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.