Issues in History Teaching
reviewed by Bruce VanSledright - 2002
As I write this review, the U.S. Congress is set to debate President Bush’s plan to make education in this country look more like that in the UK. In the Bush plan, the national government would get into the business of funding schools directly (e.g., vouchers), influencing the structure of the teaching profession (e.g., financial incentives for prospective teachers), and holding the nation’s schools accountable (e.g., using national tests to judge progress, meter out rewards, and impose sanctions). It’s not difficult to imagine that some vestige of a national curriculum would also result at some point, particularly as a consequence of national testing. But Americans are not quite there—yet.
Reading this edited volume in light of the Bush education plan, and a U.S. Congressional debate it will provoke, offers interesting opportunities to ask if we Americans are staring into a vision of our own future here, regulations, inspections, standardizations, and all. And do we like what we see? If such matters interest you, and you are curious about history teaching, then this book should be on your reading list.
Issues in History Teaching covers enormous breadth. In a review of this brevity I cannot do justice to it. I will attempt to touch on some semblance of this breadth. But I offer my apologies in advance for not attending in detail to it all.
Following James Arthur’s opening chapter in which he scans the horizon of (U.K.) history teaching issues and finds it as broad as I claim, Robert Phillips (Chapter 2) nicely frames outs the depth of government involvement in history teaching (and curriculum and learning and assessment and. . .) in U.K. schools. Of course, this chapter is filled with acronym stew, a constant reminder of how deeply Big Brother is involved in controlling what goes on in British schools. But Phillips does well assisting readers in sorting them out. The key contribution of this chapter is in its explication of the political climate influencing history education in the UK. In one political move for example, the Thatcher government promised to reduce the emphasis on teaching children to think historically via practicing history themselves and return the subject to the perceived halcyon days when it taught patriotism and inspired great pride in being English, as it ticked off one important British accomplishment after another.
Since the days when politics were played with UK history in plain view, the struggle has continued between Thatcherites and those who would see history taught more as a disciplinary practice. The tension between conservative politicians, who would use school history for their own partisan purposes, and those teachers, researchers, and academics, who would prefer history employed as an exercise in caution over the distortions this sort of partisanship inflicts on the curriculum, is palatable here and in much of the next section of the book. Although a body of history education research has accumulated in ways that have begun to match the rigorous work and disciplinary linkages of that done in England, little of this same tension exists in the U.S. Research and disciplinary practices are seldom mentioned in political and policy venues. So, we might ask, if the Bush education plan succeeds, are we able to anticipate many of its curricular and pedagogical consequences by looking more closely here at the Thatcher government’s political manipulations of school history?
Within the book’s opening section, we also encounter a third chapter, by Penelope Harnett, on issues related to curriculum decision making in primary school history. This chapter is well crafted and carefully traces out the move to more history in the primary grades and then a retrenchment in this policy in the 1990s following government review and intervention (Big Brother’s hand yet again). However, it seems oddly placed in this introductory section. The two preceding chapters touched on a wider set of issues and provided a UK context. Harnett’s chapter seems more appropriately placed in Section II of the book where matters such as multiculturalism, the role of citizenship, and history in Europe are treated. Nonetheless, it may offer Americans some additional insight into the role history can play in the primary grades under more centralized and politicized control.
The first titled subsection of Issues deals with those concerns related perhaps most directly to history teachers and their classrooms. Chapter 4, by Martin Hunt ponders the always-problematic issue of teaching historical significance. In Chapter 5, Christine Counsell takes up another thorny issue that some frequently raise in misguided attempts to separate historical knowledge from the investigative and creative acts that produce it. Counsell effectively deconstructs the distinction and re-weds these two sides of the same coin. Tony McLeavy takes on teaching issues related to the nature of interpretation in Chapter 6. Here again, the role of government politics in the U.K. bears heavily on questions of interpretation. Chapter 7 (Stow and Haydn) goes on where Chapter 6 leaves off, noting how a deep concern with teaching chronology returned to the history curriculum via government intervention in 1991. Again, conservative forces—those most interested in seeing a celebratory narrative of British accomplishment taught in schools—demonstrated disenchantment with what they perceived to be little teaching of British historical chronology. Their target was the Schools Council History Project (SCHP), which in the 1970s and 1980s had promoted developing students’ historical thinking capacities in ways that mirrored history as a discipline. Chronology was central to this process maintained SCHP, but teaching inquiry and focusing on issues of significance and the status of accounts required greater time and energy commitments because of their complexity. The 1991 National Curriculum attempted to "rectify" the situation and inspection criteria for teaching soon followed suit. Stow and Haydn use what remains of their chapter to touch on the key issues history teachers faced in the aftermath, buttressing it with practical advice about strategies and tools for teaching it. Here, again, we have front row seats on what happens for history teachers and school history when curriculum components and assessment practices become centralized within a national bureaucracy, and then politicians attempt to employ it to their advantage. For Americans, these chapters should sum up to a distinct cautionary tale.
Chapters 8 and 9 treat two other pressing issues affecting history teachers, the use of instructional technologies in the classroom and accommodating those students with special needs, respectively. Chapter 10 (Husbands and Pendry) is the first chapter to address a history teaching issue—the problem of achieving historical contextualization—with data collected from their own research program. This is an instructive chapter for the way in which it draws on data generated by children to make recommendations for teaching. This chapter differs from the others in that it attempts to educate teachers about what children do, rather than by calling attention to what government regulations demand. In this sense, it offers American readers a window on how history education research can be and often is linked to practice in the UK, a different kind of vision about a possible future than the highly regulated and frequently politically-driven process we have read about up to this point.
Section I considered as a cluster of inter-related chapters makes clear for history teachers the manifestations of the running tension I noted earlier. On the one hand, we see repeated appearances of the heavy hand of Big Brother at almost every turn, showing American history teachers a vision of what a government-controlled and a partisanship-sensitive education system might result in for them. On the other hand, we encounter vestiges of a different vision, one turning on research on children’s learning and around topics (significance, interpretation) whose roots lie in the discipline of history. In America, we have no such hard-won tradition of rooting history teaching in research scholarship that derives from disciplinary principles. So, witnessing the influence of partisan politics on school history and teaching in the U.K. via central bureaucratic-control mechanisms should give considerable pause to thoughts of moving decisions about history education closer to Washington.
Section II of this volume comprises four chapters that strike out in different ways across a larger set of concerns that touch upon history education and teaching. In Chapter 11, Ian Davies explores recent government requirements to turn history into greater service for new citizenship demands being made by politicians. Yet again, we witness the power of politicians in this centrally-controlled system to tilt it to serve whatever they perceive to suit their purposes. Reading this chapter gives the impression that those who advocate for history teaching framed by reference to research scholarship and disciplinary roots are in the midst of a losing battle over influence.
Chapter 12, by Ian Grosvenor treats the issue of multiculturalism and its role in history teaching. Once again we see the terrain cast in a battle over narrow partisan interests seeking control over a centralized system to advantage their causes. Rounding out this section, Hilary Cooper (Chapter 13) deals with the role of history in primary schools (in some ways retreading the ground charted earlier by Harnett), and Ruth Watts (Chapter 14) considers history teaching on the European continent and what it portends for history teaching in the UK.
The final section of the book consists of three chapters all written by the same team of government teaching inspectors (HMIs), Baker, Cohn and McLaughlin. They consider issues that affect the process of educating future history teachers. They draw from what they claim to be the most "complete and detailed investigation ever undertaken by HMI of how secondary history teachers are trained" (p. 191) to deal with issues such as differences in training practices across England, the role of subject matter knowledge, and how new teachers learn to report student progress. Arguably, the apex of the influence of centralized control can be found in these chapters along with examples of how vulnerable this teacher education system is to partisan influence and manipulation.
Chapters in Section III perhaps much more so than those before them should provoke worry about a number of consequences emerging from government control. But all is not cause for alarm. Such central government involvement in England does bring the conversation on history education to the front lines. In the U.S., our national obsessions seem to turn on mathematics, science, and literacy education. Talk of history education is drowned out by the noise surrounding these other concerns. The appearance of Issues in History Teaching suggests that things are different in the U.K.