How did ‘child-centred’ dogma get established in schools?

Mary Woolley interviewed 13 veterans of history teaching, in an effort to discover how teaching has changed over the last 30 years. This is what she learned.

The role and approach of teachers in classrooms is frequently contested, particularly in the history education community. Advocates of direct instruction emphasise the place of the teacher at the front of the classroom, sharing knowledge with the class. The pupil-centred approach, on the other hand, might include group work and helping construct shared knowledge.

This is not a new debate, and there are many nuances between the two poles, so we must apply a historical lens to such disputes. Literature on the history of history teaching has tended to analyse policy documents and textbooks rather than the experiences of teachers in the classroom.

To enrich this experience, 13 long-serving history teachers were interviewed using an oral history approach.

Almost all the teachers described a didactic, from-the-front teaching approach in classrooms in the mid-1980s

They were asked how their teaching had changed over the course of their careers and why it had changed. The teachers involved weren’t necessarily the high-fliers of the history community, but they were passionate and dedicated practitioners who had stayed in the classroom for over 25 years. The results are long and complex, but there are a few highlights that shine a light on the debate.

Almost all the teachers described a didactic, from-the-front teaching approach in classrooms in the mid-1980s. It wasn’t the only approach, but it did exist. As Simon put it, “I can certainly remember when I first came into teaching, rows of very miserable-looking children, with a textbook, a pen and an exercise book, with, in some cases, dictation still going on. I think that was probably the end of that era.”

William described a more varied approach: “We would introduce some sources and look at some, but typically, I would often kind of credit the success of the lesson on how many times I would lap the circular blackboard.” There was nothing simplistic in these approaches though. Behind William’s laps of the blackboard lay a Socratic approach to questioning and discussion.

There was a dramatic shift in approaches to history teaching over the next 20 years.

Many factors contributed, from the introduction of GCSE to the national curriculum, league tables, Ofsted and new technologies. In this context, teachers appeared most likely to change their practice in response to the demands of assessment, particularly from examination boards. Some teachers were more resilient than others, adopting a more disciplinary approach to mediating the demands of senior managers.

She was reprimanded for standing at the front of the classroom and told her approach should be more pupil-centred

It was from the mid-2000s, however, that a campaign seems to have been waged by senior managers in some schools, probably in fear of Ofsted, to limit “teacher talk”.

Allan, an advanced skills teacher, described being observed by a new head in 2008, where he was told not to talk for more than 15 per cent of the lesson. He went over the allocated nine minutes and his lesson was downgraded as a consequence.

Alison, working in prefab classroom, recalled a member of the senior team looking through the window. Later that day, in a phone call from SMT, she was reprimanded for standing at the front of the classroom and told her approach should be more pupil-centred.

It is not surprising that many history teachers want to reclaim space for quality input. However, it appears just as unacceptable for them to be told they are not talking enough, after observations or learning walks, or that their pupils are engaged in appropriate activities.

There are many ways to create a knowledge-rich history classroom that values enquiry.

Teachers need to be aware of a variety of strategies and to feel free to trial the methods that suit both their pupils and the particular form of knowledge they are trying to convey. However, our interviewees who succeeded in mediating government or school policy without becoming frustrated were those who had a strong subject-specific articulation of history through a disciplinary frame.

What history teachers, and perhaps all teachers, need is the freedom from senior leaders to choose the most appropriate form of pedagogy to suit both their discipline and the progression of their pupils.

Mary Woolley is a senior lecturer in education at Canterbury Christ Church University

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