history of medieval Mali, or embedding migration through Key Stage 3 as evidence of a commitment to diversity. There has also been a fantastic HA Fellowship programme coordinated by Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn in conjunction with Nick Draper and Kate Donnington helping teachers to teach about transatlantic slavery. This certainly makes me proud to be part of the “history community”.
Testing the limits of our pride
But being proud of anything is always a risk. As my grandmother used to say, “pride comes before a fall.” The trouble is that “the community” risks being so caught up in its pride that it doesn’t realise that it has yet to get off the floor and walk. We have to be forensic in analysing the realities of how “the community” have dealt with the issue of race in the way we deliver curriculum. Are we actually being "anti-racist" in what we do? To claim that “we are already addressing” the #BLM challenge without looking at the evidence fully is to silence valid critique, and to gloss over an opportunity for proper reflection.
I will begin therefore, with some trepidation, with my own curriculum for ITE. As you can see below, I have built in some space for trainees to grapple with issues of curriculum and of representation. At the very start of the year trainees are asked to grapple with the overall narrative being delivered by various books, textbooks and curriculum constructions. We spend an entire day exploring diversity in the curriculum before Christmas, including an exploration of the RHS Race Report, the work of Mohamud and Whitburn, an engagement with Black Tudors etc. In March we have a cross curricular day with the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education exploring how to teach the Holocaust, which also involves a direct engagement with the concepts of race and racism. In addition to these, over the last two years, I have tried to incorporate more diverse topics into our coverage of second order concepts. Looking at evidence for example now involves an exploration of the 11th century Arabic manuscript, “The Book of Curiosities”
Moreover, I have never properly engaged in any serious self-reflection of what trainees have taken from the course. When Harris was concerned about his trainees’ engagement with diversity in history for example, he conducted a two-year study exploring their changing views (Harris, 2012). Indeed the "Justice 2 History" approach is to begin with student perceptions of curriculum. My "solutions" have therefore barely begun to address the challenges being raised, yet have allowed me to engage in a positive self-narrative of taking action. I have needed to disrupt this narrative with truth.
Examining school curriculum constructions
Given the issues in the construction of ITE curricula, it is worth now turning to school curricula as another proxy for the state of “the history teaching community”. For a further exploration of these issues, I would highly recommend reading Catherine Priggs’ article in Teaching History 179 which was published a week or so after I originally wrote this blog (Priggs, 2020).
There are of course some wonderful things happening in curriculum right now, not least Priggs’ own work I have noted above. I also mentioned in my previous blog the fantastic examples of history departments embracing more diverse teaching, which have been shown at conferences, or online. However, the “community” picture is far from uniform. I do not want to single out individual departments here as this is about reflection and not “blame”. But what is notable about Priggs’ work is its approach. Priggs and her department explore and review their curriculum with through their own critical lens but also that of their students. There is an express interest in being open and honest, as well as learning and improving. This is a wonderful model for us all. In this same vein, I think it is instructive to look at a “typical” Key Stage 3 curriculum and note the distance “the community” still has to travel.
The following extracts are taken from the two-year Key Stage 3 studied at all schools in one large academy chain. They are illustrative, I think, of a wider picture which I have experienced during my teaching career and whilst working with departments around England.
As Priggs (2020) notes, the imperative to teach “world” and/or “diverse” histories is not new, but adoption has been faltering, and more recent trends in education have actually seen a shift back towards more national narratives. The curriculum above is therefore not an isolated example. The content taught in schools has narrowed for all kinds of reasons and the National Curriculum requirements to study ‘world history’ have been watered down significantly through academisation. And this is before we consider how “world history”, when present, is too often taught. A study of “the Aztecs” for instance can too readily become a reinforcement of problematic narratives of conquest in which Indigenous peoples only appear in relation to European “exploration”. This is true of other topics of this type. The textbook extract on Columbus (below) gives a good sense of this.
So if we want to make a change, where do we begin? If you are anything like me, you will realise there are huge gaps in your knowledge and understanding. This can be frustrating. As a colleague recently said to me: channel that frustration into filling those knowledge gaps!
- If you have not already done so I would read Priggs’ (2020) recent article, Dennis’ “Beyond tokenism” (2016) and listen to the amazing Justice2History podcast on the need for anti-racism to be at the heart of history teaching. If this does not get you fired up for change then I am not sure what will.
- Having done this, I would then go back to Mohamud and Whitburn’s “Anatomy of an enquiry” (2019) in which they fantastically realign the notion of an enquiry-question-led curriculum with the idea of the enquiry ethic. To quote:
“It is universally accepted that secondary school history education is not about the inculcation of one master narrative of the past, but is rather an exploration of constructed pasts…Nonetheless, teachers have to select a particular focus for each of their enquiries and lessons. Which perspectives will be examined? Which sources and interpretations will be considered? Those choices make statements to our students, implicitly or explicitly, about ethical dimensions of the past and the present.” (Mohamud and Whitburn, 2019, p. 29)
- In expanding the notion of ethics, Mohamud and Whitburn refer to fourteen principles which were drawn up to guide the planning and teaching of enquiries linked to their fellowship programme. I have linked them here and highly recommend you have a read. What is revolutionary is to see the explicit exploration of concepts of race, resistance, gender, and other key concepts which we have an ethical imperative to teach to our students. How liberating to consider curriculum as a series of ethical choices which empower students in the present, rather having to hear curriculum described as an anachronistic canon of inherited cultural capital to be transmitted.
- Once you have wrestled with this, I would recommend listening to the Justice 2 History podcast on teaching Migration and Empire at GCSE. Although this seems fairly narrow in its focus, the scope is far bigger. Importantly, the contributors touch on the importance of pedagogies of empowerment which force us as teachers to engage with the ideas and knowledge students bring to school.
- With some initial reading done, it is then possible to turn to curriculum issues. Just like Priggs (2020), we need to ask serious questions about the ethics of what we teach. We need to ask about the ways in which we encounter and explain concepts of race, racism, class, gender, and so on. We need to review our curricula honestly in terms of diversity. We need to think carefully about the messages we send through the ways in which we teach history. We need to be forensic in exploring where we are doing well and where we are failing. Honesty is the only guard against complacency and therefore the only route to improvement. If you want to be really sure of the dangers of complacency, watch this amazing, short video on the ways in which children’s ideas are shaped by the world around them.
Demand a curriculum for justice
I think we also need to be vocal about the need for change. This is a potentially momentous opportunity for history teachers (and pupils) to demand widespread change in schools and universities. So often the content of our programmes, our curricula, are dictated by inertia, exam board specifications, or the mysterious market forces publishers use to determine their output. What power there is surely be in having the voices of teachers and pupils involved in a project to establish the ethical criteria for a curriculum for justice. A curriculum which not only gave a fuller picture of the past and its diversity, but also contextualised and helped explain for students the ideas and concepts which shape their world today. To return to Bloch briefly “ignorance of the past…confounds contemporary action” (Bloch, 1992, p. 35) and right now we need a generation are able to see and perceive the realities of injustice more clearly so that they can work to resolve them. That would be a curriculum which, as an SHP Fellow, would truly live out those principles I hold to be important in history teaching.
- Bloch, M. (1992) The Historian’s Craft. New Ed edition. Edited by P. Burke. Translated by P. Putnam. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Dennis, N. (2016) ‘Beyond tokenism: teaching a diverse history in the post-14 curriculum’, Teaching History, (165), pp. 37–41.
- Harris, R. (2012) ‘“Purpose” as a Way of Helping White Trainee History Teachers Engage with Diversity Issues’, Education Sciences, 2(4), pp. 218–241. doi: 10.3390/educsci2040218.
- McIntosh, K., Todd, J. and Das, N. (2019) ‘Teaching Migration, Belonging, and Empire in Secondary Schools’, p. 20.
- Mohamud, A. and Whitburn, R. (2019) ‘Anatomy of enquiry: deconstructing an approach to history curriculum planning’, Teaching History, (177), pp. 28–41.
- Priggs, C. (2020) ‘No more “doing” diversity: how one department used Year 8 input to reform curricular thinking about content choice’, Teaching History, (179), pp. 10–19.
- Schools History Project (no date) ‘Principles’, Schools History Project. Available at: http://www.schoolshistoryproject.co.uk/about-shp/principles/ (Accessed: 29 June 2020).
- Todd, J. (2019) ‘HA Update: Thinking beyond boundaries’, Teaching History, (176), pp. 4–7.