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Why Too Much History is Bad History: The Proposed History Curriculum

2013 February 22
by lucinda matthews-jones

by Greg Jenner

We would like to encourage readers to comment on the UK Government’s proposed changes to the National Curriculum. We are particularly interested in your views on how the nineteenth century is going to be taught. You can comment in the ‘Leave a Reply’ box at the end of the post. The proposed National Curriculum can be downloaded here.

Michael Gove’s proposed history curriculum has lately been the subject of intense discussion amongst teachers and historians, and with good cause, for it represents an ideological shift back towards the moral didacticism of yesteryear. Reacting to accusations that children were leaving school with no understanding of historical chronology, and a worrying paucity of broader factual knowledge, the Secretary of State for Education has sought edifying solace in what he perceives as the halcyon scholastic traditions of the past. While we’re all avid fans of the 19th century here, I’m glad I’m not a Victorian, and don’t particular want my future children to be raised in their restrictive education system.Indeed, Mr Gove’s plans worry me on both philosophical and pragmatic lines, as I’ll attempt to lay out here.

The first line in the section entitled Aims is that pupils will be able to ‘know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world.’  Perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but it is striking how such phraseology posits Britain as an axiomatic force in world history. While such a claim is indeed valid – at points, the sun never set on the vast British Empire –the gilded age of colonialism is long since over, and yet there is just a hint of celebratory pride about the construction of that sentence.However, I am willing to forgive this opening gambit, because the other strategic aims seem fairer,with their emphasis on:

  • The chronology of British history, and its modern consequences
  • Broad outlines of European and world history: the rise and fall of ancient civilizations; the achievements and follies of mankind
  • Understanding abstract terms such as ‘empire’, ‘civilization’, ‘parliament’
  • Understanding concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, to analyse trends
  • Understanding how evidence is used to create different interpretations
  • Gaining historical perspective by placing their growing knowledge into different contexts

It’s hard to argue with these sensible and worthy objectives, but what I find more troubling is the way in which the curriculum seems poorly tailored to the children it’s designed to instruct.

Now, I’m neither a teacher nor a developmental psychologist, but I do provide historical research to Horrible Histories (a factually-accurate comedy sketch show aimed at children between the ages of 7-12) and I know that many children younger than 7 tune in to watch. Based on limited anecdotal reportage, it seems these younger kids enjoy the high energy and the rude scatology, and some have sponge-like brains which allow them to rattle off any number of historical facts; but when quizzed more closely, it turns out their talents appear to be more a form of sophisticated mimicry, rather than accomplished comprehension.

Yet, in Mr Gove’s proposals, it is during Key Stage 1 – when kids are only between 5-7 years old – that pupils are expected to develop an understanding of such arcane concepts as nationality, civilization, monarchy, democracy and war. I can unashamedly tell you that these are supremely difficult intellectual constructs which intellectually challenge many adults, including me, so I really doubt that small children will embrace them easily.  Meanwhile, these young pupils are also expected to learn about the scientific contributions of such luminaries as Michael Faraday, Florence Nightingale, Isaac Newton and William Harvey, despite not yet having any knowledge of historical chronology, or science for that matter. So, all in all, KS1 seems overly-ambitious… but that’s just the start.

The linear chronology only gets underway in KS2, between the ages of 7-11, when kids are expected to grasp a huge swathe of history, beginning with the Greeks and Romans (though I see no mention of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese or Indus Valley peoples), and then bomb emphatically through British history’s trajectory, from Stonehenge to the Glorious Revolution, via all the headline history that a 1950s textbook might include.  This produces some rather unfortunate outcomes, most obviously being that no child will study ancient civilizations after the age of 7, unless they do GCSE History, and that – due to the British Isles’ insularity during the Middle Ages – it seems the rest of the world almost vanishes entirely, including anything to do with the Islamic contribution to science and learning.

By the start of KS3, kids are 11.  When I was that age, I distinctly remember making a project book about mummification and tombs in Ancient Egypt – one which I found creative and thrilling – but our youngsters will instead hurtle headlong into Clive of India and the Age of Revolution. Soon after, they will be grappling with the US Constitution and Enlightenment philosophy, where they’ll study Isaac Newton for the second time in their short lives. Midway through KS3, perhaps aged 12 or 13, the Victorians will finally get a look in, and it seems Mary Seacole has managed to cling on, after a justified public outcry; but the emphasis on the Industrial Revolution, Corn Laws, Education Reform, and the gunboat diplomacy of Empire, will be extraordinarily hard-going for children in their very early teens. Indeed, by the time they come to choosing GCSE options, they’ll have seen two world wars, global economic recession, the Berlin Wall going up, and the Iron Curtain coming down… all of which is rather grim.

While I welcome the idea of teaching linear narrative, this proposed curriculum is extraordinarily dense and dry, to the point that even I am exhausted by reading it! But not being a teacher, I wanted to know if I was in the minority, and so I sought a few out on Twitter, and their response was much like mine: universal despair at the idea of wading through this treacly tapestry of Proper History, stuffed to the brim with key dates, famous men, dull politics, difficult technological evolutions, and the ceaseless, triumphal march of Whiggish Progress.

Teachers will no doubt endeavour to enliven their lessons, but with such a curriculum they will struggle to captivate the imaginations of their young pupils, and that will be a fatal tragedy for the subject of history. The Horrible Histories books were a reaction to this proscriptive, joyless form of pedagogy, and having reached more than 50% of all the kids in Britain with the TV spin-off, it genuinely alarms me to contemplate all that recently-inspired historical passion that I have witnessed being threatened with a dreary top-down regression to the educational mores of a bygone age. I sincerely hope Mr Gove listens to those at the sharp end, and addresses the manifest problems in this document, or we will see generations of adults for whom reading history is a terrifying or tedious chore, rather than a joyous journey of discovery.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. February 23, 2013

    http://john-murphy.co.uk/?page_id=1255 sets out the dangers that comes from a ‘nationalist’ approach to historical chronology for it was all get wrapped up in the myth building national narrative histories composed in nineteenth centuries for good reasons but determinist perspective.

    I agree with you that back to the future is no way to learn about how we understand the past. The problem is Gove has only consulted academics who agree with his world view. the fact that a Secretary of State should think he or she ought to control the curriculum is itself a sign that something is fundamentally wrong. We went this blind alley in the 1970’s and it has not resolved the problem. Thinking that Grammar school curricula devised for the top 20% doing O’levels is the place to find the answers shows how misplaced Gove’s judgement is more faulty than that of Paris…but of course his cheerleaders in the Murdoch Press ensure he will not have to answer any difficult questions.

    If we need to travel down this road I’d rather we start with H.A.L Fisher History of Europe which at least ties us into Western Civilisation rather than the tosh of our Island story which always turns out not include the story of bits of our Island inimical to the myth building narrative of the special nature of the English. Gove’s history curriculum – from Manifest Destiny to Manifest Dysentery, or how running chronology may lead to intellectual dehydration.

  2. February 23, 2013

    Much of what you say is spot on!
    Teachers will of course be able to deliver such a curriculum: it’s easy. Anyone can read chapter and verse from a children’s history of Britain and its empire. And we will create exactly the sort of children that the original Victorian curricula did: a small minority who become all-knowing encyclopaedias of events – although with no discernible skill in determining different interpretations – and a majority for whom the facts merge into a pool of vague historical awareness, but little understanding.
    And of course, KS3 teachers will curse their primary colleagues for failing to properly impart a detailed knowledge of the significance of Magna Carta, while Y5 teachers will wonder how on earth they’ll ever teach Magna Carta and the crusades in the same half term while they’re also trying to organise the school trip for Geography and teach a whole host of grammatical terms and spellings.
    It is, in short, a disaster which will serve only the very narrowest strand of our society: presumably those much like our current ministers.
    I hope you will be adding your voice to the consultation process!

  3. Louis Mazzini D'Ascoyne permalink
    February 23, 2013

    I agree with everything being said. However I see no harm it a bit of British pride in our youth, so long isn’t taken to extremes. There may be some times during the KS1 period when historical learn and context is needed. For example, children will want to know who the Queen is, and why we have a Queen when others don’t. And in order to explain such concepts, institution such as monarchy needs to be in explained (preferable in positive terms). As for the KS2 program, it is completely overwhelming and shows a distinct lack of understanding modern schools. Better explained I think by Sir Humphrey Appleby here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeF_o1Ss1NQ
    KS3 Should be all about getting children to love history; The vast, inter-connecting, thought provoking and above all exciting fun of it. However I suspect the current proposal is more stick then carrot. Why not simply allow the student to choose the area of history to which they feel most comfortable with and report back to the teachers? That is, of course after the teachers have explained general knowledge and how history should be understood by facts, both first and second person.
    Please let me know if this is a good idea. I don’t have any children. In fact I would rather have varucas then children, but I do care about history and how it is taught.

  4. Ellie permalink
    February 23, 2013

    I’m a year 3 teacher, currently teaching (in regards to History) a local history of my area which is actually rather boring as consists of the Brick Works of Luton and the architecture of the local housing (have tried to ‘jazz’ it up a bit by including transport through the ages), followed by WW2 (great at this age) and finally we look at the Romans and invasion of Celtic Britain (is part of an ‘Italian Job’ creative curriculum so includes Renaissance Art too).
    I do think that the Linear angle of teaching History is important as the kids need some chronological understanding but like yourself, I do not see the benefit of teaching it by this order. I do love the fact that if I continue teaching this age group I shall be starting off with the Greek and Roman empires as this links directly to my degree and ‘specialism’ but unfortunately my school won’t have the foresight to allow me to teach Latin (despite the new curriculm MFL criteria) as we have always stuck to French for no particular reason!
    I personally think it would be nice to teach History in an order that is fitting for the age, dinosaurs for youngsters and Egyptians for Yr 6 or 7, WW2 at yr 3 and then revisited in KS3. I just hope School Leaders ask their Staff for some feedback as to where strengths may lie so that we can focus our History knowledge accordingly and share ideas.
    In regards to the teaching of Victorian Britain the focus needs to be on the children and the Workhouse environment. Oliver Twist will have another revival and the Rich or Poor discussion will be commonplace.
    I am now aware I am rambling and not really making a well thought out point so I shall sign off abruptly.

  5. Karen Williams permalink
    February 23, 2013

    I despair of this new curriculum for all involved, including me. I think the content is overwhelming for everybody, there is too much for the Primary schools to cover, they don’t have history lessons every week of the year at the moment just project based activities. I cannot see how they will be able to cover what Gove wants in the time they have available. Medieval history, which I love, will be seen as a primary school subject with little chance to revisit it until A Level or university.
    The secondary curriculum is dull and dry. At the age of eleven the Congress of Vienna will be bewilderingly complicated and switch students off from the beginning of their time in their new school. At the moment I suggest that most schools teach a chronology from 1066 to World War Two ( we are trying to get beyond to the Cold War as well) and even then some children find it hard to grasp concepts that they will be expected to understand at Primary school, like the Reformation. I am exasperated by the thought of the new curriculum , no one will enjoy it and that has implications for the number of students at GCSE and on to A level and university

  6. February 23, 2013

    We film parts of our history curriculum based on the way Horrible Histories film their various stories – they research often quite dull topics and find unique ways to retell the stories, some very recent examples can be seen here http://st-austins.primarypodcast.com/
    They also never forget! We have children returning to our school years later talking about the experience.
    The issue isn’t about a prescribed curriculum – the last curriculum for history and probably the one before that was just as prescriptive. Good teachers will continue to find interesting ways to engage children, Horrible Histories being a prime example (they are superb teachers!). If something that has been left out of the draft history curriculum which teachers feel strongly about teaching, they will teach it! We recently taught our children about Nelson Mandela and Rosa Parks – I don’t remember them being on any prescribed curriculum and our children didn’t end up feeling any less English as a result!

  7. Adam permalink
    February 23, 2013

    I laughed out loud while reading this when I realised that the Gove curriculum actually proposed working chronologically through history from ancient times to modern events by school year!

    It is such a simplistic and mindless approach that one struggles to know where to begin. I look forward to the Gove English lessons where children study Chaucer, then Shakespeare then Austen and onto modern writers. After all, that would ensure that students would fully understand the literary chronology of British writing.

  8. Isaac Lux permalink
    February 24, 2013

    I quite like the look of the proposed History curriculum. At school I never learnt about the Anglo-Saxons or the Renaissance or about the 17th century and the Civil War – it was all Tudors and Romans. I’m jealous of these children getting to learn all this!

  9. Norman Pratt permalink
    February 25, 2013

    This is not a syllabus, it’s just a list of dates, many of them about wars. It’s potentially the most rivetingly dull syllabus I have ever seen. If it is, as I suspect, going to be assessed on how much children can remember about the Seven Years’ War etc., I think they will be put off History for life (except possibly a few who are set for a career in the army). As for Victorian History, this is now removed from Primary school (where it was a hit), just because it doesn’t ‘fit the chronology’. When children get to Key Stage 3 they will not be introduced to Victorian life so much as to ‘The Eastern Question’ and ‘The Great Game’. But I’m just a retired teacher very angry at years of progress in the teaching of History being trashed. (Sorry, Isaac, that your school missed out – but the teaching of History 30 years ago, before the so-called ‘New History’ came in, really was dire in most schools and needed reform, which the government is now trying to undo.) For a parental viewpoint, see mumsnet.

  10. February 25, 2013

    Totally agree. In addition to everything you have listed, the loss of the WWII, Victorians and Ancient Egyptians from primaries are a deep concern. Not only are they considered some of the most engaging topics for both teachers (who teach with enthusiasm) and pupils (who actually learn a heck of a lot as a result) alike but the removal of the WWII topic alone is very saddening indeed and only one among many reasons that Michael Gove should hang his head in shame.

  11. February 25, 2013

    “I quite like the look of the proposed History curriculum.” Really? Are you a teacher Isaac?

  12. February 26, 2013

    I will preface this comment by saying that I am currently pre-PGCE, and thus not yet a history teacher; I have all the big ideas and good intentions, but little experience of the realities faced by teachers.

    Like the author, and many of the above, I find fault with the idea that we should start primary school kids with ‘cavemen’ and the ancient world and progress linearly throughout history. Why do we assume that kids so young can grasp the complexities of the Roman world at age 7, but aren’t ready for WW2 until secondary school? Sure, we have to start history education somewhere, but why this way?

    I think there is merit in the idea of beginning history education with family history. Completing a family tree is a great way to get somebody to ask ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’, and ‘when’. It introduces children to the need to hunt for answers and seek ‘sources’ (be that mummy, daddy, grandma, or grandpa.) It will also inevitably teach kids about the limitations of history; eventually you will go so far back that you will be unable to find out anything else. For me, this was 1799 – beyond that I couldn’t find any more ancestors. So, instead, I started asking questions about what kind of world my unknown ancestors might have lived in – my investigation broadened. You might follow this by looking at the history of your town, county, or country. By starting with something so personal, it makes history relevant to the student.

    This approach undoubtedly has its flaws – how do you broaden the investigation, and when do you do it? These flaws aside, I think that it is an approach suitable for primary school at least. It means that students can approach the more ‘linear’ history of secondary school with an inquiring mind, and hopefully a desire to learn more.

  13. Claudia Funder permalink
    February 28, 2013

    The problem I find with history is that one needs the macro (eras, empires, chronology) as well as the micro (individual, relatable..) before any of it makes much sense. Thats s lot of information. Any curriculum will be proscriptive and still have this challenge.

    This is where the talent of the teachers is relied upon to balance the gaps. Family history is a good example of teaching the micro and discovering the macro context. I’m sure history teachers take this framework and apply it elsewhere around the curriculum. The subject might be Newton but the macro enlightenment can be touched on. Is it rote learning at that age? Of course. I’m no child expert but isn’t most primary age learning copying, doing what those around you do, without questioning and mimicking behaviour?

    Horrible histories does the macro and mico well. Bobsy gives the macro then it’s immediately followed up with the micro, to give Both a greater and immediate context. The humour is the key, but the show wouldn’t work as well as it does without that structure.

    I went through school in Australia in the 70s and 80s and little history was taught. Certainly no macro or world history and mostly convicts, convicts, convicts. Had we studied the ongoing relationship between Enland and Ireland then Irish convicts and Ned Kelly would have made more sense and could have easily been put in context.

    For me it comes down to the passion the teachers have and the structure of their lessons. Regardless of how it’s framed in the curriculum it will always come down to that hard task.

  14. emma harding permalink
    February 28, 2013

    Whilst I was at school the then conservative government decided they wanted to get rid off social studies to as they realised this made people think and voice their views. I am quite embrassed by what children do learn for history at school as most is so random it dosent show the bigger picture to the world.

  15. Louise H permalink
    March 1, 2013

    I have been a primary tecaher for many years and also have a first class degree in history. In my humble opinion this history curriculum is a disaster!
    The concepts for KS1 are soooo complex, as you said in your article at the beginning, many adults struggle with them. The whole argument around the idea of nation and nationlism is huge and most people are unaware of it, yet we are supposed to teach 6 year olds about it!

    As a primary teacher I want to give the children a love of the subject which makes them motivated and excited to learn it. They need to be taught historical skills not just a series of dates and facts – although I agree those also have a part to play.
    But…Feudalism? C14 peasants revolt? Really???? I love the subject and I’m very good at making history exciting but the idea of having to teach the kids it before the age of 11 makes me want to cry! They will hate the subject before they’ve left primary!
    The idea that history should be a history of Britain is so narrow minded it truly beggars belief. I just pray that enough experts will de-cry this curriculum as the farce that it is and that the govt will be forced to make changes.
    Sadly, although incredibly cynical, I think it ironic and questionable that this is coming when there is such a huge push to convert to academies where this curriculum will not be statutory …

    While I think the kids would love aspects like The Crusades and the Civil War, the proposed curriculum is much too wide and will not allow for anything to be taught in depth. How often do you hear historians say ‘that’s not my period’ – because history is HUGE and yet we are expecting our kids to learn from Stone age to 1700s by the time they are 11. Only one thing remains to be said…. GET A GRIP ON REALITY!

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