Every schoolteacher has come across the faintly smug answer “I teach children” to the question “what do you teach,” usually from the type of colleague who would sadly conclude that it was his professional duty to report you to the Deputy Head for uttering a profanity on discovering that you had forgotten your board markers.
Such people tend to like the idea that what really matters is the child. If the teacher, or indeed the subject, does not suit the child, then it is the teacher or the subject which must change. This is the principle at the heart of the ‘child-centred’ education movement, which would traditional teaching methods and traditional academic subjects with metacognition lessons in which iPads would be used to enable discovery learning.
Well … I don’t teach children. I teach History.
Firstly, I’m not quite so presumptuous as to think that just because I can teach History, I can teach anything. I notice this twice a week when coaching sport. I’ve played rugby for nearly thirty years, though never at a particularly exalted level, and I’ve coached the game for fourteen years, though I’ve never taken an ‘A’ team. So when I run my ‘B’ team it’s usually alongside a PE teacher who takes the lead.
What I’ve found particularly interesting about this experience is that I’m a good coach with a junior ‘B’ team.* I’m good at coaching the basics. I’m good at motivating players. I’m good at refereeing a game so that the participants get as much out of it as possible.
(Yes, it is easy for me to say this. It’s not just that I don’t care if my team wins or loses. It’s that there isn’t really any pressure on me either way. Neither Directors of Sport nor parents care about ‘my’ results, and that frees me – as I know coaches of top teams sometimes, appallingly, aren’t free – to make sure that players all get decent game time, that games flow, and that in my teams no one, including me, has a go at people who get things wrong, including me.)
But there are too many things which I don’t even notice, never mind know how to put right, for me to coach an ‘A’ team. I’ve been trying to think of examples, but the whole point is the ‘unknown unknowns’ – I will look at a player performing a particular skill in practice, and it’ll look fine to me, but my PE-specialist colleague will identify something which I haven’t seen, and give instruction on how to improve it. If I knew what I ought to be looking out for I’d be half-way there, but I don’t.
You can, I expect, see where this is going. I can bring some generic schoolmastering to the games field, and some amateur knowledge, and that’s good enough. But if I was put in charge of the 1st XV, or teaching academic PE, or preparation for pupils’ applications to read Sports Science at Loughborough, then I’d be hopeless.
But that’s not all.
I’m not just here to teach History to the children in my classes. I’m doing something bigger and more important.
I think History is important. (I expect – I hope – you think your subject is too.) As a History teacher I am tasked with the transmission of our knowledge of the past to generations to come. I am carrying out my part in Edmund Burke’s famous social contract, which is between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. I am an infinitesimal part of the preservation and passing on of our collective heritage. This is, I think, a tremendous privilege. But it carries with it responsibility too.
And it’s not just a responsibility to the pupils in front of me. It’s greater than that.
What if the interests of Clio and what are alleged to be the interests of the pupil appear not to coincide? For me, history comes first.
So, for instance, I despise the ‘Hitlerisation’ of the History curriculum. When I have taught in schools which have included the Third Reich at both GCSE and A Level I have made myself unpopular by criticising the practice: when I have been in a position to change it I have done so. If results go badly because of it? That’s a price I’m willing to pay.
Aha, says my previous Head of Department, who arranged for pupils to learn the Second World War and the Holocaust for two terms in the Third Form, to then be taught a GCSE course including a term on Hitler’s foreign policy and another term on a depth study of Nazi Germany, and to then spend the entire Upper Sixth on the history of the Fatherland in the first half of the twentieth century. That’s all very well for you to say. What you really mean is that it’s a price you’re willing for your students to pay. Well, I don’t want them to pay the price. Their parents don’t want them to pay the price. The Head Master doesn’t want them to pay the price. You don’t care about them, not like we do.
Tja. Has he got a point? I don’t know. Does studying the same thing help pupils succeed in public examinations? That hasn’t been my experience, but I’d be surprised if it had no impact, though it’d be very difficult to measure. There are other reasons to focus on Hitler besides results in public examinations: the first half of the twentieth century in Germany is often said to be very popular with teenagers, usually by teachers who themselves prefer teaching it to something more adventurous, and once (as it lamentably does in so many schools) it has the status of ‘the default option’ then considerations of library books, textbooks, other teaching resources and schemes of work all mitigate against reform.**
And you know what? I don’t care if it is in the pupils’ interests (however that be defined) to follow a course like this. There is a bigger picture. History matters. And we are betraying the past and the future if we do not teach it properly.
So I teach History. Not children.
*Yes, you’ll have to take my word for it. I think my argument works even if actually I’m a bit rubbish.
**There’s something else too. Whenever I start off a new season coaching an Association Football team I always line my team up in the conventional 4-4-2 formation. Why? Because the players all know what they’re doing in it; but also because if things go wrong I can then say to them, well, that was a bit of a mess, and I think a change of tactics might help, and they’ll listen. Whereas if at the start of the season I say ‘look, we’ve got three really good centre-halves here, and three central midfielders who all deserve a place in the team, and we don’t have any full-backs, so let’s play 3-5-2; and we then lose, then immediately the players will attribute their defeat to the tactics, and thereafter they won’t listen. Well, I think a lot of Heads of History worry that if they don’t focus on the Third Reich, and results are disappointing, then they have provided their own line managers with one obvious way in which they can be personally blamed.