Collaborative History Education: Reflections on the Key Issues Raised in Our Discussions

In the first of this week’s reflective posts, today will cover our participants’ thoughts on the key issues raised in their individual sessions. Our participants highlighted a number of issues that particularly stood out to them, such as decolonising the curriculum, tackling difficult or uncomfortable histories and broadening the historical actors that pupils encounter. Another common theme was the pupils themselves, considering their journey from KS3 and in some cases, their transition from A level to undergraduate. Many participants considered how we can work together to better connect pupils to the stories they study and how those stories have been constructed.


 What were the key issues raised in your discussion?

 Alistair Ward, History Teacher, former PGCE History student

The content of many of the researchers’ presentations highlights some real discrepancies between up-to-date research and what is being taught in schools. For example, the  current very popular GCSE thematic study on Health (e.g. AQA) is woefully lacking on topics such as leprosy , women and sophisticated treatment of the four humours. We also discussed a more representative curriculum with sensitive ways to teach difficult histories. Slavery should be told through the eyes of the enslaved, with a focus on family and community and gendered experiences. The changing way the story of slavery has been told over time  also makes for a fascinating study of historiography. The Mau Mau Uprising would be a good example of violent decolonisation. Interestingly one of the most important Mau Mau field marshalls, Muthoni Kurima, was a woman. In fact, we learnt about the need to look deeper at ethnicity and race in the medieval world, too. Figures of notes were the Greek speaking Syrian refugee Theodore of Tarsus who became Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Libyan refugee Hadrian of Canterbury who became England’s greatest ever educator. One last standout issue was the different methodologies used by the researchers and how we might benefit from using  oral history in the classroom. 


Amy Gower, PhD student [@AmyG_Historrry]

Our session focused on two things; history teaching within the Inner London Education Authority in the 1980s, and the history of childhood more broadly. A key issue that we discussed at length was the current status of the inclusion of children in the history curriculum. We looked at the ways in which children and teenagers are not always in the most obvious places in the archive, and how this affects their representation in secondary history curricula. Some current practice focuses on the effects of broader historical change on children, for instance child labour in Victorian Britain, but not necessarily on how children themselves contribute to historical change. We agreed that seeing children and young people as instigators of change and as active historical agents would be incredibly beneficial to current school pupils, not just as a way of engaging pupils with history but also for developing pupils’ esteem and confidence. We took as inspiration the Motherland project, a two year project in the 1980s by Elyse Dodgson, which encouraged pupils in Vauxhall to design a play about West Indian women’s arrival to London in the 1950s based on oral history testimonies gathered by pupils. We hoped by developing similar projects now, pupils would be able to see themselves as historians and practitioners in their own right.

One of the most valuable aspects of this placement was our whole group discussion on the first day, when we talked about the leaky pipeline of pupils studying history from Key Stage 3 to university, and our roles in trying to plug those gaps, especially in relation to pupils already underrepresented in history throughout school, university, and academia.[1] Is the end goal just to get more pupils in general studying history, or is there more to it than that? And how can we make sure that, while making further study of history accessible to all, those pupils who choose not to study history from the end of year nine still benefit?


Becca Grose, PhD student [@Becca_Grose]

Some of the questions we discussed in my session included:

An earlier period does not mean a less complex history; how do we teach history chronologically without suggesting a more innocent or simple past?  What are the implications of simplifying ancient empires for later discussions of imperialism and colonisation? 

Late-antique and early-medieval history don’t feature in GCSE options: should we approach these areas differently at KS3 or outreach?

 Material culture is not as central to secondary teaching or History undergraduate courses as textual criticism. Can we use it as a bridge between primary and secondary teaching, and between secondary and tertiary teaching?

 How do we approach active debates (i.e. the use of “Anglo-Saxon”) and can universities help teachers with this by sharing current exam questions and reading lists?


Beth Rebisz, PhD student [@BRebisz]

I titled my session this year: ‘Deconstructing “The White Man’s Burden”’ with the overall aim of discussing colonial representations and marginalised narratives in the context of British colonialism in Africa. I used Rudyard Kipling’s poem of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ (1899) as a springboard to explore colonial justifications to Empire-building. The session was designed with the harrowing events taking place in May in mind, particularly the murder of George Floyd and the ongoing indiscriminate brutality against #BlackLivesMatter protestors. Although my research is not situated in a US context, the issue of systemic racism and white supremacy sit at the core of any research of British colonialism and particularly the colonial encounters on the African continent.

My session was then used to have some broader discussions on ‘the Scramble for Africa’, settler colonialism and the process of decolonisation. More focused discussion came from our conversations on late-colonial conflict, mainly the counter-insurgency campaign fought by the British colonial government against anti-colonial insurgents in Kenya during the 1950s. During these discussions we tackled issues of gender and race when analysing how Kenyan insurgents were depicted to Western audiences at the time. This sparked fascinating conversations among the group of the enduring legacies of colonialism when we think about race and power dynamics today.


Charli Burns, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@cburnshistory]

A key takeaway from the discussions was around not only humanising the past, but also humanising the historian. So often in the classroom, pupils imagine historians as dusty old white men, hiding away in archives/libraries. Through this collaboration, many avenues have been opened to us as teachers to try and incorporate historians into the classroom. We can include one of the many wonderful young women historians’ faces next to something we are studying to help pupils understand who actually constructs the history they study. We can also use the new-fangled technology that everyone’s become accustomed to during COVID-19 to support a Q&A discussion with an ECR historian in real time, or even invite a historian in for the day. History is fundamentally a construction, influenced wholly by people’s beliefs and culture at the time of writing – what better way to demonstrate that to students than by exposing them to a wide variety of historians from different backgrounds!


Liz Barnes, Early Career Researcher [@E_M_Barnes]

I really aimed to talk with the teachers about humanising histories of the transatlantic slave trade in the classroom. To that end, we discussed slavery as an institution beyond simply an economic system: we discussed enslaved people’s family lives, culture, religion, and their relationships to enslavement. We had some really interesting discussions about the nature of historical research and how to make students and pupils feel connected to that. We shared some especially interesting ideas about silences in the archive and encouraging learners to approach this as researchers do: thinking about what’s not there, considering where it could be found, drawing on methods from other disciplines. The teachers were all keen to highlight historians themselves in their classrooms, drawing pupils’ attention to the people behind the books they study. I was especially impressed by their commitment to weaving method and historiography into the curriculum, and it inspired me to think more about the extent to which I do this in my own teaching.

Our discussion went far beyond what I initially anticipated, however. The immediate context of the session really informed this – we met on Wednesday 9 June, around a week and a half after George Floyd was murdered by police, reigniting protests around racial inequality across the world. Calls in the UK to decolonise the curriculum were louder than ever, and I think we all recognised that we needed to discuss some of those issues. We spoke a lot about our positionality as white teachers and historians and thought about the best ways to acknowledge in our classrooms the privilege that we benefit from.


Tom Collins, History Teacher,  former PGCE student [@Tomcol23]

One of the interesting topics for participants was identifying and understanding the transition pupils face from A level History to being a first year undergraduate. We covered essay writing as the nature of assessment at A level tends to lend itself to structured and rigid writing and considering both sides of an argument is encouraged. This method can completely contradict essay writing at undergraduate level; the historians mentioned how frustrating it was when their undergraduates made a really good argument, and then counter-argued it. This will be good background knowledge for the historians when they teach modules in the future as they will understand some of the assessment expectations at A level and will be better equipped to train their first year undergraduates.

We covered a wealth of other topics too, including:

  • Different forms of pedagogy (we had a good discussion with one PhD student about how to get pupils more confident to speak out in seminar sessions)
  • Getting pupils to identify what historians actually do
  • Incorporating more representative histories in the classroom
  • Using oral history in the classroom
  • Using material sources in the classroom


Check back in tomorrow for our participants’ thoughts on how the placement will inform their teaching practice in the future.

Please do join in the conversation using the hashtag #rdgcollab2020


[1] The ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor has been used as a metaphor to refer to the decreasing proportions of women and black, Asian, and ethnic minority scholars in academia, from school, through university study and into the academic profession. For more on how this relates to the history profession, see the RHS Gender Equality Report here: and the RHS Race, Ethnicity and Equality Report here:


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