A history question

If you were required to teach twentieth century history to primary school pupils, what would you teach and why?  I have a particular reason for asking this question, and will tell you why later.

25 thoughts on “A history question”

  1. It depends on the age of the primary pupils… I’d be somewhat wary of teaching what I think are the most important ‘lessons’ of the 19th C – the horrors of war, ethnic cleaning and all the other evils of the 20th C to young children.

    Moreover, I think it is important that children are given a broad historical picture of the world they live in – as you may understand I find the dismissal of anything before the ‘modern’ period deplorable! One could, I suppose, concentrate on the social aspects of the 20th C, but this does not present a ‘true’ picture.

    I know this doesn’t answer your question – but , I think that studies of the 20th C should be left to secondary education.

  2. boadicea –
    I am writing on this forum because I am reasonably sure that no-one on the course I am presently on will find me here. I was told only last week that the foremost consideration for choosing any history topic was “diversity”, by which was meant something “relevant” to the pupils. This is not simply history of minorities, but also women’s history, and children’s history. I can quite see why children would want to know what was going on for those of their age in earlier times, but, as I pointed out to the lecturer, I was concerned that concentrating on minorities might, in fact, show only that they were not as important in the history of Britain as perhaps the modern Guardian reader would like to think, and that possibly you would be better off, if that was your remit, in considering the history of another country alongside Britain – eg India in Victorian times. Suffice to say that one of the people we were directed towards was Walter Tull http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWtull.htm
    His efforts may have been laudable and his war record exemplary, but I am of the opinion that there were more important people for the primary school pupil to learn about where twentieth century history is concerned.

  3. Hi sq, a seriously thought-provoking question and one which I am almost certain, after said thinking, that I can not really answer.

    I started with considering female emancipation. My mum only got the vote in 1928 when the Representation of the People Act gave it to women on the same basis as men. In about 1934, she was asked to stand as a Communist Councillor in Lochore, Fife, where she was a Primary School teacher. She explained that she was a Tory but they told her that did not matter because they controlled the local Council, she seemed to be a nice person and they needed an intelligent and reasonably educated woman for window dressing.

    How far have we moved on from there and why revisit it today? What good would it do?

    Same with racism etc. I have a paperback copy of one of Agatha Christie’s famous novels which is not called ‘And then there were None’. Nor is it called ‘Ten Little Indians’. Instead, printed in 1964, it bears the original title which, for the avoidance of doubt, involves the ‘N’ word. Also got a few of the pre-war versions of her books which are riddled with anti-Semitic and lower race and culture references all of which have been bowdlerised out of existence.

    To repeat, how far have we moved on from there and why revisit it today? What good would it do?

    Went through a few other possibilities and hit the same buffers every time.

    So, I reckon that the history that we teach to primary school children should be at least 150 years old to allow time for the dust to settle and for a relative consensus to emerge about what actually happened.

    If pushed, and seriously, I would teach the history of the explosion of information that the last 50 years has brought. When I were a lad, if I did not know something that my parents or the books in our house did not know either, I would have to wait until the next day to get to the library to find out. These days, you can google and get the completely wrong answer in seconds.

    Today’s pupils need to be taught intellectual rigour and the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff from the start, in my opinion.

  4. SP
    ‘Diversity’ – ‘Relevance’? How about a bit of ‘Perspective’? I’m a little tired of history being the football of social engineering. The problem with ‘minority studies’ is that they give a lop-sided view of history – and the problem with ‘relevant studies’ is that what tends to get left out are the important facts of what happened and why.

    Since the time allocated to the study of history in schools must, of necessity, be limited surely it would be better used to learn about what happened rather than concentrate on a limited aspect of a limited period? Well, I think so!

    I’m inclined to agree. Walter Tull may be interesting – but he didn’t do much to change the course of history whereas plenty of others did.

  5. John!

    These days, you can google and get the completely wrong answer in seconds.
    Today’s pupils need to be taught intellectual rigour and the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff from the start, in my opinion.

    Probably the most important lesson to be taught should be that Google is not always right, and how to work out when it is and when it isn’t…

  6. The change that knowledge of hygiene and how disease is spread has made to infection rates, death rates and the way we live, etc and therefore how important science is.
    The way that one set of knowledge ‘interacts’ with another set of knowledge in this way is so important.

  7. I’d be happy if my children were shown the progress made during the 20th century.

    I’d like it done decade by decade, where a couple of major events in each decade are examined. It wouldn’t just be about the wars, I’d want at least one non-violent event examined in each.


    00-10 Boer War, Flight
    10-20 Titanic and the new world, WWI
    30-40 The depression, WWII
    40-50 Atomic age, Communism
    50-60 Superpowers, ——–
    60-70 End of colonialism, Space flight
    70-80 Terrorism, ——–
    80-90 ——–, ——–
    90-00 ——–, Springboks win the William Webb Ellis Trophy

    That would be 20 topics over a school year of how many weeks? (36?) One a week with plenty of time for revision.

  8. Soutie

    I might have some differences about the precise topics taught, but would not take issue with your idea that some ‘facts’ are taught in a historical time-line rather than this hop-skip-and jump through the ages on a ‘theme-based’ approach to history.

  9. “We’ve done the Tudors three times”

    “Oh not Romans again”

    I’ve heard both these comments about history from my boys.
    But the World War two project in year two, when the teacher invited a Granny in to talk about gas masks and rationing… that really hit the spot.

  10. Hello Boa, of course, my topics were simply spur of the moment thoughts to illustrate my point (we could include Australia’s world cup win in the last decade if you really insist 😉 )

  11. Pseu

    What you describe is the result of bad planning in the school – not the subject – and the school should be taken to task.

    I’ve heard similar comments from students here – “Oh no! Not Australian history – again”. When it was decided to concentrate on Ozzie history, students got a monotonous diet from first to last year. Most of them rejected Ozzie history when they went to Uni – they’d had enough! So as much as I like the Tudor and earlier periods – one go around the subject is quite enough for any child!

  12. boadicea –
    “How about a bit of ‘Perspective’?”

    It’s funny you should say that, because another question was “What is history?” As far as I could understand the answer, it merges into what I would have thought of as current affairs. Tony Blair was mentioned – I don’t think we are sufficiently removed to have any perspective yet.

  13. I left school with what I guess was a fair overview of the broad sweep of world history, biased, naturally, towards the history of the United Kingdom. Stone age – we knew in primary school what flint arrow heads, especially, were, if we found them – the Beaker people, the beginnings of civilization in Mesopotamia – and, again, at an early age we were told that ‘Mesopotamia’ comes from two Greek words and means ‘between the rivers’ – with agriculture and writing, bronze age and the Egyptians, mainly, but we knew about the Assyrians and the Babylonians, iron age and the rise of Greece and Rome – I seem to recall that the Celts were a little hard done by, being depicted as woad-painted savages when the Romans arrived in Britain – the Dark Age, which turned out, as I learned later, not to have been quite so dark as we thought, the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavian connection – King Canute and the tides, 1066 and all that, Norman England – Hereward the Wake was a favourite, bad King John and good King Richard, Edward Longshanks, Robert the Bruce, the entanglement with Acquitaine and France, Agincourt, of course, and the Wars of the Roses – the Princes in the Tower, the Tudors, Henry and his six wives, the Fabulous Elizabethans, the Armada, the Union of the Scottish and English Crowns- we knew what the Stone of Scone was, though I don’t recall that it was really pointed out that the first King of the United Kingdom was a Scot 🙂

    We learned about the English Civil War, the Commonwealth and Cromwell the monster, the Dutch wars – the Battle in the Downs was particularly interesting since I lived in Deal, and the aftermath with Van Tromp in the Thames and tying a broom to his mast-head, the long wars with France, the American Revolution, India, Canada – Wolfe and the Heights of Abraham – Napoleon, The Iron Duke, the Peninsular War, Waterloo, the Height of Empire, the battle of the Alma, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale, the Scramble for Africa, Livingstone and Stanley – though I somehow missed the fact that Stanley was American – the Boer Wars, personal connection as my Great Grandfather died in England of the effects of wounds received in South Africa, the Great War and a little of the Second World War – this being more current affairs when I was in school.

    Just a point, the History of Britain was written in it’s pub signs, before the bloody marketing people got hold of them and ‘modernised them into things like ‘the Stoat and Teapot, or whatever.’ Green Man, Saracen’s Head, Ship, Anchor, Mitre, King’s Head, Black Prince, Marquis of Granby, Alma…. – connections are important.

    This is what I would teach – after all, what we have done, we can aspire to again.

  14. Mornin’ Squarepeg. Whenever I see words such as ‘diversity’ and ‘minority’ mentioned my fur starts to frizz, particularly when they’re mentioned in relation to education. Just teach it like it was. Tell the objective facts about, for instance, the history of slavery, but not from the perspective of ‘Imagine you are a slave – how oppressed do you feel?’, which is social engineering of the worst kind, not history.


  15. Primary – aged 5 – 11 years? I’d show how life around the globe was lived in 1899 and 1999 using multimedia. The changes were greater than during any other century and provide countless topics for the children to research and explore.

  16. No Janus – you are making the same mistake as all those social engineers who treat history as simply a vehicle for their own ideas – it is not a vehicle to provide countless topics for children to research and explore.

    Science is taught so that children can understand the physical world around them – history, on the lines that Bravo has suggested, needs to be taught so that children can understand the society in which they live – the basis of the language, the institutions, the assumptions and all the other ‘histories’ that has made the country in which they live different from other countries. It helps them to make sense of the world around them – even the pub-signs!

    Of course it can be taught to be ‘self-glorifying’ – but what I see being taught now is self-deprecating, a bit of balance, or perspective, is what is needed.

  17. PS. I missed the Industrial Revolution – we knew wher ‘navvy’ came from and about the Match Girl’s Strike.

    It can be taught, so why isn’t it?

  18. No, Boa! They’ll learn far more about the tempora and mores from topics than from hyperpatriotic pub signs!

  19. Janus :

    No, Boa! They’ll learn far more about the tempora and mores from topics than from hyperpatriotic pub signs!

    One of those wishful statements that is not backed up by the actual data, given the woeful lack of knowledge o history exhibited by current generations.

    ‘Why is that boozer called the Admiral Benbow?’ What is the significance of pubs called the ‘Bush,’ or teh ‘Bull and Bush’….?

  20. Bravo, do you have any akshull data to indicate that your antedeluvian educational methods are any better?

  21. Janus:

    The content of the curriculum is not dependent on methods of teaching, whether ‘modern’ or ‘antediluvian’. But I would point out that the ‘antediluvian’ methods meant that the majority of people leaving school knew some ‘facts’ about their history – along with some ‘facts’ about other subjects as well. There is, as Bravo says, a woeful lack of knowledge by current generations about anything other than ‘minority’ and ‘black-arm-band’ history’.

  22. The Cold War.

    A lesson in what happens when you stand up to bullies. This may be very relevant soon.

  23. Not a suitable subject for the age group in my opinion.
    Not sure I would be willing to teach it at all.
    Can’t be doing with diversity and minorities etc, all puke making social engineering not history.
    No wonder the children are all so ill informed and illiterate if this is the claptrap that is promulgated.
    Early history is far more suitable, with good interactive experiences, making a coil pot, visiting castles, writing on a clay tablet etc.
    Can’t even think why these so called educators are paid genuine money to purvey such arrant shit.
    Personally I would tell the lecturer where to get off, but appreciate not an option if you need the job!

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