Spot the Difference

April 29, 2013

I think this is worth pointing out regarding my comments last time on Labour’s education team.

Here are the views of Tristram Hunt MP on the emphasis on British history in the new national curriculum before he became part of the shadow education team (from the Times):

For all the criticism levelled at the Secretary of State for Education’s new history curriculum he is passionate about the past. What is more, he is right to put British history at the forefront of teaching. The extraordinarily aggressive response by teachers and professionals to the Gove plans misreads history’s place in the education system. Unlike chemistry or English literature, teaching history involves not just traditional academic skills, but also difficult questions of identity and citizenship. This is the reason why its revision inspires such fury and why it is right for democratically elected politicians to be involved in framing the content.

At the heart of the controversy is the question of Britishness. Critics suggest that in a modern, globalised world, dominated by China and India, it is backward and wrong-headed to promote some updated version of “Our Island Story”. Surely, tomorrow’s citizens should study Benin and Bangladesh as much as Great Britain?

In fact, in a multicultural society where civic ties are weaker, it is more important than ever to put British history above other national narratives. And it is vital to do so within the classroom as the traditional levers for inculcating a sense of the past — extended families; churches and chapels; Cubs and Scouts; political parties — are atrophying. A cohesive society requires a sense of national identity developed through a sympathetic and reflexive account of the British past.

…For progressives, a focus on British history should be welcome. a sense of historical struggle — the line of march — was a traditional prerequisite for Labour pamphleteering. Michael Foot liked to recall how his Liberal father Isaac’s interweaving of past and present informed his political philosophy. “Historical figures and their modern counterparts melted into one,” Foot wrote. “Brewers, protectionists, papists, apologists for Lord North and the Chamberlain family; Spanish tyrants and Stuart kings; men of Munich and Suez; sons of Belial and Beelzebub, normally disguised as West Country Tories, an especially reprehensible branch of the species.”

I think Michael Foot might have welcomed a curriculum that includes the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and Annie Besant. Let’s hope the publicity surrounding the new syllabus might even help to address the criminal gap that still exists in access to history between middle and working-class communities. In Knowsley, near Liverpool, only 16.8 per cent of pupils are entered for history GCSE, in contrast to 45.4 per cent in Richmond upon Thames. Whole generations are denied a sense of national belonging — let alone the sheer richness of the past.

And here are his views expressed shortly after his promotion at a meeting of “Defend School History” a campaign group which, as far as I can tell, is organised by supporters of the Socialist Workers Party:

This is a highly political project by Michael Gove. We have education questions in parliament once every five weeks and, without fail, on that order paper, when Conservative backbenchers ask questions it will be about the teaching of British history. “Why isn’t there more teaching of British history?”; “What’s happened to the teaching of British history in our syllabus?” and it speaks to a deep, deep discomfort that the Conservative Party has with modern Britain and they are using the history syllabus as a sort of psychological tool for their levels of discomfort with the nature of modern Britain. And so behind this whole conversation is a sort of psychological journey on behalf of the Conservative Party. With that, Michael Gove knows that, from his own political stance, it’s a rather easy, cost-free way of appealing to this base and appealing to this politics, to have the kind of rhetoric that he’s employed about the nature of our past, and the teaching of our past, and how our teachers are all betraying our children and not teaching our wonderful island story.

So there is a political element to this; a psychological element to this, but also … an element of arrogance by Michael Gove. The way in which this syllabus developed and the conversations that were had, and the consultations that were had, and the sort of traditional ways in which things were just about being managed. And then it all came to a stop and it’s almost as if you can see that he took it away for the weekend and rewrote it himself. And those of us who are scholars of Michael Gove can see the turns of phrase; the reference points; the fact that as it were the end of hisotry ends with the fall of Margaret Thatcher; a Fukuyama kind of way. This language about the follies of mankind. it is a very sort of, on the one hand, Whiggish account of British history and then, as it were, a very sort of sceptical Tory account about [how] there is nothing to learn from the past, at the same time.

The other point about the nature of the syllabus, and why it was political, is that there isn’t much wrong it seems to me with key stages 3 and 4 in terms of the history syllabus and if… you were of a mind as a teacher to teach a certain narrative of the past in terms of the teaching of Britishness and British history you have the space within the syllabus to do that. And actually as every single report from Michael Madison has pointed out and the Ofsted reports show – he’s the history inspector for Ofsted; he’s in the schools week in week out – actually the syllabus is working fairly effectively. It gives quite a nice broad range. It allows you to specialise in local history; go international, teach British history. … If you are going to focus your energies somewhere as a minister that’s not necessarily where you would; that’s not the problem. It’s a problem for the Conservative Party because of their relationship with modern Britain but it’s not a problem in terms of the teaching of history and the nature of history in our schools.

So there you go, on the one hand, as told to the Times, a narrative version of history, concentrating on British history, is right in principle, meeting a genuine need. Objections are mistaken and it should be accepted by the left. On the other hand, as told to Defend School History, it is politically motivated, ideologically biased to both Whiggery and Toryism and completely unnecessary because the curriculum is fine as it is.

It would be great to think that Tristram Hunt had ended up at the Defend School History meeting because his predecessor had agreed to attend, and that his seeming contradictions were down to carelessness and desperation at needing to please a potentially hostile crowd.

However, there is another, more disturbing possibility. Within about a week, he may have gone native. He may be assuming that Ofsted reports on teaching history are a source of neutral expertise that he must accept as accurate. His comments suggest he may be looking at the report “History for All” which declares that:

The most effective subject pedagogy, which ensured high achievement in history, was shown by teachers whose approach focused on well-structured enquiry, embracing independent thinking and learning. This approach was generally more evident and successful in the schools visited for this survey than in those visited for the previous 2004–07 survey. The following example
illustrates highly effective practice in developing pupils’ enquiry skills.

Students in Year 9 were given the task of investigating changes in bombing strategy, comparing the First and Second World Wars. They devised their enquiries and structured them appropriately with individual guidance from the class teacher. Each student had her or his own laptop and used both academic and general interest websites to research data and find different interpretations. This valuable exercise led to some valid independent work. It was enhanced by the fact that, although students were given a broad framework and a key question which they were required to answer, the structure of the enquiry was not prescribed and
the students were able to develop their own styles and structures.

In the very best lessons seen, teachers developed pupils’ enquiry skills by: „

  • providing a clear framework and sense of direction for the investigation
  • controlling the scope of pupils’ expectations and encouraging them to identify and pursue valid lines of enquiry
  • ensuring that research activities were matched by high levels of cognitive challenge
  • encouraging pupils to think for themselves and giving them sufficient time to consider what they were studying and what this told them about, for example, the importance of an event, or the consequences of an action
  • maintaining a relentless focus on subject-specific thinking which helped to develop pupils’ willingness to work things out for themselves, pose high quality historical questions and propose hypotheses about the past.

Not surprisingly, from a point of view that says children working things out for themselves is the best sort of teaching, then there is nothing wrong with the current dumbed-down, skills-based history curriculum. From this perspective, the new-knowledge-based curriculum is an unnecessary change forced on history teachers by those reactionary souls who want kids to actually know stuff.

Tristram Hunt is one of the few Labour MPs with a record of opposing dumbing-down. I can only hope that his latest speech is an aberration, and he does not feel that his new job requires him to spout the line, and accept the advice of the education establishment in supporting a situation which leaves kids staggeringly short of basic historical knowledge.


  1. How do teachers ‘providing a clear framework and sense of direction’, ‘controlling’ a pursual of ‘valid enquiry’ through ‘research’ with ‘high levels of cognitive challenge’ and ‘maintaining a relentless focus on subject-specific thinking’ equate to ‘children working things out for themselves’?

    • In the literal sense.

      • But that’s not literal – it suggests high levels of teacher control and a focus on building from knowledge domains – not a free for all.

        • My phrase “children working things out for themselves” seems a perfectly good fit for any situation where kids have to make an enquiry rather than actually be taught.

  2. While I’m waiting for moderation, it might be worth adding that this kind of approach is what students have to do an Oxford and Cambridge, so getting them to think and work in this way is highly demanding. My son is let loose on material there, producing 3500 word essays every week. His research skills, independence, ability to follow a line of enquiry within subject-specific thinking are what his tutors think mark out excellent students. So what is the problem? I’m genuinely struggling to understand.

    • The more expert one becomes, the more one has to enquire for oneself rather than be taught.

      However, for those who are not yet expert, discovery-based learning is an ineffective method which helps ensure children will never become expert.

      • I teach history and have no problem seeing why the task described by Ofsted would not work well but Oxbridge students can get on with researching their essays without guidance. All my experience confirms that the students our dept have sent off to Oxbridge have the knowlege and skills to research effectively and the average GCSE student doesn’t. It is interesting that the comments by Ofsted on how the teacher could make the research effective amount to taking the independence put of the task while still claiming it is independent work. I have done the exact task described for GCSE coursework and have a very clear idea how worthwhile it is to send students off googling that topic in the hope they will be able to answer the question from their findings.
        Debra, I’m amused you think you comments will be subject to moderation. Could that be because you moderate comments you don’t like? In this area too I speak from experience.

        • Or should I say you censor at moderation.

          • ?

          • You chose not to publish my comment on your blog, questioning your interpretation of Willingham, even though you considered it worth following it up with Willingham himself and emailing me privately. I requested that you publish the comment so we could debate whether Wilingham had really endorsed your views as you claimed by email. I checked for a week or so afterwards but the comment was never published although Willingham did then deny any endorsement on Twitter…

  3. The problem is that, for the most part, they don’t know any history. I’m not a history teacher: my subject is English Language, which – as taught for A2 particularly – involves students understanding the processes and results of language change. Language, of course, changes partly as a result of social and historical pressures, and therefore students have to know at least the outline of British history from (roughly) the fall of the Roman Empire, when England was settled by Germanic tribes, to the present day.

    They don’t.

    The enormous majority of my students know, roughly speaking, nothing. The brighter ones recall that there was a chap called William the Conqueror, who won the Battle of Hastings in 1066; the really bright ones know that William and his followers came from Normandy. They don’t know where the Normans came from originally, nor that they spoke French, nor anything at all about the feudal system, the use of Latin in the Church and in education, etc, etc. In our school, they do Castles and Witches at KS3, so they all have a rough idea about those, although they haven’t the foggiest notion when castles were built and when witches were burnt (even though witches weren’t burnt in England, but hanged|). They also know a little about the horrors of the Black Death, though they can’t tell you within three centuries when the first terrible epidemic ravaged Europe.

    The ones who aren’t doing Early Modern History for A-level (the vast majority) don’t know anything about the Reformation, save that Henry VIII had six wives (they do remember that, for some reason, and the names of most of said wives). There’s then a massive blank period where odd names float around in Brownian motion (Queen Victoria, Charles I having his head cut off, Shakespeare, suffragettes, the slave trade, Mary Seacole – though she’s from primary school) until we get to WWI, which quite a few of them have ‘done’ at GCSE. After that, there’s a bit more knowledge, but too late to be help them understand the context of any text from before 1900.

    I spend a lot of my time trying to get them to internalise some sort of timeline, and teaching them the most basic outline of history, just so that they can understand how (and to some extent, why) English has changed. I resent it, because that should have been the job of my History colleagues – not that it’s their fault: most of them dislike the way they have to teach, a system which, by treating 11-year-olds as ‘professional’ historians,* leads to their knowing effectively nothing save how to blag their way through ‘source analysis’.

    I should also point out that I teach in a girls’ grammar school (maintained – well, an academy now, but same difference so far), so we have bright, motivated pupils who want to learn. But they haven’t learnt anything much from primary school, three years of compulsory history and (for two-thirds of them) two years of GCSE. So whatever the theory, in practice it hasn’t worked. And Debra, are you really suggesting that the sort of self-driven approach which Oxbridge has always practised – although one is also supposed to attend a sizeable number of lectures each week – will work with a class of 30 11-year-olds who don’t have a basic framework of knowledge into which to fit the ‘subject-specific thinking’?

    *The link which our host provides to Derek Matthews’ article is satisfactorily scathing about this approach.

    • I have some sympathy with this Sue – I’m an English teacher too and recognise some of the things you say. But I think the reasons for this are complex. Firstly, I think that History in primary will never be taught as well as it might for as long as SATS remain as a temptation to reduce the curriculum down to literacy and numeracy. Also asking children to remember historical facts for the next ten years, ready for a possible reference in an English paper is a big ask unless we make the learning experience memorable through narrative, emotional and physical processes. The fact that the KS4 and 5 popular History syllabuses limit content largely to 20th C history can also have downward effect on KS3, though there are some brilliant schools countering that practice. So yes, I broadly agree. But facts don’t stick unless they are rooted in a meaningful process and the new curriculum does nothing to address this.

      There aren’t that many lectures at Oxford if my son’s experience is anything to go by! But very long and intensive tutorials where he has to prove he is thinking, researching and working independently and originally.

      Finally, if you look at a pedagogy like mantle of the expert, you can see how deep knowledge and process can combine. And it works with groups of 35 as I can testify.

      • The average Oxford degree has between 1 and 2 tutorials a week, lasting about an hour, and there are generally 2-3 relevant lectures a day, lasting also an hour, although they are generally optional and pre-noon, so perhaps he is opting for a lie in instead, I mostly did.

        In any event, comparing an adult student of Oxbridge standard to an average GCSE student in terms of the appropriate academic activity for them isn’t really relevant to anything much.

      • I admit that I’m hazy on the number of lectures in the current Oxford History School, though I wouldn’t take your son’s experience as demonstrating the number on offer, given the propensity of undergraduates to sleep in (and yes, I do speak from memory!). But I think we’d probably agree that, though the Oxbridge practice of individual reading combined with tutorials/supervisions is a wonderful system, it’s hardly practical for most schools.

        My semi-disagreement with you focuses on your comment: “Also asking children to remember historical facts for the next ten years, ready for a possible reference in an English paper is a big ask unless we make the learning experience memorable through narrative, emotional and physical processes.” “Semi”, because I wouldn’t dispute the desirability of “making the learning experience memorable”, though we might argue about the best ways of doing that. However, I think you exaggerate the difficulty of getting children to remember facts or anything else if there’s a will to do so: material has to be constantly revisited, not by teaching it all over again (well, not invariably!) but by a regime of revising and testing, and most of all of USING what’s already been taught: constantly referring to it while building on it. That, after all, is how we teach the ‘mechanical’ side of English: having taught them how to use apostrophes, we then continually correct their mistakes; we teach sentence structure, and then remind them to use subordinate clauses, or to front adverbials (or whatever). I admit that at the end of this process, there are still an awful lot who can’t manage it completely, but overall, they do improve.

        The main objection to ‘building’ in this way in history, of course, is that history concerns facts rather than skills (although one of the problems of the modern History syllabus is that the ‘skill’ of source analysis is often stressed to the detriment of facts). But I’m not really suggesting that they have a test on the Wars of the Roses every week, or on the Reform Act of 1832 every fortnight – just that history teaching should be chronological, not topic-based or thematic, and that every history teacher should focus on gradually instilling a ‘timeline’ in the minds of pupils. This is a very tricky task, and I’m by no means underestimating its difficulty; many children will still be ignorant at the end of the process. But at the moment, all of them are.

        Do you ever watch the BBC1 quiz ‘Pointless’? It’s a very interesting programme in that there are ‘clumps’ of questions on the same subject – 14 questions on football, capital cities, actresses, top 40 singles, best-sellers, Shakespeare and so on. It’s noticeable that when there’s a board dealing with historical topics, the contestants who are 40+ are reasonably good, whereas those below that age struggle, and almost invariably start by saying ‘I don’t know anything about history’ or ‘Not a good subject for me’. Compare that with literature questions, where most contestants are weak, but there’s no age differential.

        To sum up: I’d suggest that modern history teaching, by focusing on process and avoiding any sort of chronological structure, actually fails to teach history, and that this has a knock-on effect on all their knowledge. It’s not a matter of geting them “ready for a possible reference in an English paper”, but of transmitting to them the story and the culture of the place they live; of helping them understand why we are where we are; and (if you agree with Santayana that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”) perhaps giving them a sense of caution about the future.

        However, I suspect that we may never be able to return to the sort of history teaching I recall from my schooldays, if only because much of it was indeed boring, and modern pedagogy will do anything to avoid the B word. Unfortunately we (enthusiastically supported by the surrounding culture) have bred generations of children who can’t bear being bored even for five minutes, and I fear there may be no going back.

        I’d better stop. It’s my Day Off (being part-time, I currently get one per fortnight), and I have vast numbers of essays and coursework folders to mark. (I can see everyone who reads this shuddering in agreement, whatever their take on my argument!)

        Looking forward to your response, if you can find time between your own batches of marking!

  4. I feel your pain. I teach English Literature at university level, and we are constantly having to explain the historical context. This year we put on extra sessions to explain the Renaissance and the Reformation. My specialist area is Modernism, and I’ve devoted a lot of time this year to explaining what exactly the First World War was.

  5. English teachers are united on this subject! Many of my English lessons by necessity included long excurses on historical background due to the dearth of knowledge.

    I remember one memorable ‘Functional Skills’ lesson in which the 16 year olds were not familiar with the concepts of “BC” and “AD”, another one in which noone had even heard of Alfred the Great, and yet another when the student’s best guess for the date of the Battle of Thermopylae (that one with Gerard Butler) was 1914.

  6. Are any of the broadsheets following up Tristan Hunt’s contracdictory and contrary comments?

  7. […] replacement, Tristram Hunt, has had inconsistencies of his own but they seemed to be a result of the contradictory pressures of being fairly sensible about […]

  8. […] replacement, Tristram Hunt, has had inconsistencies of his own but they seemed to be a result of the contradictory pressures of being fairly sensible about […]

  9. […] a year ago I wrote a blogpost entitled “Spot the Difference” comparing what Tristram Hunt was saying about the history curriculum before he became part […]

  10. […] His views on the teaching of history; […]

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