Ideas and advice about history teaching 1900-1950s



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Ideas and advice about history teaching 1900-1950s

Before the 1980s history teaching was not the subject of continuing controversy in the way that it has been for the last twenty five years. But before then there were still considerable and heated debates about how it should be taught – and what should be taught – among teachers, teacher trainers, historians, politicians, HMIs, the press and the general public. What David Sylvester later called ‘the great tradition’ of history teaching1 (by which he meant a ‘chalk and talk’ exposition of kings and battles) was never uncontested; teachers found themselves teaching that way because they were pressured, and had too many pupils and too few resources to do otherwise, but many were conscious that this was neither an interesting nor inspiring way to teach children and was never going to instil in them a continuing and consuming love of history. So over the years many teachers and educationalists attempted to find more innovative methods of improving the teaching of history. They were not immune from criticism and carping: some of the Board of Education’s ‘Suggestions’ criticise a decline in teaching dates; and in 1924, the writer Hilaire Belloc declared that,“…we must return to an old-fashioned method which had governed the teaching of history for generations. We must return to dates, conventional divisions, and an insistence upon mechanical accuracy, which in its turn, is primarily dependent upon the unreasoning memory”.2 Professor Tout, the second president of the Historical Association, expressed concern in 1923 about the concentration on ‘modern’ and European and world history, at the expense of British history and medieval history:

An even worse tendency is to re-write history from a particular point of view. The ‘patriotic bias’ of the past is to be corrected by an anti-patriotic bias that shows our country to be nearly always wrong . Those who hate war would have all battles cut out of history books, despite the unfortunate facts that was plays a large part in history, and the present general outlook does not suggest much prospect that fighting will be immediately eliminated.3

The 1930s saw debate over how far there should be teaching about the League of Nations in schools: the official presumption was that the League was ‘a good thing’ which children should be taught, but even some of its supporters were reluctant to teach in this way, fearing it strayed towards propaganda and bias if not conducted in a spirit of debate and enquiry. There had been similar reluctance among some local authorities and schools thirty years earlier to embrace the celebration of Empire Day and it was only in 1916 in the middle of war that the Government finally gave it official recognition.

However most of the discussion about history teaching during the first half of the century centred on how it should be taught as will be described below

The Historical Association

After the Board of Education, the most powerful influence on the teaching of history in the first half of the twentieth century was the Historical Association. It was set up in 1906, arising out of a concern about the state of history at all levels from elementary schools to university research departments. By 1906 subject associations had already been set up for a number of other disciplines – Mathematics (1870), Geography and Modern Languages (1893), Classics (1903) – but those teaching history still had no independent forum from which to seek guidance and information. Its inception was on January 5th 1906, at a meeting chaired by Professor AF Pollard of University College, London, at a conference for elementary school teachers organised by the London County Council, when Miss MA Howard, Head of the History Department of the London Day Training College, made a plea for such a body. She commenced her paper by saying:

History is a comparatively new subject in schools. We are feeling our way towards a satisfactory treatment of it. No one would deny that there has been an enormous improvement in the teaching of history in England during the last ten or twenty years; but on the other hand, no one would deny that there is still room for great improvement in this matter…4

She made a compelling case for the need for children to learn history, clearly including elementary school children as well as the minority in secondary and private schools, and managing to link the need for history to encourage patriotism together with its need to make them think for themselves:

We should all agree that the history lesson can give, as no other school subject can, training in what is, perhaps, the most necessary quality for success in life, that quality for which in the English language we only have the unsatisfactory word ‘sympathy’. In learning history the child is always, or should be always, exercising his imagination, projecting himself backwards into the past, looking at things from other people’s point of view, and picturing circumstances widely different from his own. Some children do this instinctively, but most need a good deal of guidance. It is our business to give them the stimulating and suggestive questions which are necessary. Then, too, the history lessons may give valuable preparation for after life by training the children in reasoning, not in the abstract reasoning of mathematics, but in reasoning and judgment as applied to human affairs. They cannot, indeed, always learn the why, but we can teach them to want to know the why, and to form the habit of reasoning from the knowledge they already have. We can teach them never to make generalisations or pass opinions for which they can give no reasons...

We want in the history lessons to impress the importance of historical truth; we want to develop intelligence, patriotism, and citizenship; we want to give the children opportunities for hero-worship. If these are our aims, how are they to be accomplished? The great need is to make the children think. The great danger is that they should be passive, not active in the history lesson. The great difficulty in most schools is the size of the classes. It is a comparatively easy matter to teach history satisfactorily to a few individual children or to a small class; to teach it satisfactorily to large classes is a task of the greatest difficulty.

The problem of method in history teaching seems threefold: how to make the children use and realise the past; how to make them think about it; how to make them remember the important things.

Whatever we do, or do not do, our history lessons will be a failure unless we make the people and conditions of the past real to children...5

Most of Miss Howard’s paper went on to discuss her quite practical suggestions for improving the teaching of history – deciding to leave out complicated areas like, “the greater part of constitutional history” for pupils under sixteen6, minimise the learning of dates so that even in the later years, “only the most important dates should be committed to memory, and these should be used as centres around which events approximately synchronous may be grouped”.7 She emphasised the use of aids – particularly maps but also pictures , lantern slides, old newspapers, coins, facsimiles of letters and old documents, visits to galleries and museums, time charts. For large classes she described the difficulty of giving children sufficient opportunities to put their knowledge to use, without which they soon forget even the most interesting lessons. “We want them to make them apply in some way the knowledge they have acquired. For example, after a lesson on the First Crusade, one might ask the children to suggest how some particular knight who had returned from the Crusade would describe his experiences”.8

Above all Miss Howard stressed the importance of history teaching in encouraging people to read: “How are we to accomplish this? We must talk to them about books – we must show them books and read extracts from them – we must encourage them to read by suggesting to them where they can find more information about subjects that have interested them in class, or by assigning to different pupils different topics on which to collect information, thus giving them ..the supreme pleasure of finding out things for themselves...In fact, we must try to do for all our scholars what is done for some of them by the influence of the home where history is read and talked about”.9

In her concluding words Miss Howard described how:

for a long time some of us who are interested in the study of history have been wishing for the formation of an Historical Association, to do for the teaching of history what has been done for the teaching of other subjects by the Geographical and similar Associations. Such an Association would be useful in many ways. We should profit by meetings held from time to time to discuss the special problems of history teaching. The organ of such an association might do much to keep those who are working in schools in touch with the work which is being done at the Universities. It might call attention to books and articles on the teaching of history, and give particulars about new text-books, illustrations and other apparatus for use in schools. Such an association might, when needful, bring pressure to bear on educational authorities and on examining bodies. It might persuade publishers to undertake the publication of good and cheap historical wall-maps and historical atlases...Such an association might, in fact, co-ordinate the efforts of all who are working in England towards the improvement of history teaching in our schools.10

Professor Pollard spoke up in support of this proposal, which behind the scenes was already underway. He saw such an association as being mainly comprised of history teachers in schools and universities, with its objects being, “that history should be properly recognised by universities, and that history should be properly taught in schools”.11 By June 1906 the Historical Association’s constitution had been adopted, Charles Firth, the Regius Professor of History at Oxford, was its chair, and local branches and meetings were underway. Initially the Association was focused solely on the interests of history teachers but as time went on laypeople, non-teachers , were encouraged to join as well and in 1917 the membership was widened to include all those “interested in the study and teaching of history”.12

The Association set up committees to deal with publications, the use of illustrations in teaching history, examinations and syllabuses, and the local branches which were gradually set up around the country. It became – and continues to be – involved in many of the debates around history and history teaching – how far to teach imperial and naval history and the League of Nations? Should examination syllabuses and question papers be reformed? Should there be international co-operation on textbooks? After the First World War it pioneered the forging of links with other subject associations. It collected lantern slides to lend to teachers, and its members were involved from early on in looking at the use of film and radio in teaching history. Towards the end of the First World War the Association embarked on producing a historical atlas particularly for use in elementary schools. It appeared in 1921 as Philip’s Junior Historical Atlas. In 1916 the Association took over the journal History which had been originally founded by one of its members in 1912. Until 1969, when Teaching History was started by the HA, History was a mixture of articles about teaching practice and teaching issues, and more general, fairly academic papers. Its first editor was Professor Pollard who was a dominating figure in the Association from its beginning. He was responsible for setting up the Institute of Historical Research which began in 1921, and from 1923 History was based at the Institute.

The Historical Association immediately started producing leaflets, which, particularly in its early years, were mainly devoted to practical teaching issues. The very first one (1907) was on ‘Source-books’ and will be discussed in more detail below. Those produced over the next few years included bibliographies on teaching history in schools, on books for schools on ‘general history, ancient history and European history’, on colonial history, on ‘British history for the use of teachers’, on Irish history, Scottish history, and on Exeter and London (drawn up by the local branches in these areas); annotated lists of historical maps and atlases and ‘illustrations, portraits and lantern slides chiefly for British and modern history’, and a summary of school history examination syllabuses. Sometimes the discussions or lectures delivered at the Annual Meetings of the Association were published: in 1908 ‘The teaching of local history’ by the Principal of University College, Reading , was printed, complete with the accompanying discussion, and two years later several papers were printed as, ‘The methods of teaching history in schools’, again with the points raised by members of the audience.

Apart from university and training college staff and a couple of HMIs, almost all platform speakers and audience members were from secondary schools – indeed mainly public schools. It is difficult to tell how far elementary school teachers were involved in the Association. In the list of members of the Historical Association for 1912 where members gave their schools as their addresses these are almost exclusively secondary or public schools but many members just gave their home address so it is quite possible that a proportion of these taught in elementary schools, especially as many of these are single women. Given the constraints of time and expense, elementary school teachers are probably more likely to have attended local branch meetings rather than national ones, especially those which encouraged their attendance; a prominent early member of the Leeds branch was an HMI, Mr PL Gray, who together with Professor Grant, history professor at Leeds University, ran a history study group at his house mainly for elementary school teachers. When Mr Gray retired to Worthing the numbers of these members dropped. Mr Gray, “always indignantly denied that he brought any pressure to bear on teachers to join the branch and this was true. However his great personal charm and real helpfulness to teachers does explain this large membership, and after he left there was not the same recruiting from elementary school teachers.”13

In 1912 the Association held a debate on history teaching in elementary schools at its annual meeting which was held in Manchester (the first to be held outside London) but most of the speakers again spoke from a secondary school perspective, discussing elementary school pupils from the point of view of their level of historical knowledge when arriving at secondary school. One said they arrived “with absolutely no knowledge of history”, although a teacher from North London Collegiate School was more positive about the level of knowledge and interest shown by the pupils coming to her school from elementary schools. She “had been deeply impressed with the enthusiasm and self-sacrifice with which teachers got up information about places of historic interest in London so that the visits on which children were taken to these spots might be turned to interest and profit”. Professor Unwin of Manchester University regretted that, “very little had been heard from the elementary teacher in the debate”, and said they must recognise, “the practical facts – the limitations of school-time, the limitations of the teacher and of the child under fourteen”. In fact the only speaker from an elementary school, the head of a large one in Derbyshire:

said he thought some of the speakers had formed too low an estimate of the work done in history teaching in the elementary schools, and the amount of enthusiasm that was put into it. In his own school they had been specialising for several years. For instance, he had two teachers taking history, the one taking the three lower standards, and the other the rest of the school. The plan had proved to be an excellent one in its results”.14



Use of source material

In 1910 M W Keatinge, Reader in Education at Oxford and former schoolmaster, published a book advocating the use of ‘sources’ in teaching history to ‘schoolboys’. As the use of sources has become widespread in the last thirty to forty years Keatinge continues to be quoted as a forerunner to many contemporary practices. However it is not clear that his ideas made much impact at the time and it should also be pointed out that he was not the first person to advocate using sources. The Historical Association’s first leaflet , printed in 1907, was on ‘Source-books’. It described how popular these books were in America. They were collections of extracts from original authorities published for the use of teachers or their pupils and there was considerable discussion in American educational literature about how they should be used. Already, by 1907, several series of source books had been published for English schools which the leaflet lists in detail, some covering the whole of ‘English history’, others selected topics or periods. The leaflet said that on the whole most teachers are likely to use them as illustrative aids rather than a substitute for a textbook. It favourably quoted an American report which dismissed what it called the ‘source method ‘ of history teaching and said; “The aim of historical study in the secondary school is the training of the pupil, not so much in the art of historical investigation as in the art of thinking historically”; for this, sources are ‘adjuncts’ to good text-books.15 Three years later a paper was given on the use of sources at the HA Annual Meeting, also considering sources to be best used as a side illustration rather than the whole focus of a lesson. But from the way the speaker (the headmaster of Batley Grammar School) spoke, it is clear that a number of history teachers were now trying to use sources as a principal part of their teaching methods; “I understand that there are some who regard the comparison of these sources as the real aim and object in teaching history; the ‘so-called Source-Method’ has become in their hands the ‘Laboratory’ Method, and the phrase ‘sifting of evidence’ is one of their shibboleths”.16

For Keatinge the source method was a way of making the pupil contribute to the lesson. He was concerned that history had yet to establish itself as a definite and valuable subject for school study. Unlike other subjects it engendered a passivity in pupils which meant that they rapidly lost interest in it. Other than learning notes from the textbook or the teacher, and writing essays, there was little boys (as he always styles the pupils) could do in the history lesson or for homework. Keatinge quoted public school masters and an Oxford academic who criticised the study of history at school and saw little justification for it except for learning a brief outline of facts and dates.

However Keatinge believed that all pupils should learn history and was concerned to improve its teaching. He tried to make a case for the ‘scientific treatment of history’ (linking it to social science and sociology although he recognised that there were difficulties involved in this), and suggested that the study of documents might contribute towards this, using ‘external’ and ‘internal’ criticism. The former looked at the genuineness, the factual basis of a document; the internal looked at the background to the document – why it was written , the motives of the writer. The documents should not be introduced to every lesson and, “the teacher [must] consider how every scrap of value can be squeezed out of them”. “A few documents carefully studied will be impressed on the boys’ minds and will serve as centres around which historical facts may be grouped”.17 Keatinge also stressed the importance of bringing history alive through events and personalities, suggesting that their lives should be placed on a timeline to show how they interacted with major events. It was also vital to use maps and pictures to make history more immediate to the pupils. He was quite clear that it was impossible in the limited time available (no more than 72 hours per year and perhaps half that)for the boys to be taught all of history, and it was also impossible that they should remember all they were taught – school studies were a preparation for future life rather than an end in themselves. He concluded that:

In consequence all attempt at giving a complete presentation of any subject must be relinquished. The teaching should be sufficiently wide for the pupil to gather some idea of the scope of the subject and the relation in which it stands to other subjects, and sufficiently intensive to introduce him to the methods of reasoning or of manipulation peculiar to the subject.18

This led Keatinge to take issue with, “the specialist in the subject whose acquaintance with boys is small”, but who, “is inclined to lay down the law with assurance [about history teaching]”.19 In particular he cited Professor Tout, the second president of the Historical Association, and history professor at Manchester University. Tout had recently suggested it was best to give pupils “a broad sweep of historical development, and not to drill them in the details of any of the corners of history”.20 This was anathema to Keatinge:

For the teacher a methodical presentation based on the text-book, and for the pupil the memorising of facts is the almost certain result of syllabuses such as these; and let it be repeated that the facts learned are soon forgotten, that the mastery of a condensed syllabus does not induce the interest which leads to private reading at a later stage, and that the whole business may easily degenerate into cram of the most unsatisfactory kind.21

He proposed what would later be called the ‘patch’ method of teaching history:

In contrast to such a method a more effective mode of teaching is to treat small portions of a subject intensively so that they stand out with vividness against a background of routine-work, and in a setting that gives their relation to the rest of the subject.22

He gave numerous practical examples of how he used sources to involve the boys; for example a class, who “are doing the reign of Elizabeth, and have reached the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. They have a good knowledge of the general political situation”, were given a letter from Elizabeth to James VI of Scotland – “(1) Make a brief analysis of the letter. (2) State which of the points in it express the real views of the writer and which do not. Give your reasons.”23 Another class, “who are reading the reign of Edward II, and are about to have a lesson on his Scottish campaign”, are asked to “draw a plan of the battle of Bannockburn”, from two fairly contemporaneous accounts.24 The Canada-based education academic Ken Osborne points out that to successfully teach using sources in this way would be enormously time-consuming as would the source-based examinations Keatinge also proposed. This, Osborne says, helps:

explain why Keatinge’s source-method met with so little success. He ignored the reality that, given the existing pattern of schooling, it seriously complicated teachers’ lives. What he saw as the relatively straightforward introduction of a new teaching strategy in fact called for a fundamental rethinking of schooling. This is why, apart from one or two short-lived experiments, and despite general dissatisfaction, fact-based examinations did not change and textbooks remained largely the same. At best, a minority of teachers incorporated some sources into their teaching, although largely to serve as illustrative material, not as the basis for teaching the principles of historical method.25

Nevertheless Keatinge’s ideas were discussed and had a continuing influence across the twentieth century through the work of later proponents of innovative history teaching like Happold and Jeffreys. A contemporary review of his 1910 book recommended it “most heartily…because it is the first work which shows, how even in the history lesson, the pupil may and must always be contributing to the development of the subject, instead of the teacher always doing the maximum and the pupil the minimum of work”.26



: history-in-education -> sites -> history-in-education -> files -> attachments
attachments -> Primary School Memories Pupils born in the 1950s gg/P50/HiE99 Primary + Grammar, Nottingham
attachments -> From new history to the gcse 1960s-1988
attachments -> Summary of Teacher Interviews Chronology and the National Curriculum
attachments -> In the classroom – textbooks 1900 – 1950s
attachments -> Technology and the History Classroom 1960s to the present day
attachments -> Government policy towards education and history teaching 1945 – early 1960s Government policy towards education after the 1944 Education Act
attachments -> Notes on Teacher Training 1960s to present day Teacher Training in the 1940s and ‘50s
attachments -> The national curriculum and the changing face of school history 1988-2010 We have mostly been on the defensive and reacting to changes all the time. History is quite good at adapting
attachments -> Primary school memories 1910s pupils jg/P18/HiE54
attachments -> Secondary school memories exam courses


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