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How to teach history in 2021

History is an extremely important subject for many reasons. Here is a guide for current or prospective teachers who want to teach history in a meaningful and appropriate way.

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You may or may not have fond memories of history lessons as a child. While some people might remember the curiosity and intrigue that was inspired by learning about the past, others might remember that they didn’t feel represented. 

Whatever your experience was, the value of learning about history cannot be underestimated. Today, history is still a part of most school curriculums and it’s unlikely that this will change. What will change, however, is the way we teach it. 

In this article, we’ll be discussing why history is so important and some of the current challenges in the UK history curriculum. We’ll go on to explore how history can be taught to keep up with the changing world and society so that we’re depicting a complete picture of our past. Finally, we’ll talk about how you can become a successful history teacher.

Why is history an important part of the curriculum?

There are so many reasons why history is important to teach children, and it’s also important that we continue learning about history into our adult lives. This is because history is not something that can be “completed” or “ticked off” during your school years. 

There are so many different histories to explore and understand, from the histories of different countries and cultures to different political movements. Learning about these different histories should be a lifelong process, and can improve your understanding of yourself and the world around you.

By looking at the past, we can try to understand why things are the way they are, and process how society has changed over time. If we understand context, we are far more likely to be empathetic to other people’s struggles and able to tackle problems in society head-on.

This is because history teaches us political intelligence, morality, personal growth, and how to learn from mistakes. On a more academic level, learning history helps us develop reading and writing skills, how to craft our own opinions, research skills, and how to analyse situations and sources. 

What are the current challenges with the UK curriculum for history?

We’ve identified three main challenges with the current UK history curriculum. However, before going into more detail, we thought it would be useful to provide you with the UK history curriculum guidelines for KS3 (age 11-14), as seen below: 

“Pupils should be taught about:

  1. The development of Church, state and society in Medieval Britain 1066-1509.
  2. The development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745.
  3. Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901. This might include the Industrial Revolution, Enlightenment or transatlantic slave trade.
  4. Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world, from 1901 to the present day. This must include the Holocaust, and one other topic such as women’s suffrage, the World Wars or the Welfare State.
  5. A local history study.
  6. The study of an aspect or theme in British history that consolidates and extends pupils’ chronological knowledge from before 1066.
  7. At least one study of a significant society or issue in world history and its interconnections with other world developments. For example, Mughal India 1526-1857; China’s Qing dynasty 1644-1911.”

The overemphasis on British history

As you can see from the national curriculum for KS3 history, there is quite a large emphasis on British history. There are only two curriculum requirements out of the seven that include history from other parts of the world, and one of them still focuses on European history, including Britain’s role.

Some people argue that the curriculum in the UK rightly focuses on British history, as we ought to have a good understanding of the full history of our country. One person who argued this is Michael Gove, a British politician and the former Education Secretary. He said that history in schools ought to “celebrate the distinguished role of these islands in the history of the world” and portray Britain as “a beacon of liberty for others to emulate”.

However, he was widely criticised for this statement, with many people accusing him of propaganda and a eurocentric approach to teaching history. Dr Matthew Wilkinson, the Director of Curriculum for Cohesion, stated, “reading this draft curriculum one would have thought that the history of the world was almost entirely enacted by white, English, Protestants”. 

He goes on to lament the lack of minority voices in the curriculum, such as Muslims, who make up the second-largest religion in the UK and have a vital role in the history of humanity. He suggests that young British Muslims are likely to feel alienated by the lack of representation in history lessons, and are more vulnerable to radicalisation as a result.

The lack of Black history in the curriculum

Currently, there is nothing on the UK history curriculum that says Black British history should be taught. Understandably, this is concerning for a lot of people who want their children to feel represented, and also for people who want kids to grow up with an understanding of Black history and culture.

In our open step by the University of Bristol, experts discuss the need to evaluate the lack of Black and other minority histories in the curriculum. They discuss the Race, Ethnicity & Equality Report published by the Royal Historical Society in 2018. 

The findings of this report suggest that there is a lack of representation of minority groups, narrow curricula in schools and universities, and widespread experiences of bias and discrimination towards Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups within the field of history in the UK.

The Black Curriculum is one organisation driving for change in the UK history curriculum through campaigning, delivering arts-focused Black history programmes and providing teacher training. On their website, they discuss how a lack of education and understanding of Black British history contributes to the reality of racism in the UK. 

They point to a wealth of evidence for this, including the 20-year-old Macpherson Report that demonstrates how cultural diversity in the curriculum can prevent racism, and also to a 2007 report that shows how lack of representation in the curriculum can lead to underachievement and alienation.

Ultimately, the aim of The Black Curriculum is for Black British history to be a recognised and compulsory part of the British history curriculum. If you’re no longer in the education system but want to learn about Black British history, our Black Tudors course explores the forgotten lives of Black Tudors in Renaissance England. 

In addition, our Teaching Black British History training course from The Black Curriculum will equip you with all the tools you need in order to best teach and embed Black British history into your school curriculum.

If you’re American, you might be interested in our U.S. Anti-Black Racism course, which explores how racism and anti-Blackness are systemic in American society.

Failure to recognise the role of colonialism

Another criticism of the UK history curriculum is that it fails to fully recognise or teach Britain’s role in colonialism. As you can see from the curriculum guidelines, the government states that pupils should be taught about ideas, political power, industry and empire in Britain between 1745 and 1901. 

However, although this might include exploring how Britain colonised other parts of the world, it is just as acceptable for schools to teach about the accomplishments of the British empire, such as the Industrial Revolution. This lack of specificity in the national curriculum leaves room for choice and interpretation that might prevent children from receiving a more well-rounded education of the British empire.

In an article in the New Statesman, John Elledge discusses how he and most people he knows in the UK were not taught about the British empire, and the few that were only got taught during GCSE or A-level history, which are not mandatory. Since the British empire is a fundamental part of our history, it seems strange to skim over it in this way.

In addition to this, he questions the manner in which we are taught about the transatlantic slave trade – he writes, “while some schools may have taught classes on the Atlantic slave trade, this was sometimes merely a necessary precursor to talking about Britain’s role in its abolition. That was certainly more likely to come up than the links between the slave trade and imperialism”.

If you want to learn more about British imperialism, our Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism course explores the British Empire through six themes – money, violence, race, religion, gender and sex, and propaganda.

How can we teach history more effectively today?

Now that we have a better understanding of some of the current issues with the UK history curriculum, how can we begin to teach history more effectively in 2021? In the University of Bristol’s open step about perspectives on decolonisation, Professor Olivette Otele discusses the idea that we need to first understand how practices of teaching and learning have led to “a curriculum that is colonial in essence”.

She suggests that we must critique and dismantle our current practices and curriculum so that we understand the history and mechanisms behind them, and then we can introduce material that is more relevant to the global community today. Relevant material might include the history of a diverse range of cultures in the UK, the true history of the British empire in different countries, histories of migrations to the UK, and narratives of people excluded from history books.

In the University of Bristol’s open step about reparative histories, experts suggest that a reparative history of race could be a good approach for teachers, scholars and researchers. This is a similar perspective to decolonising the curriculum, as it focuses on “reassessing the origins and development of racism in society and its legacies in the present”. 

In the open step, experts argue that taking this approach requires us to acknowledge that racism is systemic and reproduced in institutions like schools and universities. They, therefore, suggest that teachers and scholars need to strive to decentre whiteness as the default for the history of humanity. When teaching and learning about history, we should always ask questions, critique sources, and look for alternative narratives. Only then will we be able to learn from the past.

Do teachers have influence over the curriculum?

As a teacher, it might feel like you have little influence over the history curriculum. This is because comprehensive schools in the UK have to follow the national curriculum as stated by the government. Even though the curriculum is open to some choice and interpretation, it might not be the history teacher who has the final say about what they teach, as they have to obey the decisions of the headteacher and senior management team.

Academies and private schools in the UK are able to create their own curriculum as long as they teach maths, science, English and religious education. This can be both a blessing and a curse – while it leaves room for schools to create a more varied and inclusive history curriculum, it can also be an excuse to avoid any uncomfortable truths altogether or place more emphasis on other subjects.

In addition, although it’s a nice idea to think private schools might create better history curriculums, the sad reality is that private institutions are often behind state institutions on matters regarding diversity and inclusion.

Despite the lack of influence teachers have over the curriculum in some instances, it is still important to think about how teachers frame their lessons. Teachers have a responsibility to tackle racism in the classroom, and this includes making sure each student has their voice and perspective listened to. 

Furthermore, if the curriculum is lacking, history teachers can explain to their students why these stories do not paint the full picture.

How can I become a history teacher?

If you’re interested in becoming a history teacher, we have plenty of resources that will help you prepare. Our blog about deciding what kind of teacher to be gives you the lowdown on teaching all different ages, and will hopefully help you decide what suits you. In addition, we have courses on thinking about teaching, choosing a PGCE, and preparing for your teaching role

What qualifications do I need?

To be a primary or secondary school teacher, you either need a degree in education, or a degree in something unrelated (like history) and an additional teaching qualification like a QTS or PGCE

To teach at A-Level, you will be expected to already hold a minimum of a Level 3 qualification in the subject area you wish to teach, although employers are free to set their own entry requirements.

You can become an A-Level teacher without a teaching qualification, but you may be expected to study for one by some institutions. In addition, you’ll probably increase your chances of finding a job if you have a teaching qualification. Alternatively, you can complete a PGCE.

To be a university lecturer, you’ll need either an upper second or first class degree qualification in your chosen field, a masters or PhD in that field, and potentially to be publishing academic work. You are also normally expected to do a teaching qualification as you work in your lecturing role.

What skills do I need specifically for teaching history?

Final thoughts

We hope that this article has provided you with some information about the shortcomings of the UK history curriculum and demonstrated what history lessons have the capacity to look like in 2021. Of course, it’s a complicated topic, but ultimately, we want children to grow up learning about history in a fun, inclusive and exploratory way. 

If you want to learn more about teaching, we have a wide range of teaching courses that will help you feel more prepared and excited to give people an education. Alternatively, if you’ve been inspired to study history, we have some fantastic courses, from A History of Punk to A Global History of Sex and Gender.

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