I have read with interest Michael Fordham’s recent blog posts about different approaches to history curriculum design and their problems. I must confess, as a newbie to the profession, to feeling more than a little overwhelmed by my unfamiliarity with a lot of the theories and concepts he mentions.
Being the kind of person I am, I often try to simplify complex arguments I read into clear and intelligible statements just so that I am able to make sense of it all. For this reason, I tweeted the following response:
I got to pondering, in my own small way, the implications of this. If there are no shortcuts to becoming good at history, if lots and lots of knowledge about different things is needed in order to be able to make analysis, inferences and form opinions, how on earth can we deliver this knowledge in schools given the limited hours available to teach it?
This was far easier to accomplish in my day because, quite simply, we read a lot. I remember a childhood filled with books, not because I was particularly erudite but because books were the only real source of entertainment available to me, the only escape I had from boredom. With no Netflix, no social media, no Google to look things up and no cheap travel, I lost myself in countless books and transported myself to exotic locations through the stories I read. I was not prescriptive in my reading. The only criterion was that it should entertain me. Thus I read Agatha Christie mysteries, Georgette Heyer romances, Jean Plaidy’s historical novels, as well as the anointed greats such as Jane Austen or Tolstoy. I remember spending an entire Easter holiday ensconced in my room devouring “War and Peace”. My mother despaired of ever seeing my face, I had to be dragged to the dinner table under duress because all I wanted was to continue reading this all-engrossing saga.
Again, I reiterate, I was not particularly scholarly. What I was doing was not uncommon in my time. I read about a book a day, but then so did many of my friends. My best friend would do a fortnightly trip to the library with her two siblings where each of them would take out 10 books and then share the 30 books between each other before going back for more. Without ever consciously realising it, we were accumulating that fingertip knowledge that Christine Counsell may have been talking about last week at the WLFS conference (I was unfortunately unable to attend). And so we came to our lessons already well briefed, well primed for the accumulation of more knowledge and for developing our writing and analytical skills.
The problem, as I see it, is how do we develop this knowledge with the current generation, living in the modern world full of distractions? My personal experience of trying to foster a love of reading in my 8-year old son demonstrates just what a challenge this is. By comparison with his contemporaries, my son is an able reader and has a wide and sophisticated vocabulary. By comparison with me at his age, however, he does not fare so well. How do we bridge this impasse?
I have read about Michaela school with great interest (and hope to visit in the not too distant future) and I know it garners a considerable amount of criticism, but one thing (out of many) that I admire is their utter commitment to getting their pupils to read as much as possible the great literary works in our canon. Perhaps what needs to happen, is for that process to start much sooner, in primary school. Imagine primary schools with the Michaela ethos, insisting that children read a whole load of great books before they finish year 6. Imagine this being a priority, embedded in the school day and curriculum. There is no other place for that reading to take place and schools have to acknowledge this. Realistically, children are not, in today’s world, going to read these books at home – they will be on their computers and game stations. The reading needs to happen at school if it ever stands a chance of becoming a habit.