How do we decide what history to teach?


A few years ago when I first became involved in the Knowledge Rich Curriculum movement, I joked to Mark Lehain, then the Director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence that at some point we would fall out.

I believed, while we agreed more knowledge was better than less, and many schools had not paid enough attention to it in recent years, our different interests and politics meant we would disagree about exactly what content children should be taught once the common enemy of non subject specific skills based learning had been defeated.

While Mark and I remain friendly – for now – the question as to what children should be taught in their history lessons is becoming progressively more contentious as schools move back towards knowledge rich approaches, with what children learn gaining rightful primacy over supposedly transferrable skills and pedagogical methods.

Debates about curriculum content will be fiercer in history than in most other subjects because many people feel their histories are an important part of what makes them who they are, and the range of what can be taught is so broad.

And doesn’t it seem as if everyone has an opinion? Every time there is a historical anniversary or someone has a book out or someone in the pub finds out you’re a history teacher and bends your ear about the mini-series on Ancient Aliens or Nazi megastructures they’ve been watching, then we are derided for not teaching enough about whatever it is we aren’t teaching enough about.

Even when schools do cover something they often still find themselves the target of scorn for not covering the period, event or person to the extent or in the way someone else thinks it should be taught.

Perhaps cacophony is inevitable. It is human to be interested in the past. People want to share what they believe to be their stories to be recognised and understood. There are always far more stories than there is time in which to tell them. The perceived close connection by the public between past and present identity means the omission or miss-teaching of something people think very important cuts very deep making debates personally charged.

While history teachers are generally good at avoiding the dangers of teaching populist and misrepresentative conceptions of the past, finding consensus and order is hard.

None of this is new. Historians have been struggling with the problem of what the discipline is and what it should be concerned with for a very long time. A foundational effort to clarify this is E H Carr’s “What is History?”

You will notice this lecture is strongly influenced by it.

Carr believed we cannot resolve things by faux-puritanically retreating to ‘just teaching facts’, because ‘facts’ are not empirical things at all. ‘Facts’ depend on what we have evidence for, which is dependent on what people in a position to do so at the time thought worth recording. There are many ‘facts’ that do not become the subject of history even when we have evidence for then because historians make decisions about what they will write based on what they think significant.

The work they do is coloured by their own characters and contexts.

We cannot escape ourselves when we try to make sense of the past.

To be human is to be part of the world.

To be part of the world is to be partisan.

All of this is as true to the curriculum planner as it is to the historian.

There are extra complexities – while historians may be entitled to write about whatever they are personally interested in, this is not true of those who plan a curriculum for children. Those responsible for introducing history as a discipline to novices cannot just follow their own interests because were they to do so they would create a curriculum suggesting the sort of history they are most interested in is the only sort of history there is.

Given the scope, complexities and difficulties how do we escape paralysis while avoiding creating a curriculum fashioned entirely in our own image? How do we decide what to teach? How do we decide how this should be presented to children who may never learn history again?

It is this I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about how schools should decide what to teach when there is so much history. I want to talk about how we can we discuss the choices we make without needless rancour. I want to talk about how we can be a community big enough to include those of very different beliefs as good humoured and civil as it is passionate and serious.

I have divided this talk into four general principles. Before beginning it is important to be clear I will not dictate any content at all.

I hope you will see why I think this would be inappropriate.

My principles are only suggested starting points for making decisions that might eventually result in a school history curriculum.

  1. Teach as many hours of history as you can. Make sure pupils know this isn’t enough.

History is no longer under acute existential threat. We have moved from ‘critically endangered’ to perhaps only ‘near threatened.’

In secondary schools the days of integrated ‘Humanities’ curriculums or, still worse, project based ‘skills’ curriculum seem to be largely behind us.

Except maybe in Wales. Pray for them there.

In the early 2000s when subject specialisms were too often subsumed to genericism, planning a meaningful history curriculum could be impossibly tricky with disciplinary conventions and the importance of substantive knowledge frequently misunderstood and ignored by school leadership and inspection frameworks.

I was trained in this period.

The inadequacies in my own training and development have compromised my talk today. After finishing my third draft of this I sent it to Christine Counsell who replied with extensive comments, which made it very politely clear much of what I am going to say is not new at all and has a long pedigree within the history teaching community.

Where I am aware of work in the areas I cover I have given credit, but I know there is much I do not know.

If anyone in this room feels puzzled, hurt or angry about my omission of their contributions I apologise.

My omissions are of ignorance not conviction.

Forgive me.

It is a source of great hope to me to know we have so many training courses run by clever people such as Rachel Foster, Will Bailey-Watson, Alex Ford and Ali Messer. Their trainees, some in attendance today, will be better, more knowledgeable history teachers and curriculum planners far faster than I became anywhere near competent. To secure the gains we have made recently it is important we pay attention to those who have been doing great work for years, those who know the history of our debates, which can be found in the pages of our journal, Teaching History.

There is much to learn in it – I am still trying to catch up.

Furthermore, I know how wrong it would be of me to fail to acknowledge how many of you in this room stood firm against the shift towards genericism that gained traction a decade ago, as a result of the poorly implemented National Strategies and the growing thirst of the DFE for data. We should be proud it was at least partly because of the work of our own, including Michael Fordham and Christine Counsell, the tiller was turned and the boat piloted back to safer waters.

It was from Michael and Christine, members of this community, that the phrase ‘the curriculum is the progression model’ originated.

We should be grateful to them and many others here today.

So for now at least, while we should remain alert to new dangers of mandated generic so called ‘knowledge rich teaching’ we do seem to have weathered the storm; in most schools, there are discrete history lessons on the timetables of children, at least for two years and thanks to Ofsted increasingly commonly for three.

But there still isn’t enough time allocated to history.

There can never be enough time.

We must never be satisfied.

We must never say we have enough.

We must always ask for more.

When we talk about the substantive matter of ‘history’ we are talking about thousands and thousands of years crossing mind-bogglingly diverse societies over and between vast geographical areas. The picture gets even more complicated when we consider interpretative scope. Even if an event or period is covered on a curriculum in the substantive sense, the way in which the event or period is interpreted will vary depending on who has written the history.

Decisions to teach something are always decisions not to teach something else. There can never be enough time. If they are to understand anything about history, our pupils must first understand this.

And understanding this is to understand the sublime. So many lives! So much diversity! So much experience! So familiar and at the same time strange –  so compelling! This is why I fell in love with history in the first place. It is the reason Richard Kennett and Will Bailey-Watson’s “Meanwhile, elsewhere” project is so exciting and inspiring and has captured the attention of all of us so powerfully – I can’t think of a better way to show children what they learn in school can only ever be a whisper in a storm.

To understand history pupils must understand how little they know about it, and how much there will always be left to explore.

  1. Base curriculum on modern scholarship.

The limited time we have makes decision making a profound responsibility. If our aim is to induct novices into the discipline – which it should be – then we must display as full a range of what history is and who it is about as we can.

We must acknowledge as human beings we are inherently subjective. The choices we make when choosing topics are products of our own inescapable biases. The past is a dark, vast cave and we are predisposed to shine our torches at what we know is already there. We cannot plan to teach pupils things we do not know ourselves so we must effortfully push through the cobwebs, past the comfortable and safe and ever deeper into the darkly glittering cavern.

To avoid becoming prisoners of ourselves it is best to develop curriculum collaboratively as part of a team comprising people of diverse interest. Through plurality we develop diversity. Mechanisms should exist for the revision of curriculum by all those involved in teaching it to prevent it ossifying and misleading pupils into thinking the way the past is interpreted is immutable.

The substantive content of curriculum in schools should be broadly representative of modern historical scholarship. But this, of course, leaves wide open the question as to which scholarship to use given how much is produced.

Firstly I think it is fine to base the curriculum of British schools on British history if this decision is made thoughtfully and the curriculum planned properly. This might be controversial, perhaps most so for those teaching in schools with many pupils from non-British backgrounds who may feel this structure is too often foisted upon them as a thoughtless default. While I recognise and affirm the legitimacy of the concerns of teachers working in such schools, particularly those that feel a British history curriculum to be exclusionary to some of their pupils, I think if curriculum is planned on the basis of modern scholarship then this need not cause too much anxiety for reasons I’ll explain later.

We should base curriculum on modern scholarship because we live in the modern world.

Although our present values and ways of seeing things are not innately superior to those held by historians in the past, planning a curriculum based on the historiography of other periods makes us vulnerable to the same sort of academic cosplay some politicians fall to when they attempt history on the Victorians.

Curriculum should show pupils the concerns of historians and their conclusions have changed over time, but to pretend we live in a period we do not would be bonkers.

We live in 2020. What we teach our pupils should reflect what historians in 2020 are writing about. As Carr explained, the historian cannot pretend to sit separate from the society in which they live, and nor can the curriculum planner. Happily, in teaching modern scholarship we also include scholarship from the past because of the dialectic nature of the historical method – everything written is a response to what has been written before. Like Russian dolls, the scholarship of the past nestles within the scholarship of the present.

This isn’t simple.

Modern historians write about a lot of different things. We cannot create a new topic for every new book or article. Our biases mean we are predisposed to reading books about things that already interest us. We must still make choices. Here I return to my assertion that curriculum is better developed collaboratively by those with diverse interests, those who are reading different things. Everyone involved in this process must be respectful of the interests of others even if they aren’t personally interested, or even disagree with them – it is not appropriate to exclude perspectives on the basis of political belief or ideology when our aim is to induct novices into a discipline that includes interpretations and views we may disagree with. For example, to exclude Hallie Rubenfold’s The Five from a unit of work on Jack the Ripper would be a misstep even for a teacher who disagrees with her focus as it would be a failure to represent up-to-date scholarship.

I do, by the way, recognise that Rubenfold would say I’ve phrased this entirely incorrectly by centreing the Ripper in my hypothetical unit. I apologise to her  – I do it only so those unfamiliar with her work will understand my point.

The curriculum planner should be a voracious and catholic reader.

They cannot ‘do’ history at university, train to teach and then spend their career disseminating what they knew at twenty-two. Such a teacher would be frozen in time and create misconceptions about what history is. History teachers must read and read and read. They must read things that make them uncomfortable and they must read things they disagree with.

To paraphrase Aristotle, when planning a curriculum we must be able to entertain ideas even when we do not accept them.

Above all else we must be clear as to what our role as a history curriculum planner is – we must avoid being propagandists, who teach the history we agree with but leave out what we do not.

We must not be disingenuous.

Our curriculum should be representative of what a range of people have written and are writing about history, not just of what people who agree with us have written or said.

We must be deliberate, self-conscious and careful.

History, like politics, is not something is ever possible to be impartial about – but this does not make it OK to teach history to redress what we perceive to be modern injustices based on our subjective political opinions, especially if this involves stepping beyond what scholarship actually says or omitting valid scholarly perspectives we find unpalatable. This can be hard, but when the temptation feels overwhelming we would do well to remember in doing this we open the door to those with radically different beliefs to ours to do the same.

We must remember when societies have remodelled their young through what they called ‘history’, what was taught was not history at all. When history is history it is concerned with what happened in the past, not what will or should happen in the future.

Not just substantive content is affected by basing curriculum on historical scholarship. Historians are divided into schools and types. We have a dizzying array; Annales, Big History, Cliometric, Comparative, Counter-factual, Critical, Cultural, Economic, Political, Marxist and so on and so on.

Historians of all these schools and more, whether we agree with them or not, have legitimate claims to be part of a school’s history curriculum. While we cannot include all their interpretations and views we must not represent only one school. A Marxist historian might be very happy with a school curriculum that only nods at England’s kings and queens, focusing instead on economic and social factors but such a curriculum would be a distortion of the discipline, excluding many historians who believe the decisions of kings and queens to be very significant indeed.

Pupils should finish their history studies in school knowing historians are interested in different things and that different historians ascribe significance differently to different factors, which is why the past is interpreted in different ways.

Curriculum should show the influence of a range of schools. This could, for example, include units focused on England’s kings and queens in the medieval era with a more Marxist economic and social focus on the industrial revolution.

Or it could it mean something else entirely.

Rooting curriculum in up-to-date scholarship influenced by different schools is the best way of assuring appropriate diversity while avoiding the dangers of tokenism and superficiality.

And curricula should be diverse – not because we are diverse now and are imposing our values on the past, but because the past was always diverse to begin with.

  1. Plan diversity in the curriculum because the past was diverse.

A criticism of history curricula in schools is that it is insufficiently diverse.

The criticism goes that the writing of history has been long dominated by an unrepresentatively homogenous group of people, who being human have written most about what interests them, which is often history written about people who –  superficially at least –  resemble them. This is why according to this argument with which I have a great deal of sympathy much of what is commonly taught as history in schools looks like the story of dominant, powerful minorities.

In the past such curricula were sometimes defended by people – people who don’t really understand history –  saying that while this might be true, there isn’t much to be done about it.

Sources are created by those in a position to create them. If there are no sources about, say, women living in villages in 1400, then as much as we might want to know about them, we just can’t, making any attempts supposition and fiction. If this were true then the past would be inexpressively frustrating, with us frozen out of the lives of most people who have ever lived.

Sometimes, sometimes, this might be true. While at university one of the most memorable topics I studied was called “Convicts and Colonies”, which actually turned out to be historiography unit all about the professor’s attempts to find what she called “the convict voice.” Her conclusion was depressing: it was impossible. As the convicts were illiterate every source she found that purported to be produced by one was actually the work of another party with a vested interest. She concluded that we simply do not know how convicts felt about their experiences with any confidence.

There was, she said, no authentic convict voice in the record.

But whether she was right or wrong she had looked very hard.

How hard can we say we have really looked for sources or scholarship about less powerful groups or people before we decide there isn’t enough to include them? The problem is not just that less powerful groups of people tend to leave less of a record, but also that powerful people who write history tend to look harder for evidence about things that interest them – as in other powerful people – than they do for evidence about things that interest them less – as in less powerful people.

The argument fewer sources means less history, again one made most commonly by people who aren’t historians or history teachers, is a dubious one, given it seems to be applied when we look at some topics but not others – that there are far fewer sources about the Norman Conquest than say, World War One, doesn’t seem to have made the Normans of any less interest to historians. This makes the idea we wouldn’t teach pupils about some groups and individuals simply because there are fewer sources or less of a record suddenly seem rather disingenuous.

Of course history about powerful people is not inherently morally worse than history about less powerful people.

We should not allow conversations about curriculum in history to devolve into a slanging match about goodies versus baddies. The curriculum planner who focuses exclusively on the history of the working class at the expense of medieval kings and queens would create a curriculum just as one dimensional and myopic as one who included only monarchs and no working class groups at all.

Choosing the content of a curriculum should not be like loyalty to a football team so dumb it blinds you to the qualities of other teams, making you unable to appreciate a beautiful goal just because it was not scored by ‘your’ players.

We should be aware of the dangers of demographic based curriculum, when a curriculum is designed to reflect the backgrounds of those in a school or class.

The problem with this is it is rarely really possible. The backgrounds of those often grouped together, for example ‘Poor White’ or ‘Black’ are often much more different than they are similar, and the more we atomise the more difficult – although again I wouldn’t go as far as saying not possible –  it is to create sequences of lessons that add up to more than a series of diverting but unconnected one off vignettes.

A second more conceptual problem is assuming we have greater ownership of the history of people occupying our modern geographical space or societal position than others do, or thinking we have a greater claim on the history of those of our religion or political leaning than those of a different bent.

I think this is problematic.

‘Working class’ in the industrial revolution meant something very different to what it means today. Being a modern Christian, as I am, does not give me an automatically closer connection to a monk living in the 14th century than the connection of an interested atheist.

History lives in sources, not DNA. We are not our ancestors. All our history is all our history. Everyone has an equal right to everything written about the past.

The people who lived in the past are not us. We should not pretend they were.

Done without great care, making curricular decisions based on the demographics of our schools could lock groups of children out of areas of study based on wrong assumptions about who we think they are.

It could be reductive and actually in many contexts could reduce diversity. Curriculum in all subjects aims to connect young people with things outside their experience. History should be no exception.

It is important to acknowledge and affirm the unease of those feel this could mean ignoring interesting and important but underrepresented stories. This legitimate concern has been well articulated by many members of our community including Nick Dennis, Claire Hollis and Hannah Cusworth.

They are right to worry more about the representation of historically marginalised groups than those who have had more power because of inertia, which assures the places of the powerful but not the places of the powerless. We must be alert to this. The history we teach in our schools should be diverse, not because we are diverse today, or because diversity is somehow an empirically moral GOOD THING, but because the past was diverse and to suggest otherwise would be to misrepresent it.

In his book “Natives”, Akala makes this point, pointing out that an advantage of his wide ranging education is he is able to think, discuss and write about topics over great breadth, from Shakespeare to the Cuban revolution.

We should aim for the same for every child.

We have the resources to realise this aim.

The most exciting thing about recent scholarship continues to be the emergence of a widening range of perspectives and stories. In the past year I’ve had the privilege to read books by Darren Oldridge about bizarre medieval stories, Miranda Kauffman on Black Tudors, Emma Griffin on the Industrial Revolution, Lizzie Collingham on curry and Nathanial Phillbrook on Quakerism and whaling crews. Modern historians are not limiting themselves to Henry VIII and Josiah Wedgewood. If we are to properly induct our pupils into our discipline we should not imply they are.

What a time to be interested in history! While in the past the curriculum planner could perhaps have credibly claimed it was hard to find scholarship from and about marginalised groups and individuals this is not an acceptable excuse now.

Scholarship is opening up more and more areas of study, rolling back the horizon to include more and more of the people who lived on the earth before we did.

How myopic and foolish it would be to turn our gaze to the ground while all around us new wonders are being revealed.

We must also remain wary of the dangers posed by all this choice and avoid behaving like children in a sweet shop, cherry picking the shiny and superficially attractive without giving thought to how it fits in with the other things we’ve chosen.

How do we balance coherence with the diversity of the past?

How do we do this?

  1. Structure curriculum deliberately.

A good argument to teach national history is it provides structure. Once while working in an International School, I tried to design a ‘world history’ curriculum that roved over all seven continents and almost ten thousand years.

While the lessons worked well as stand-alones, the overall result was confusion – to make sense of the past we have to focus and a national history can be the beginnings – but of course only the beginnings – of this. I would not go as far as to say my failure at a World History curriculum would mean all attempts are doomed to fail – this would be arrogant, especially given my inexperience and lack of expertise when I attempted it.

I would, however, say that all curricula needs structure.

The point, certainly in maintained schools, is often moot. Here the National Curriculum has to be taught so choices have to be made largely within a national framework – by and large in most schools we are teaching predominantly British history regardless of how we feel about it. This is absolutely not a barrier to a diverse curriculum and it should never be used as a reason a curriculum isn’t diverse.

The histories of all countries and perhaps Britain in particular, are inherently diverse.

At this point it would be remiss of me not to thank Hannah Cusworth for reminding me to emphasise this truth in her robust comments on a previous draft of this talk.

It is also important to be clear teaching ‘British’ history, for those that choose to do so, must mean teaching the history of other places too – to teach the Vikings as aliens who landed from outer space in Northumbria in 793 would be hugely misleading, as would failing to account for where the millions of tons of cotton spun in Manchester in the 19th century was grown and by who.

Whatever some politicians may think there isn’t one ‘island story’, and all our ‘island stories’ connect to the stories of other places.

We are not really an island at all, which means the curriculum planner has even more to consider and even more choices to make.

More on this in a moment.

But first this is not to say I think all schools should teach British history to all pupils– to so say would be considerable overreach on my part. Schools that do this also run the risk of misrepresenting the breadth of the discipline, making it an inappropriate induction for novices. For those schools that do choose to follow a national history, it is sensible to have some material from different frameworks too but this needs a carefully thought through and logical alternative structure – I’ve seen good work along these lines based on thematic studies on Roy Porter’s work on medicine and on Peter Frankopen’s Silk Roads.

There are of course many history teachers, some in my Trust, some in this room, who are already doing such work. If you are doing work on this, I’d love to see it. Tweet me!

We now turn to the meatier question – how do we decide what content to include?

In the acceptance that what we include should be based on modern scholarship we have made a start already, but given that this still leaves us many choices to make there remains lot of thinking to be done.

In the recent past the concepts of core knowledge and cultural capital have been talked about a lot. The idea here is we should equip our pupils with the knowledge most likely to allow them to access conversations that play out in our newspapers and over other media.

A history curriculum written in this spirit would look at what is referenced most in the popular broadsheet press. The problem, as explored by Robert Peal in a previous keynote here, is that the supposedly historical references found most frequently in such media often isn’t really what scholarship is concerned with – while references to Robin Hood and Spitfires are comparatively common, we are far less likely to come across material on Edward the Confessor or Olaudah Equiano. Were we to plan curriculum based on what our pupils are most likely to stumble across outside our lessons we risk creating a static, populist curriculum that isn’t actually a history curriculum at all.

Instead, as you may be becoming tired of me saying, we should look to scholarship. This may not equip our pupils with readily transferrable cultural capital but, bluntly, given that our job is to induct novices into the discipline and not boost the ability of our children to nod smugly at bad analogies and metaphors – Reformation and Brexit anyone? – this is not our problem.

Perhaps more helpful for history teachers is Michael Young’s concept of “Powerful knowledge”, which takes pupils beyond their everyday experiences and gives them access to academic disciplines. What better way to do this than making sure the knowledge pupils have is the most up-to-date in the fields they are studying?

So what big questions and themes are modern historians interested in? Here in no particular order is a list of just some of the history books written in the last decade that might deserve consideration; Robert Tombs “The English and their History,” Thomas Penn’s “The Winter King” Miranda Kauffman’s “Black Tudors,” Marc Morris’ “The Norman Conquest,” Hallie Rubensfeld’s “The Five,” Peter Frankopen’s “The Silk Roads,” David Abulafia’s “The Great Sea”, China Mieville’s “October”, Janet Polasky’s “Revolutions Without Borders”, Emma Griffin’s “Liberty’s Dawn”, Helen Castor’s “She Wolves,” Nick Lloyd’s “Passchendaele”, Nicholas Timmins’ “The Five Giants” and Suzannah Lipscomb’s “The Voices of Nimes”.

I have read some. I have not read all.

What I haven’t read both bothers and inspires me. Here we see a vast range of substantive content influenced by scholarship on the past but also appropriately informed by our modern concerns. Here we have power, religion and grand narrative, top down and bottom up. Here we have biography, cultural diversity, continuity and change, feminism, trade, transnationalism and revolution. Some of our themes are ages old, some are emerging, all are relevant, vital and valid and all are entirely appropriate bases, whether substantive or as a disciplinary framework, on which to begin constructing a history curriculum.

This can make people who don’t understand history uncomfortable, especially those who for whatever reason have a romanticised view of the past. I have heard people outside our community suggests history written today should be treated with caution because it represents a presentist attack on the historiography of the past. This is both absolutely true and absolute tosh. It is true because all history interrogates interpretations made in the past and tosh because it demonstrate a failure to understand the contrary nature of history itself, which as Jim Carroll pointed out at one of the first WLFS workshops I ever attended, is inherently argumentative.

While everyone cheers the Jubilee and VE day and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire the history curriculum should sit grumpily in the shadows as the Ghost at the Feast. It should whisper ‘not really’ and ‘there isn’t much evidence for that you know,’ and ‘yes sort of but not in the way you mean’ and ‘you haven’t considered these sources’. The historical method relies on the cyclical thesis, antithesis, synthesis, thesis process. History is never finished and any attempt to absent oneself from the never-ending debate is to absent oneself from the discipline. Such defensiveness is also so misplaced as to be hysterical – as my brief list of books written in the last decade shows, modern scholarship does not show a collapse in interest in the Normans, Tudors or the wars, nor amnesia about what has been written before – it is just that we are interested in familiar things in different ways, and interested in new things too.

If we are to avoid anachronism our curricula must reflect contemporary scholarly interests.

So let us put aside these worries and let’s instead turn, simultaneously, towards the past and the future.

What an intricate tapestry! How vibrant! How full of colour! How full of life! This is a golden era in which to plan curriculum. We are very fortunate. Shaped by scholarship, our curricula should sing songs in many different keys with many different instruments, not because this is inherently more virtuous but because the world has always been an orchestra and never a solo performance.

This is how we induct our children into our discipline – we show them there are many types of history to choose from and that all of what we study is open to anyone who wants to know about it regardless of who they are or where they have come from.

All our history is all our history.

Given the arguments and controversies about curriculum content inherent to my four principles, how do we talk about these choices without falling out with each other? As a subject community I think this is something we are already quite good at. One of the things I’ve noticed about debate around curriculum content, especially online, is that when it is history teachers doing the discussing, conversations are civil and collegiate. The tone usually only gets unpleasant when people who do not really understand history, or have inaccurate views of what is actually taught as history in most schools get involved. This is something we should be proud of, and whatever our views on a topic we should make sure our conversations avoid the simplistic generalisations beloved by popular press and media.

Secondly we should avoid thinking of our own curricula as castles to be defended to the last, and avoid taking suggestions and critique as personal criticism. Given that scholarship is organic and evolving, curriculum should change too, with teachers seeing this as exciting and inspiring rather than a threat to their authority. We would also do well to remember that however passionately we believe the choices made by someone else are wrong, people are far more likely to be persuaded to make revisions if they are talked to with patience and respect.

I have direct experience of this.

I am astonished to be speaking here.

Four years ago the first WLFS conference was the very first history conference I ever attended. I’d heard about it because, through twitter, I’d found people like Michael Fordham, Richard Kennett, Alex Ford, Katie Hall, Lee Donaghy and Sally Thorne, who critiqued some of my early blog posts and tweets, in a way that made me interested in their ideas without ever once making me feel I was being talked down to or sneered at.

It is because of this kindness I developed and changed as a teacher, and it is because of them and others that four years on I stand speaking to you, a room packed full of people I know to be better qualified than me. Those who have followed my work on curriculum may have noticed that even what I am saying now is not identical to what I was saying a year ago. Those of you who were kind enough to read drafts of this talk will notice what I’m saying now is not exactly the same as what you gave feedback on.

This too is the result of collegiate critique.

Finally, I think it honest to make it clear that the curriculum I develop does not always fit with all the principles I’ve identified today – practical constraints and the demands of specific contexts will sometimes mean where we want to ultimately end up may not be achievable. This reminds me of Carr’s response to the fair criticism the history he himself wrote did not always reflect the content of his What is history? lecture series – he said, openly and honestly, this was a failure of his history not his historiography.

Presumptuously I will steal this response to legitimate charges the curriculum I develop does not always reflect my own principles.

I am certain there will be things I’ve said today that some of you disagree with. We are at a history teaching conference and if we had consensus then surely something would have gone very wrong. Please view this as nothing more than a starting point for discussion, a thesis to be critiqued, challenged and revised. Please do this as collegiality and kindly as you critique the curricular choices made by others, remembering that nobody in the world has the authority or legitimacy to objectively judge one curriculum to be better than another.

We must make our cases, and listen openly to the cases made by others. We are a jury without a judge or hope of a final verdict, part of a trial that that has been going on since before we were born and will continue long after we die.

And how marvellous that is.

Thank you everyone.


One thought on “How do we decide what history to teach?

  1. Kate says:

    How do we explain to leadership that we need time for redevelopment? Above all we need time to (re)develop ourselves to ensure our curriculum development gives our students the best possible learning experience and knowledge. I’m trying to overhaul a whole KS3 with new eyes (been teaching at the same school with little change to subject content for too long) and input but feel increasing pressure from above for it to have already happened with full SoWs and assessments. All I want is to give our students the best possible experience and to get them as excited, enthralled and at times in despair and appalled by history.
    Regardless of the pressures your essay is inspiring and motivating. Thank you!


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