History is a big story. The episodes are connected. They have causes and consequences. They explain each other. Think of watching football on television, entirely made up of snippets from different matches. It might be exciting at first, but soon you would realise that it made no sense. Yet that is how history is taught in our secondary schools. Bits of disconnected history from different times and places are studied, often in minute detail. Do you know a lot about Tito’s visit to Czechoslovakia in 1968, or the Lytton Commission, or Bulgarian postwar elections? No, neither do I. Yet children spend a lot of time learning details like this. History in schools needs to be connected up, as a continuing story over time, and focusing mainly on our own country. This is our common story. Our children deserve to learn it.
Robert Tombs is co-author of History in the New Curriculum and professor of French history at the University of Cambridge.
History teachers are well aware of the “seamless web” that history represents. But trying to cover it all – even for Britain alone – requires time. In many schools that time is in short supply. Some children receive only 38 hours specialist history teaching before being allowed to drop the subject. They won’t be among those at GCSE exploring what we might learn from earlier failures of international peace-keeping. Without more time, children can only tackle the challenges of explaining causes and evaluating consequences by studying a selection of events, in sufficient detail to understand the reality of past lives and what particular changes actually meant. In the circumstances, watching a few great matches – with the highlights in slow motion – gives a much better feel for the game than a quick glance at each week’s results table.
Dr Katharine Burn is senior lecturer in history education at the Institute of Education, part of the University of London.