Monday, 27 September 2010

The Tory version of the past and its threat to our children’s future

History should no longer involve the robotic learning of facts and propaganda, the crucial 21st century skills of critical analysis and evaluation of information have made it far too important for that.

As one of their priorities for education, the government has appointed a right-wing historian to impose its new History curriculum. This comes hard on the heels of the biggest centralisation of the education system since Margaret Thatcher ordered the original monolithic National Curriculum, SATs and Ofsted system back in the 1980s. However this new curriculum for History is all the more worrying, not merely because it gives lie to the Tories headline claim to be a party dedicated to reducing state dominance, but because it seriously threatens the present and the future of our children.

One of the most crucial 21st century skills, identified by many think-tanks, business and employers’ organisations, as well as universities, is the ability to search for, critically analyse, evaluate, and process information. Indeed this is probably the most vital generic skills children will need after literacy and numeracy. The relationship between information and the individual has changed entirely since 1990. The spread of the internet, the creation of Web 2.0 and information tagging has resulted in so much information becoming available to everyone in such an unstructured way that the skills of finding precisely what you need have now become much more complex than when most of us were at school. Not only that, but the levels of usefulness, trustworthiness, bias and reliability of the information available online is extremely varied, ranging from the genuinely enlightening and useful to the wildly inaccurate and dangerous. Since anyone can publish anything online the need today is for children to become their own editors-in-chief.

Children need not only to develop skills in locating information but also in assessing its relevance and bias and evaluating its reliability. These skills are the skills which will make a huge and tangible difference to most children’s lives in the 21st century, not only making them safer online while they are young but enabling them to become more effective in their adult working and social lives. It will be vital to provide them with the skills to be adaptable and flexible lifelong learners as the single, predictable, linear career for life becomes a thing of the past.

Yet studies of children’s information-seeking skills show that little has changed since the before the internet. Study after study has shown that children do not possess basic skills in finding, evaluating and using information whatever its source. For instance a study in 1991 demonstrated this by analysing high-school pupils’ interactions with historical evidence. Not only did they rate information as either biased or not biased, but they couldn’t identify sources as a means of assessing the nature of the information and then failed to make meaningful use of it. Further studies since then have shown that little has changed in this area despite the spread of the internet.

However, there is one subject on the curriculum that can prepare children for the information environment of the present and the future. Paradoxically that subject is History. Teaching children to find, evaluate, question and use historical sources, especially primary sources; the core skills of the historian, are the same skills children will need when locating, assessing and querying information online. Indeed, History presents teachers with a safe offline way to teach these skills.

Which is why the prospect of a right-wing historian dictating what children should and should not learn in History is against the interests of our children. By selecting such a figure to prescribe the curriculum, the government apparently wants History lessons to become some sort of stale exercise in rote-learning their version of the past rather than an active and engaging exercise, as it truly should be, in critical analysis and argument.

The coming of the internet has meant that History needs to take on a level of importance way beyond what it used to have 20 years ago. The skills of locating, critically evaluating and using information will be crucial for the future business, educational and social life of the generation currently in our schools. Of course, a party relying for its power on a selective and biased media which, for example, wants people to believe it will decentralise power, increase democratic participation and strengthen individual freedoms will not want a population able to engage in critical analysis and evaluation of what they are told. Despite it becoming an increasingly important skill in the globalised internet age, the last thing the Tories want your kids to be able to do is think for themselves.

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