A brief history of dates

Until the media start to change the way they portray education it’s going to be hard to start to shift the popular belief that learning facts is still what matters the most. Take this item, which appeared recently in the Guardian online:

So how well do you know your British History?

I don’t think it matters to the general population whether children know for a fact that Richard III was killed in 1054, 1301 or 1485*, or if the Battle of Trafalgar was in 1799, 1805 or 1815. And anyway if they really want or need to know it, now it only takes a matter of seconds searching on the Internet to find out. What would perhaps be more helpful is to understand more about why these things happened and what the consequences were, alongside knowing roughly what order they happened in. Meanwhile more emphasis on the changes of lives of ordinary people tends to have more relevance and interest for ‘ordinary’ students than the lives of the Kings and Queens, politicians of their day, and the great battles of their age. Reference to the achievements of more women would not go astray either.

The Guardian item was derived from this report in the Daily Mail on the proposed new National Curriculum History. The content of the curriculum, and the essay as the means for assessment, appears to serve one key purpose – to prepare students more effectively for studying history at Oxbridge. To put it another way, around 99.999% of the population are going to be required to follow a course quite inappropriate for their needs in order that that the 00.0001% will be more successful on entry to university.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting history isn’t important. It’s essential we all learn to understand how to find out about the past to understand the present and anticipate the future. Indeed I suggest history should be embedded in all ‘subjects’, from maths to geography and science to d&t. I also have a theory that the best way to approach history is to study it backwards from the present – so that instead of starting with the Romans (or whoever), the curriculum should start with the relevance of today and deal first with how and why things are the way they currently are, and so on back over the decades and centuries.

“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” (Henry Ford, Chicago Tribune, 1916)

* And anyway, as every schoolchild from the early 1980s knows, the most important fact to remember about Richard III is that he was unintentionally killed (in 1485) by Edmund, “Blackadder”, when Edmund thought he is trying to steal his horse.

19 comments on “A brief history of dates

  1. Perhaps we should call the new exam, Pub Quiz History? I love teaching children about the context of what we are learning about, whatever subject I am teaching. I have come to realise that my particular way of scaffolding learning is not the only way but that a lot of children respond to it. How sad that we are embarking on the process of killing off history for many children in order to serve the narrowest of ambitions.

  2. The problem with attempts to marginalise “facts” (or “knowledge” as it used to be called before ignorance became fashionable) is that you can’t really hope to “understand more about why these things happened and what the consequences were” without knowing when they happened, what happened before and what happened after. The order of events is not a minor detail to be taught as an addendum to the understanding of events in history, it is a prerequisite to having an understanding of history. If Richard III had been killed before the Battle of Hastings, it wouldn’t be a minor detail, it would change everything there was to know about Richard III and his death beyond all recognition.

    • I quite agree that a grasp of the (at least approximate) order of events is indeed essential. My main concern is however that the public are being led by the media to believe that learning history in school is no more than being able to accurately remember a list of dates.

  3. While it is true that students learn to write mark schemes in order to get good grades, does this mean that Prof Abulafia’s proposed curriculum would NOT have a mark scheme? If so, how does he propose that hundreds of examiners marking thousands of GCSE scripts do so consistently? Or is the idea that examiners, like teachers, are to be free to ‘examine’ as they wish? Let’s presume that a mark scheme is required: what is going to be so different about his mark schemes, then, that good students will not learn how to write essays to their requirements? I also object to the idea that History students do not know how to cope with judgements. To take an almost random GCSE MWH question (I had to search a bit): ‘Was unemployment the most serious problem in the USA in the 1930s? Explain your answer’ looks like a judgement call to me.

  4. This post peddles two damaging myths.

    1. ‘If they really want or need to know it, now it only takes a matter of seconds searching on the Internet to find out.’ This is the myth that the internet renders fact learning unnecessary.
    This is not true. You cannot outsource memory (http://wp.me/p24WgD-l).

    2. ‘The content of the curriculum, and the essay as the means for assessment, appears to serve one key purpose – to prepare students more effectively for studying history at Oxbridge.’ This is the myth that academic knowledge and essay-writing are not relevant to ordinary people and should not be taught to them.
    I find it astonishing that any teacher could think this, but for proof why hard academic subjects and challenging academic assignments are intrinsically valuable for many ordinary people who have never gone to any university, I would start with Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.

  5. Thanks for your comment.

    Re 1. It only took me a few seconds to search for Richard III on the internet and discover he was killed in 1485. Of course to be able to do this I did have to know that Richard III existed, and that he was killed at some point. I think we need to re-evaluate what knowledge needs to be learned and what can be easily accessed on the internet.

    Re 2. I don’t want to deny a disenchanted 15 year-old in an inner-city school with no chance of getting a job the opportunity of studying history in an academic manner in order to get to university, but I don’t think we should impose that on the rest who could be developing skills that do not involve essay-writing and that might make them a more attractive proposition in the employment market.

    One person’s myth is another person’s belief…!

  6. Like, what she said, whateva.

    Richard who, Richard III? Ain’t that some old movie? Didn’t see the first two anyways!

    Myths and religion ain’t all they are cracked up to be. Like school, I don’t believe none of it and education is a waste of my time.

    Yours thank you
    (School of Little Britain)

  7. Re 1. When I said that outsourcing memory was a myth, I really meant it. Scientifically, it is a myth. The brain does not work like that. Research into the way the brain works shows that you simply cannot depend on information being on the internet. You need it committed to long-term memory. I really recommend you read the post I linked to which summarises this scientific evidence. Here is a brief excerpt from another article about this:

    ‘There is a consensus in cognitive psychology that it takes knowledge to gain knowledge. Those who repudiate a fact-filled curriculum on the grounds that kids can always look things up miss the paradox that de-emphasizing factual knowledge actually disables children from looking things up effectively. To stress process at the expense of factual knowledge actually hinders children from learning to learn. Yes, the Internet has placed a wealth of information at our fingertips. But to be able to use that information—to absorb it, to add to our knowledge—we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge. That is the paradox disclosed by cognitive research.’

    And another one:

    ‘our understanding of the role of long-term memory in human cognition has altered dramatically over the last few decades. It is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned. Nor is it seen only as a component of human cognitive architecture that has merely peripheral influence on complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving. Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory.’

    Re 2. “I don’t want to deny a disenchanted 15 year-old in an inner-city school with no chance of getting a job the opportunity of studying history in an academic manner in order to get to university”.

    I can’t help thinking you didn’t read my post carefully, because you’ve entirely missed my point. My point was not that we need to teach disenchanted inner-city pupils history because there is a chance they could study it at university (although I do think this is important). My point was that the study of history is intrinsically important for every citizen, regardless of whether they go to university or not. Most other democracies recognise this, and fairly academic history courses are compulsory until 16 in every other country in Europe. Indeed, I think that historically well-informed citizens are necessary for a democratic society to work properly. Of course preparing pupils for the world of work is important, but preparing them to be citizens of a democratic society is is important too. Unlike you I think that there is more to education than turning pupils into ‘attractive propositions in the employment market.’

  8. First, thanks again for contributing your thought-provoking comments to this interesting debate. I suspect we actually agree on a number of things – for example that studying history is a lot more than just rote-learning dates, and that the most important thing is that students leave school with a real interest in understanding the past, and the ability and desire to go on to learn about it for themselves.

    Speaking from personal experience I partly agree and partly disagree with the ‘outsourcing memory’ argument. Obviously not all memory can be stored on the internet – that would be ridiculous. I think the unanswered question is how big the storehouse needs to be, and more importantly how it gets filled up in the first place. Meanwhile, from my own teaching experience I just can’t agree that ‘process…hinders children learning to learn’ – in fact I would argue, and could provide evidence, that for many children the reverse is true.

    I entirely agree that ‘the study of history is intrinsically important for every citizen’, and that there is more to education than making kids more employable. However, when we consider the ‘Vicky Pollard’ children, clearly the academic approach is just not working, and they are leaving school with the idea of history as being dull, boring and irrelevant. Having to write formal essays as a means of assessment simply reinforces this. I have know many students able to express sound historical analysis in conversation, but stumble when asked to compose a written text within a time-limit.

  9. ‘I think the unanswered question is how big the storehouse needs to be, and more importantly how it gets filled up in the first place.’
    Actually, cognitive scientists have done a pretty good job of answering both these questions. The answer to the first question is – quite big. Herbert Simon’s research into chess expertise suggests that chess grandmasters have committed 50,000 chess positions to memory. John Willinsky’s research into newspapers suggests that 3-5,000 pieces of information are necessary to read a newspaper of substance. Likewise the best idea we have about how pupils learn knowledge is that it’s a kind of Matthew effect – the more you have, the easier it is to get new information. Independent accumulation of knowledge is impossible if you don’t already have a decent basis of knowledge to begin with. Direct instruction is the most effective way of instilling that basis. There’s an entire body of research on these issues.

    ‘Clearly the academic approach is just not working.’ A third myth. We don’t have an academic approach at the moment. (http://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/the-new-traditionalists/)
    I thought you did accept this in the original post, in that you were criticising a potential change to the history curriculum, not the current history curriculum.

    • Ignoring for a moment the reference to grand chessmasters on the basis that it’s still possible to enjoy a game of chess having committed far less chess positions to memory, and that while one might possibly need 3-5,000 pieces of information to read a newspaper of substance, it’s difficult to believe reading the Daily Mail or the Sun (the two most popular newspapers) requires that level of recall! And these figures don’t take into account my actual question which was about the fact that, while we still need to memorise a certain base-line number of facts, we can now easily find many further facts online whenever and wherever we happen to be. The advent of the internet forces us to re-assess the volume of the ‘decent basis’ we need to begin with, which is something that has not yet happened. In terms of how we acquire our base-line, the internet also provides potential opportunities for less-academically orientated students to access history in new, more engaging ways than direct instruction, such as role-playing games.

      An academic approach requires, amongst other things, the fundamental ability to ‘learn’ facts with great ease – something that those who can do often find difficult to accept as a problem for others. A substantial number of people are better suited to other approaches, such as ‘experiential learning’. We may or may not have an academic approach to history and its assessment at the moment, but the proposed revisions suggest that if we don’t, we shortly will have, which I fear will limit the majority of student’s interest to the subject even further.

  10. So, to summarise the ‘essay-writing’ argument it goes something like this – essays are only good for entrance into and study at two universities, and most students should be doing something else which may benefit them in the world of work.

    An essay, done properly in History, is a structured, extended, persuasive argument in written format which uses factual knowledge to support a considered, compelling interpretation in order to answer an intellectually challenging question, or support/challenge a particular statement. Many, certainly the ones I set, are subject to time-constraints in that they need to be completed within a specified time-period, whether in an hour, an afternoon, a week or whatever.

    Is the argument therefore that employers would not wish perspective employees to be able to locate, research and analyse information before forming and presenting a considered and persuasive argument, to a deadline?

    A further insinuation appears to be that certain children should not be required to do this. If/when a youngster ‘stumbles’ or struggles in doing something at school, my own philosophy is to act upon that feedback by teaching them how to do it, and then make sure they get better at it. This, as a teacher, is my job and it is more of a reason to teach them how write essays, not less.

    Finally, whether conveyed in essay-form or not, History is about the formation of opinion and argument based on evidence. Inevitably this evidence includes factual knowledge and the absence of this will lead to ill-informed opinion and weak argument. This should be the basis of History taught in school regardless of the perceived levels of ability and/or interest of a student.

    • Hmmm. Let’s suppose I manage our local Poundland Store. It doesn’t happen very often, but I actually have a vacancy, along with a hundred applicants. Now, who is most likely to be suitable? Someone who has good verbal communication skills, is capable and confident in using IT systems and has proven experience of being able to work as part of a team, or someone who is good at writing persuasive 45 minute essays without the use of any IT skills?

      Obviously studying History requires some factual knowledge – no-one has ever suggested otherwise. The question is what knowledge and how much, and how to inspire non-academically-orientated children.

  11. To start with, I haven’t argued that verbal communication, IT capability or team-work are unimportant. I simply countered your argument that essay-writing is unimportant, by saying that it is.

    Secondly, I haven’t argued that essays should be written in 45 minutes or be produced without using ICT.

    I’m therefore not sure why you have felt the need to include these assertions in your response above.

    Next, you would, I’m sure, expect some mastery of literacy to come through in any application you viewed; are the applicants not attempting to persuade you that they are worthy of an interview? Any form and accompanying letter which was unstructured and unconvincing would most likely end up in the bin immediately, especially if you had 100 to wade through.

    However, there are other jobs for which the ability to write a persuasive and structured text would come in very useful, especially to a deadline. I think that you have managed to destroy your own argument; people who cannot write essays will be applying for jobs at Poundland, whereas people who can will be applying for Oxbridge. To summarise, the ability to construct written argument is a key, beneficial skill which will raise employability and enable people to aspire to stations higher than they would be able to without.

    Of course, it is not only about employability; essay-writing utilises a vital process which involves mastery of content, location and analysis of information, formation of opinion, planning and structured writing. Once you can do this well, it doesn’t matter if you write it, speak it or dance it, your cognitive and intellectual ability is enhanced. If you can do it in a History lesson, you can do it elsewhere whether in school or out. With this in mind, I’m unclear why you don’t think this is important and why it should be denied to swathes of young people. You blog, yet you don’t feel it beneficial to teach youngsters how to?

    On the issue of knowledge, surely the knowledge which ought to be taught to students is the knowledge which they need to study the issue in hand. If they’re studying the causes of the Second World War, then the knowledge they need to know is that which is relevant to the question. And yes, it does matter that they know that the Rhineland was remilitarised in 1936 rather than 1934 or 1938.

    • I didn’t say essay writing was unimportant, just that it’s a turn-off for non-academics. In a formal examination, students are required to write essays (of varying length) without the aid of IT. This may be appropriate for a minority of potential University graduates, but not for anyone else. And anyway surely essay and CV/job application writing is one of the responsibilities of the English/Careers departments? In a History exam are we assessing History or English?

      Perhaps I’d be more convinced if a lot more students opted for GCSE history (without the need for an EBacc). Maybe it is because they find it inaccessible and irrelevant?

      And sadly, many of the applicants for jobs at Poundland are University graduates who have been encouraged to study a subject that is of little practical use, except, maybe, unless they want to become a teacher.

      • You argue that essay-writing should be the sole preserve of the English department, but that history should involve role-plays and ICT. On the strength of your assertion regarding essays, shouldn’t role-plays and ICT only be used by the Drama and ICT departments?

        A History exam assesses History, and does so through the written word. This is commonly known as literacy and as such, the ability to convey a structured and persuasive argument transcends both subject boundaries and the traditional limitations of the school building and day. This is a hugely important and highly sought-after skill, and always will be.

        The reason for ICT not currently being a part of formal examinations is, I suspect, simply one of logistics. The use of ICT is a fundamental and effective part of many lessons as a tool for enhancing learning and teaching, but shouldn’t be used for the sake of it. If a student couldn’t make it through a 90min exam without using ICT then I would question whether they were used to using ICT to learn, or used to using it for the sake of it.

        You appear to have read the Daily Mail article and taken it to mean that essays are only for Oxbridge, when this isn’t what the article or those interviewed in it are asserting. That said, you have read an article (online), and then blogged your opinion of it (online), and then defended and expanded your argument in response to the comments (again, online). Why do you have such a problem in teaching students to be able to do the same?

        Structured, analytical and persuasive writing (or typing) is a difficult skill to learn, let alone master. Learning new skills, particularly things we find difficult, shouldn’t be avoided, but should rather be seen as a challenge and tackled. It sends an incredibly poor message to youngsters that they avoid writing because they might find it difficult to learn it, or you might find it difficult to teach it.

        As for your labelling of significant numbers of children as ‘non-academics’, we might as well send them off to Poundland at 14 because there are too few factories to send them to these days.

      • Thanks for your further contribution to this most interesting debate.

        I didn’t actually say that essay-writing should be the sole preserve of the English department, but I suggested that perhaps it was their place to take the lead-role in teaching it, as opposed to some of the previous comments which seemed to suggest that history lessons were the only time and place students were taught this skill. However I remain concerned that the essay format for examining any subject is a very limited means of assessment that unfortunately excludes a large number of pupils. Essentially I would like to see all departments using a much wider range of methods of final assessment.

        I agree that the reasons ICT is not used as part of formal examinations is largely one of logistics – and set-up cost – but nonetheless, in an age where there is constant access to electronic sources of information and professional collaboration, it makes the idea of sitting in an examination room, completely isolated from the real world, an entirely artificial and inappropriate environment.

        I don’t have any problem teaching students to blog and defend themselves online. As academics, that’s what we do. But many students are not academics, and don’t use blogs and tweets in the same way as us. And I’m not against academic teaching and learning, either – providing that students who do not respond to an academic approach are offered different approaches that are equally valued. The problem is that we do not currently have any alternative ‘high status’ qualifications (for example in technical and vocational areas) to the academic ones. Sadly, in the present situation, we might just as well send non-academic 14 year-olds to Poundland – at least that’s more honest than telling them that they will get a good job if they they go to university and get an academic degree.

        As you say, ‘Learning new skills, particularly those we find difficult, shouldn’t be avoided, but should rather be seen as a challenge and tackled’. So let’s apply this to the considerable challenge of successfully teaching of history to all students in a post-industrial society, and not simply revert to a 19th century model of producing an academic elite, which is what seems to be being proposed at present.

  12. Surely pure academic study amounts to nothing in a world void of any practical needs? A medical nurse can’t learn the required skills by just studying theory, it has to be practised and even then some people just can’t do it.

    Those skills can obviously be enhanced by academic study and knowledge, but those practical skills can exist just fine on their own without academic training, not the other way around.

    Academic study is a luxury beyond basic existence. Perhaps for a vast majority, academic-based study is not a real and tangible thing that can ever be useful, utilised and experienced. For them (the many), everyday life means the luxury of deep thought and academic expression is for an ineffectual minority. Without non-academics, there is no practical world in which the academics can preach, not the other way around.

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