Pesky Niall Ferguson and the thorny issue of big picture history

This week Niall Ferguson wrote a piece in the Guardian entitled “History has never been so unpopular” (http://t.co/DiJ30ss). If you haven’t read it you should do. Granted Mr Ferguson is, as ever, unafraid to be controversial, he makes insinuations that ADT and Psychology are lesser subjects, implies that creative activities that consolidate knowledge (designing a plate) are worthless, but, he does make some valid points amongst these rants.

In essence Ferguson bemoans the fact that children do not have an overview of the ‘arc of time’, a big picture chronology of the world that surrounds them. With this point he is correct. Recently, this was highlighted to our department as we took a group of Year 10 students to Berlin and the number who did not have even a basic knowledge of the Cold War was disturbing, especially when this is one of the key events that has shaped their world.

Nevertheless Ferguson does not understand how tricky this is in the classroom. With limited lessons and a past that is vast and exponentially growing how do we as teachers give our students a sense of the ‘arc of time’?

An experiment with Year 9:

Giving students a chronological overview of the entirety of history is a daunting prospect. However, on a smaller scale this might be possible. As a department we had discussed this idea prior to Ferguson’s article, but with curiosity fired we have decided to experiment with Year 9 next year to see if we can give at least a sense of chronology to the twentieth century. We have agreed to teach the following units:

  • Term 1: What caused WW1?
  • Term 2: How roaring were the 1920s?
  • Term 3: Who was to blame for the Holocaust?
  • Term 4: Was there any real change in the 1960s?
  • Term 5 & 6: What was the greatest turning point in the last 60 years? (looking at the Cold War, women’s rights, the creation of Israel and 9/11)

This is in no way perfect, it is possibly a ‘smorgasbord’ that Ferguson bemoans and certainly misses out some very significant periods of history (the Nazis have been left out purposely as we currently teach this at GCSE and have at least 60% take up) but is our attempt at delivering the ‘arc of time’. It will be interesting if at the end of next year we have made any impact at all or is this too difficult a task to undertake?

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4 Responses to Pesky Niall Ferguson and the thorny issue of big picture history

  1. mark blannin says:

    we teach the 20th century to yr 9. We start with the titanic to show class attitudes at the start of the century, then we do causes of WW1 the development of trench warfare and a trench diary, Suffragettes, Great Depression, WWII independent research project, holocaust, civil rights and the cold war. let em know if anything can be of any use.

    • kenradical says:

      Cheers for the reply Mark and I might well get back to you about this stuff. I like the idea of starting with the Titantic. I am thinking of starting with Harry Patch as a hook next year, being a local lad, it will hopefully engage the kids.

  2. Dave Stacey says:

    Have you seen Ian Dawson’s work on lessons that cover a longer period to try and draw out some of these ideas? – http://www.thinkinghistory.co.uk/Issues/IssueChronology.html

    We’ve moved to a similar scheme of work to the one you propose here, but without the ability to draw it all together in a lesson it still ends up feeling quite bitty. Don’t think I’m there yet, but like you I think it’s something we need to do better.

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