Friday, December 28, 2012

Historical ignorance

Every test of the historical knowledge of Americans reveals appalling ignorance. It is apparently the same in Britain. A British history teacher explains what has gone wrong with the teaching of history there — and the idiocy struck here some time ago too.
.... The main tenet of a child-centred view of history teaching is the idea that pupils should not be "passive" recipients of a teacher's knowledge, but "active" individuals empowered to find things out for themselves. As a result, "chalk and talk" teaching from the front is heavily discouraged. After a senior member of staff observed one of my lessons, I was told that my role was to be the "guide on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage".

Instead of learning through listening to teachers or reading books, pupils are expected to do so through projects. It did not take me long to work out why pupils are so ignorant of British history, despite spending over a year studying it (as laid down by the national curriculum). To study the Norman Conquest, pupils would re-enact the Battle of Hastings in the playground, conduct a classroom survey to create their own Domesday Book, and make motte-and-bailey castles out of cereal boxes. Medieval England would be studied through acting out the death of Thomas Becket, and creating a boardgame to cover life as a medieval peasant. ....

Such tasks allow pupils to learn about history in an enjoyable and engaging way—or so the theory goes. In reality, all content and understanding of the past is sucked out, and the classroom begins to resemble the playground. An unfortunate side-effect is that pupils are frequently confused by the inevitable anachronisms involved in making history "relevant." ....

Proponents of child-centred education are impervious to such criticism because progressive teachers have long denied the importance of knowledge in the first place. Instead, skills are seen as paramount. When I first visited my current school, the assistant head asked me how I intended to prepare for my new career. I responded that I was going to spend a few weeks boning up on my general historical knowledge. "I wouldn't worry about that," she said. "History is a skills-based curriculum. You should really be able to teach it without knowing anything at all." ....

Progressive educators tend to cast skills and knowledge as a dichotomy, when in reality they are a sequence, and knowledge must come first. Trying to exercise historical skills such as source analysis or understanding causation without a solid grounding in a historical topic is impossible. ....

.... Great history teachers draw upon a passion for and knowledge of the subject to tell stories, explain ideas and bring the past alive. They do not have to rely on nonsense "learning activities" to make the subject engaging, for discussing the story of humankind is interesting in its own right. In short, they teach from the front. .... It is the anti-teaching, anti-narrative and anti-knowledge dogmas within state education that make history boring. ....
Enormous amounts of time are wasted doing "projects" which actually aren't interesting to students and which send the brightest students up the wall. Story makes history interesting and makes large dollops of fact tolerable to almost every student. The biggest problem is the ignorant teacher who doesn't know enough to make the subject interesting — and time-consuming "student-centered" projects are also attractive to the lazy teacher.

History Lessons for the 21st-Century Classroom | Standpoint