Means of Time

observatory saplingsI’ve been thinking about chronology in History.

The new National Curriculum for England will be implemented from September 2014, for Key Stages 1 to 3. One of the most significant changes, and the most contested and exposed to media attention, is in the subject of History.

The Government sought to make these big changes to History:

  • to focus more attention on national topics (‘our island story’),
  • to deliver more narrative (especially about heroic individuals) while reducing time for generic skills of enquiry and source interpretation, and
  • to reorder topics so that they are chronologically introduced throughout the school life of a child, from the Stone Age at 5 to the World Wide Web at teens.

As someone passionate about global citizenship and enquiry-based learning in heritage education, I’ve been very concerned about the proposed changes and hoping that existing good practice will be retained. For now, I want to explore the issues around chronology in history because I’m involved in a cultural-education partnership in Maritime Greenwich. Coincidentally, the iconic heritage of Greenwich has a lot to do with the contingent nature of chronological systems. It is the place where time begins to be counted each day, year, century and millennium, by global agreement.

In July 2013, Michael Gove responded to an overwhelmingly negative response from teachers by making some tweaks to the proposed History curriculum. The tweaks did go some way to the curriculum being less prescriptive and less nationalistic. The Historical Association had published a survey in April 2013, which said, amongst other data, that only 7% would teach it as it stood and that 93% strongly disagree that everything from Stone Age to 1700 should be taught at primary. The HA summarised the objection thus: “Teaching history in chronological order alone will not help students to develop chronological understanding…[which] can only be built up over time and by making connections across periods”.

If you consider the mechanics of learning, it’s clear that it happens in twists and bursts away from and back to the self. You receive knowledge, reflect on it and construct it for yourself through play, imagination and application to experience. As children mature, they can make more meaningful use of more abstract concepts, of more symbolisation and of stories of more distant times. The greater the distance from the child’s experience, the more immersion is needed (e.g. watching films, visiting a historic city, making food in an Iron Age Village). It makes little sense to begin at the beginning of history, when children are only at their own beginnings. To think this is not to denigrate the importance of learning a time-based story of humanity.

Also, most heritage resources in the built environment within reach of schools don’t contain much that is earlier than the 17th Century (for example, Maritime Greenwich). These latter periods would not be tackled until the later stage when going outside the classroom is less manageable by schools.

Gove’s tweak removed the prescription that History must be taught sequentially and instead offered suggested topics in broad historical periods. These still start with Stone Age and end with 1066 at Primary (apart from one topic that can be post 1066 e.g. Local History). The requirement to cover British topics was cut by a fifth, with the inclusion of, at Primary, a non-European civilization that contrasts with Britain (such as Mayan civilization c. 900AD) and a non-European ancient civilization (such as Egypt). At Secondary, they must learn one topic of world history such as Mughal Empire, US in 20th Century or Soviet Union.

So, by including non-European topics it was difficult to retain the notion of trying to deliver the broad sweep of British history. However, the programmes of study are still much more of a timeline of Britain’s history through a child’s life than teachers are used to. The first stated aim of it is: “know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the earliest times to the present day: how people’s lives have shaped this nation and how Britain has influenced and been influenced by the wider world.”

I’m curious to know, if only 7% of teachers were willing to deliver it before the tweak, what do they think now and what will actually transpire?

I wonder if a more prescriptive curriculum will actually unleash more experimentation. I’d like to see experimentation that involves thinking critically about time and chronology, for example in these four ways.

1. Time differences

It’s important to explore different cultural conceptions of time, and how contextually contingent our time-systems and ways of accounting for time are. (For more about that, read this pamphlet on Time Culture by Morten Svenstrup). History is perhaps more about events unfolding over time for contemporary industrial civilisation than for more traditional and indigenous societies, who may recite their histories more to reinforce the continuity of communal identity, or to convey ethical ideas. The narrative of human progress over time underpins common notions of why we study History, which becomes both more intensified and contested, as this progress is leading to faster destruction of human and other habitats. This pace of change, and our being at this critical juncture in time, is what makes History important.

Tony Benn, who died yesterday, said “We are born into a world we do not understand because it is new, and we shall all die in a world we do not understand because it will have changed so rapidly, which makes it necessary to intensify our studies in a way that I never did as a student.”

2. Time and place

History is essentially about the intersection of people and places, with an emphasis on the dramatics of power as they unfold in time. The movements and activities of peoples around places have become more and more dramatic as more environments have been over-exploited, more civilisations have collapsed and elites have found more sophisticated technologies for effective exploitation of nature and people, and for defence of their territories. I think History makes more sense (or, in other words, it is more true and less ideological) if it is informed by ecological understanding: how people have interacted with their environment, and how different groups of humans interact differently, exchanging ideas with each other. Also, thinking about history in terms of heritage of place and planet is more likely to lead to attitudes of stewardship.

That’s why I chose to illustrate this with a rather poor photo of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, which foregrounds ranks of newly planted trees.

3. Change and continuity

Apparently, the life span of a spoken language is about five centuries, the same as that of a Douglas Fir tree.

In a BBC debate in December 2013 Michael Gove complained that children don’t know “whether the Romans, Egyptians or the Greeks came in which particular order”. He exposed that he didn’t consider the continuity of cultural groups beyond particular periods in which they may have been successful, or of interest to anyone else’s narrative of history.

We need to help learners deal with complexities of time by exploring both change and continuity. A philosopher might argue that everything is constantly changing, but within human frames of reference, there is much that remains relatively constant. Traditional practices, beliefs or the structure of some built environments can, or have, been continuous for centuries. Within and around this, there is also discontinuity – distinctive or disturbing change effected, for example, by forces of nature, human innovations, aggressions or trades.

4. Personal perspectives

The more that History is based on ecology, the more scientific it will be. However, History is about humanity, about memory, relationships and diverse perspectives. History is not so much a story of everything told over time as a story of what matters, and what matters is different for different people. We need to use empathy and metaphor to see from these different perspectives. And we also need to allow learners to create their own personal constructions of what matters.

I really enjoyed this thoughtful piece by head Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) about Teaching the Timeline. He takes a really positive approach to chronology, seeing it as the backbone for making sense of science, culture, social change and politics. He says “in some ways the whole of the curriculum is one giant timeline”. I’d qualify that to say that the development of children’s competencies is pretty important too but perhaps he sees that as distinct from the curriculum?

However, he has a brilliant idea that students can take ownership of their understanding of chronology, by carrying around a timeline that they continually update with new learning across the curriculum that has any relevance to the past. This is just the kind of experimental idea I’d like to see – giving chronology the importance it deserves but acknowledging its complexities.

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