Are we training pupils to be historians?

This is a question that gets banded around in education quite a lot. It is quite common – and I have done it many times myself – to tell pupils that they are historians, or learning to be historians, but do we really mean that when we say it?

When we hear of pupils being historians, we usually think of the old Schools History Project, which placed the emphasis on pupils using sources to learn about the past. In a simple form, the idea is that historians learn about the past by studying sources and that, if we get pupils doing the same, then they too will gain the same knowledge about the past. In short, the epistemology of the discipline becomes the pedagogy of the school subject.

As most who read this blog will be aware, however, this approach to teaching subject disciplines is full of problems. In Willingham’s book Why don’t students like school? he is highly critical of treating pupils as mini historians on the grounds that it is not possible to carry out the kind of archival research that historians do without a sufficient body of knowledge in the first place. A similar point is made in Kirschner et al’s review of the literature. For psychologists, the idea that the epistemology of the discipline can become the pedagogy of the subject has little evidence to support it, and much to challenge it.

These observations are far from unique to the psychologists. Following the widespread influence of ‘new history’ in the 1970s and 1980s, a growing number of history teachers became uncomfortable with the idea of ‘source work’. Sean Lang’s 1993 article What is bias? in the journal Teaching History was very critical of the reductive exercises that pupils did that involved spotting ‘bias’. Following a piece in the TES, Jamie Byrom (now a SHP Fellow) wrote an article in 1998 in which he was critical of the reductive cynicism with which pupils were being encouraged to approach sources. This sparked a series of articles in Teaching History during the 2000s in which history teacher after history teacher railed against reductive source work, particularly its deployment in GCSE exams, and proposed more meaningful ways in which sources might be used in the process of teaching history.

We might, based on the psychological and professional response to the ‘new history’, be ready to conclude that in no way can school pupils be understood to be learning the discipline of history: the school subject is qualitatively different. I do, however, think this matter is somewhat more complex.

It is at this point that we might ask what exactly it is that historians do do. It certainly is true that they read archival material and use this to build new knowledge about the past on a particular area of specialism. Most knowledge that historians have, however, comes not from reading source material, but from reading the work of other historians, or by listening to them in conferences, seminars and informal discussions over coffee. In a technical sense, the epistemology of the discipline is based heavily on testimony.

Being a professional historian is not therefore all about doing archival research, although that it perhaps the most important component of it. Academics spend at least some of their time reading and listening, gaining knowledge from those around them. In terms of the breadth of their knowledge, they get it from what other historians have said.

This, for me, was the great error of the original drive to get pupils acting like historians. Perhaps driven by the need to turn the subject into a set of skills, advocates of this approach placed the emphasis on how historians produce new knowledge. In doing do, however, they overlooked the fact that an academic spends a great deal of time reading and listening to others. I, for one, have no problem with pupils replicating this aspect of what a historian does. It is perhaps for this reason that increasingly history teachers are writing about getting pupils reading more history; recent articles in Teaching History by Laura Bellinger (2008), Rachel Foster (2011), Sarah Black (2012),  Diana Laffin (2012) and Keeley Richards (2012) have all made the case that part of learning history involves learning to read scholarly history.

We must, of course, discriminate in terms of what reading or listening we make pupils do. I would not, for example, recommend to anyone (let alone a pupil) that they start their study of Anglo-Saxon England by reading research papers published in the journal Early Medieval Europe. The entry point needs to be chosen carefully, with a sensitivity to the existing knowledge of pupils. It is a problem that, currently, the Horrible Histories series is essentially what counts as history books for children. As pupils gain more knowledge, I would expect them to cope with more complex reading, gradually delving into more and more sophisticated scholarship. At heart, however, what the pupils are doing is comparable to what historians do: it is a difference of degree, and not of kind.

So does that mean that we can happily throw out the analysis of sources from the school classroom, safe in the knowledge that pupils do not need to be using sources as evidence in order to be doing history? Well, not quite. As history teachers, we use sources for a range of reasons, and time and space here prevents me going into detail as to the many ways that history teachers have sought to use sources meaningfully with pupils. We might, for example, use sources to illustrate one of our points, or to give pupils an image of ‘what things were like’ which our language or their reading alone could not do well. For me, removing speeches, paintings and diaries from the history classroom would be like teaching English Literature using the plot summary from Wikipedia.

I think, further, that there is an important justification for continuing to spend some time on showing pupils how sources can be used as evidence to support historical judgements. As a historian, I read the works of other historians quite regularly. In their writing, these historians do of course make a number of claims. Importantly, because I know how historical claims can be justified, I can read those claims with a critical eye: when a historian uses a phrase such as ‘this seems to support the conclusion that…’ I know exactly what they mean, for I understand how evidence is used in the discipline of history. In short, I have a good knowledge about how claims are justified within the discipline of history.

This, for me, is why it is important that pupils do study how sources are used as evidence to  support historical claims in the classroom. The vast majority of them will never be professional historians, but they will, throughout their lives, be bombarded with historical claims by politicians, the media and the film industry. I would consider it a part of having a ‘cultural literacy’ that one has knowledge of the way in which such claims might be justified. This is not easy, and it takes time and careful instruction. Simply letting children loose on source material and expecting them to produce knowledge about the past is, at best, inefficient and, at worst, ineffective. I think they should, however, be shown, through careful demonstration and practice, how sources are deployed as evidence to justify historical claims.

This is a complex picture, but it needs to be complicated as the existing arguments rather tend to miss the point. I do not think all the knowledge that pupils get about history needs to come via source analysis. I do not think that even the majority of knowledge needs to come via these means. I do, however, think that pupils should get opportunities throughout their school careers to come to an understanding of how the truths they are learning have been justified: if knowledge is true, justified belief, then we cannot be said to be giving pupils knowledge if they do not leave school with an understanding of how the knowledge they have learnt might be justified.


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