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‘What’ we Teach has Beaten ‘How’ we Teach – So What, Exactly, Should we Teach?

Finally, most of us are talking about the ‘what’, rather than the ‘how’ of teaching, says Ben Newmark – but it’s not always going to be an easy conversation...

  • ‘What’ we Teach has Beaten ‘How’ we Teach – So What, Exactly, Should we Teach?

As I write, it is March 2019, and I declare the Great Pedagogical War over: ‘what’ has beaten ‘how’.

This is absolutely the right time to be talking about what, exactly, we teach our children in schools.

The emphasis of Ofsted’s new framework on curriculum intent means that MATS, schools, leaders and teachers are now thinking hard about what they are trying to achieve, and what exactly pupils need to know to get there.

And thank goodness, saying ‘to get great exam results’ is no longer a good enough justification of content.

Deeper, more-profound questions need to be considered and answered. What is the purpose of the curriculum? What will be in it? How has the content been decided upon? Who makes decisions about what pupils should learn? How is curriculum Quality Assured? What processes exist to critique and revise it?

Inevitably, debate around these issues will be more acute in some subjects than in others.

It is unlikely to be particularly contentious in maths and science, for example; but in history, discussions could well be fraught, and potentially antagonistic, because it is a subject for which – quite rightly – there is no overall consensus as to what children should learn in their lessons.

Assume nothing

Those concerned about the diversity of history curriculum content, whatever the reason, have the right and responsibility to speak out; but I worry that some of the debates I’ve seen are based upon assumptions that are simply not true.

For example, an argument I’ve heard made recently is that many history curriculums are racist because they teach that the abolition of slavery was solely the result of white abolitionists.

This would certainly be a major issue if it were true, but in all the schools where I have worked, sequences of lessons on the abolition of slavery contain the work of both white and black abolitionists, economic arguments influenced by Marxist historians, the role of rebellions in the southern states and Caribbean countries, and an examination of the reasons for changing scholarly debates and why these are particularly contentious.

I wonder if one reason for misunderstanding is because some of those concerned about the content of the history curriculum have assumed that pupils are learning what might be called The National Myth.

This would be understandable, given that such narratives are often culturally dominant – despite not being taught in schools.

In this wrongheaded conception of history, Britain alone won World War Two; Churchill, Gandhi and Martin Luther King are secular saints; and there is serious debate over whether humans have ever been to the moon.

That all of this is nonsense doesn’t make any of this fluff go away, and a core purpose of history in schools should be to act as the Ghost at the Feast and fight such dangerous, inaccurate generalisations (something I wrote about over a year ago).

History teachers should be allies, not the enemy, and rather than call them to task over strawmen, it would be more productive to amplify their voices so that what they teach is better able to challenge the inaccuracies that infuriate everyone.

Constructive challenge

None of this is to say that every history curriculum gets everything right. I think there is indeed a very important conversation to be had around how they are created and who creates them.

But for this to happen properly it is just as important that challenge and debate happen in a constructive, collegiate and civil manner. Nobody wants topics or themes to be crudely shoe-horned into learning sequences just to tick a box or meet an arbitrary quota.

This is what went wrong with the way in which Mary Seacole has been included on many curriculums in the past, where I’ve seen her thoughtlessly plopped in next to Florence Nightingale, with her contributions to nursing and doctoring made to compete – celebrity death-match style – against those of her more famous contemporary in questions focused on medical significance, in which she comes off worse.

In order to compensate, I think, I’ve also seen curriculum use shade thrown by Nightingale at Seacole during the Crimean war (Nightingale effectively accused Seacole of running a brothel), to give the death-match an unhelpful moralistic element.

I think this happened because, while Seacole is absolutely worthy of including on a curriculum, not enough thought was given to why this is the case.

In the curriculum I teach, Mary Seacole is included, along with the inherent interest found in any extraordinary life, to show how attitudes towards race and ethnicity are complex and have changed.

We teach the importance of her work at the time; that when she returned from the Crimea a huge benefit concert was arranged for her by grateful ex-patients.

We teach that her fame faded over time because far less was written about her than Florence Nightingale by historians until a comparatively recent rediscovery – and we consider the possible reasons for this.

Better together

This hasn’t been easy, and while I’m confident I’ve put hard thought into getting this right, I’m just as sure there will be some who are certain I’ve got it wrong.

And this is the point.

Doing anything properly takes time and careful thought, and even then it isn’t at all clear that there will ever be agreement on how successful curriculum planning has been.

I would go further and accept the likelihood there are themes, events, personalities and interpretations that perhaps should be on many curriculums but aren’t, simply because those that create them are either unaware of them at all, or unaware of scholarship that makes them more significant than planners had assumed. After all, we are all products of our own contexts.

We do need to have this conversation, we really do. But this is a big, big debate, which might involve deep structural changes for many history curriculums.

Erecting strawmen won’t help. Nor will blunderbuss non-specific accusations of racism. Nor will defensiveness from curriculum planners when faced with legitimate challenge over perspectives they have, for whatever reason, overlooked.

Collegiality and generous application of the Charity Principle will help. All of us want the best curriculums for our pupils, as we define them, and to say otherwise is at best unhelpful and at worst, very disingenuous.

We’ve just finished one war. Let’s not begin another. If we are to take the best advantage of a welcome focus on ‘what’ over ‘how’, we must work together.


Ben Newmark is vice principal at the Nuneaton Academy, which is part of the Midland Academies Trust and the Midland Knowledge Hub.

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