4.1 Introduction: Teaching Emotive and Controversial History at Key Stage 4

This paper summarises the main points from the full report of the TEACH project published by the Historical Association, focusing on the issues at Key Stage 4. This paper points out some of the key constraints firstly, before looking at principles and practice that address these problems.

The teaching of emotive and controversial history at KS4 is limited by:

  • The GCSE specifications, which make no explicit demand to examine ‘difficult' issues;
  • The emphasis on results, which leads to an understandable focus on the knowledge and understanding of key concepts and processes to pass the exam;
  • A lack of time at KS4, particularly where there is a large amount of content specification to cover;
  • Teachers' subject knowledge, which may hinder their ability to exploit potential interesting aspects of the past;
  • Resources that focus on the exam requirements rather than encouraging pupils to explore more fundamental issues about human action in the past;
  • Teachers' pedagogical ability to handle sensitive debates and discussions;
  • Some teachers' unease when dealing with ‘difficult' issues.

Within all the specifications there are opportunities to tackle issues that are emotive and/or controversial. Some topics are inherently sensitive, e.g. the Holocaust and Arab-Israeli conflict; others can be explored from an emotive angle, such as C19th electoral reform or the clash between Whites and Native Americans, if an emphasis is placed upon issues of social justice.

The Pilot GCSE from OCR offered a range of potentially interesting controversial topics. The local history option requires pupils to make links between local history and its relevance to now.  The international unit requires students to consider how an event, issue or development divided and affected people and examine different judgments about historical significance and interpretations. Other options like ‘Whose history?' and the migrant experience can clearly deal with emotive issues.

Topics that are emotive and controversial are:

  • Relevant because of what is happening in the world now
  • Deal with issues of injustice, intolerance and/or suffering
  • Deal with religious tensions
  • Deal with racial tensions
  • Deal with treatment of others, in terms of attitudes towards, repression of or retaliation of individuals and/or groups

Teaching that is geared towards the emotive and controversial

The following aspects seem to underpin examples of good practice:

  • There is a clarity of purpose about why a topic is being taught that focuses on exploring identity, values and diversity;
  • The use of an enquiry approach, encouraging pupils to ask and answer complex questions the human experience;
  • A suitable context is provided within which to study a topic, for example a broader study of Jewish persecution to avoid seeing it as a ‘German' problem in a study of the Holocaust;
  • Stereotypes are confronted by identifying pupil preconceptions and devising exercises and examples that challenge these;
  • Pupils are helped to access the issues in the past through role play, reconstructions or choice of examples that are initially within the compass of a child's experience;
  • An historically grounded approach is adopted both in terms of historical content and historical process; this would look at what happened, how we know, why there are differing accounts, why does it matter and so forth;
  • Narratives, stories and biographies are used as a means of getting closer to individual experiences and providing a strong context for the events;
  • Multiple perspectives are adopted to provide alternative points of view. These should encourage a sensitivity towards inclusive language and an understanding of power relationships in the past;
  • Deliberate linking of past and present, with a possible ‘present then past' approach;
  • There is an awareness that studying certain topics is a qualitatively different experience for some pupils compared to others

When planning to teach emotive and controversial topics the following planning guidelines have been suggested that teachers need to start with the factual context, identify the key controversial issues, explore the alternative perspectives within the context and examine the big questions that emerge.

The points above also provide a strong rationale for tackling such difficult topics. Such topics are engaging, show that what happened in the past matters today, broadens pupils' understanding of the human experience and attitudes towards others, and promotes an understanding of the process of history.

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