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The new history curriculum is anything but narrow-minded

JohnbaldJohn Bald says the new history curriculum has some of the most intellectually ambitious goals he has seen

Not for the first time, opponents of the National Curriculum have chosen to concentrate their fire on history, describing the draft proposals as narrow, fifties-nostalgic and designed to replace thinking with rote learning. It's interesting, therefore, to see that the proposals describe the purpose of history teaching in these words:

"A high-quality history education equips pupils to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgement. A knowledge of Britain's past, and our place in the world, helps us understand the challenges of our own time."

Michael Gove's critics could scarcely have put it better. As there has been so much flak (from the German WWII term Fliegerabwehrkanone), it's worth recalling the next part, which lists the curriculum's aims. By the age of 14, pupils (call me old-fashioned, but I won't call them students) should:

  • know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world.
  • know and understand British history as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the story of the first settlers in these islands to the development of the institutions which govern our lives today.
  • know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires; the achievements and follies of mankind
  • gain and deploy a historically-grounded understanding of abstract terms such as ‘empire’, ‘civilisation’, ‘parliament’ and ‘peasantry’.
  • understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance, and use them to make connections, draw contrasts, analyse trends, frame historically-valid questions and create their own structured accounts, including written narratives and analyses.
  • understand how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.
  • gain historical perspective by placing their growing knowledge into different contexts, understanding the connections between local, regional, national and international history; between cultural, economic, military, political, religious and social history; and between short- and long-term timescales.

This is one of the most intellectually ambitious goals for a history curriculum I've ever seen - some of it would be asking a lot at degree level, and it is anything but jingoistic or narrow-minded. The need to restore chronology to the curriculum is endorsed by Her Majesty's Inspectors, who have said that it has been damaged by the primary insistence on topic work, and by sheer pressure of time in the early years of secondary school. Unfortunately, the draft primary programmes of study are overloaded and take some things in the wrong order. This should be easy to fix, and ancient Egypt should be restored in the process.

The response to the languages draft has been much more positive, particularly as it represents a revolution in current practice. The idea of a balanced approach, with reading and writing taught alongside speaking and listening rather than as optional extras, reflects HMI evidence that good teaching of these is seldom seen, and also evidence from current brain research that shows that they use the same areas of the brain.

A recent New Scientist article has shown that words with the same meaning in different languages (eg horse, Pferd, cheval) are also stored in the same areas of the brain, so that our knowledge  of our first and foreign languages is much more closely intertwined that has previously been thought. The approach developed under Labour and its leftist cronies, of treating each channel of communication as a separate skill - it enabled them to discount reading and writing, and so reduce the advantages of more literate pupils - is a dead duck, and the New National Curriculum rids us of it. Not before time, as recent reporting in the Telegraph and a British Academy survey both show us lagging far behind other countries in language skills, at some economic cost.

And as a final piece of good news on the languages front, The Chinese Publishing Company has developed an approach to Mandarin for young children and their teachers that overcomes all of the obstacles that have previously made the initial stages of learning this language difficult. The first stages of learning any new language are the hardest, as our brain has not yet learned to make the basic adjustments in thinking that are needed to handle its grammar, and, in the case of Chinese, because we do not have the benefit of shared Latinate words as we do in European languages. I've reviewed the pack, Ulearn Chinese, here.


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