Should Universities and Schools work closer together in planning and designing the teaching of history? In my last blog (which you can read here), I reported back on a recent conference at Durham, which brought together secondary school teachers and university researchers in order to see what we could learn from each other. While this involved numerous topics, a constant theme was reflection on and why each group taught history in certain ways, and with what successes.
By coincidence, this event was held on the very same day that Education Secretary, Michael Gove, announced his ambition that university researchers should play a greater role in the design and assessment of the ‘A’-level syllabus. Throughout our discussions, both groups realised that the way history is taught in schools has a huge impact on the student transition to university research, and that closer contact between the two sides was a worthy ambition, to such an extent that even if Gove’s announcement had not been made, the subject would still have provided the key topic of our dialogue. With this in mind, I decided to outline a few of the most useful observations that we were able to make as a group on this important theme.
1: The methodologies of the school and university history courses are not the same.
Many of the university teachers suggested that one of the first tasks of the first-year undergraduate historian, is to in effect ‘un-learn’ the approaches which have brought them considerable confidence and A-level success. This is to say that which A-level students are required to demonstrate skills and knowledge as prescribed by the examinations board, the history degree demands independent approaches to evidence, arguments and risk-taking. All were in agreement that the two aims are largely incompatible.
2: Student study history at various levels for similar reasons.
Most teachers and lecturers agreed that while fostering student enjoyment and passion for history were valuable side-effects, students were in fact mostly motivated to achieve high grades in order to facilitate their progression on to the next level, i.e., getting into a good university, receiving good job offers, or places in further non-history-based study, such as law school. Finding the balance between creating good historians and employable candidates was considered a key issue by both sides.
3: Most school students arrive at university with a narrow body of historical awareness.
We all reflected that the design of the current A-Level course produces students who believe that they know all there is to know about certain topics (such as Nazi Germany, or twentieth-century British politics), but know or perhaps even care about little else (I, and many other medievalists, struggle with this in particular). We noted that while the ‘narrow and thick’ approach employed by the A-Level syllabus is useful towards viable textbook provision and student access to sources, this can nevertheless lead to two kinds of problems. Firstly, students may arrive at university thinking that they have ‘done’ topics like the Nazis and cannot possibly learn more, even if the academic researcher may spend a lifetime on such topics and barely scratch the surface. Second, unless students are fortunate to pursue their own personal historical interests far beyond their A-Level learning, many arrive at university fearful of studying new and comparatively alien subjects such as medieval, or modern Chinese history.
4: Students arriving at university have no idea how history is taught there.
While the average school timetable allows A-level students around five one-hour lessons per day, a typical undergraduate history degree might offer a first-year student perhaps one or two ‘core’ or ‘skills’ modules and two to four additional selected courses, and usually provides between eight to fifteen contact hours a week. There was almost unanimous agreement that high-school students have little or no awareness of this until they arrive, thus causing widespread confusion regarding how to actually pursue their studies, and perhaps also a level disappointment, particular now universities charge much higher fees. The need to cultivate independent, and self-motivating students is key!
Is Gove right, and how can his ideas help?
While these represent the main issues discussed, there were obviously many more that cannot be forced into a single blog. These include tackling the perceived ‘stuffiness’ of university teachers, students overlooking history in favour of more obviously vocational courses, and the increasingly prominent issue of monetarising the perceived ‘value’ of a history degree.
Nevertheless, my four key points have been made in order to offer some evidence in support of Gove’s proposal. While it is not my place to criticise the current organisation and teaching of A-Level history (and I for one did enjoy my own A-Levels, despite the crippling absence of medieval topics) I do nevertheless firmly believe that increased contact between schoolteachers and university researchers is merited in the case of history. Although many thorny issues would need to be revolved, including deciding which academics should be involved; in what processes should they be involved; and how their involvement would fit into already crippling workloads, I can only see increased contact as a good thing. I the coming weeks, I shall provide further evidence of this, as I blog about my future planned visit to a local Middle School, and my experiences of teaching medieval history to a band of enthusiastic 11-year-olds.