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Ahistorical imagination

There is often a fine line between a child's history lesson and his or her creative writing class, says Louise Fahey

'Empathy' is now a key part of national curriculum history teaching. The idea is that, by asking children to project themselves into a situation or the mind of somebody from the past, we can help pupils to relate to a history that would otherwise be alien to them.

But in struggling to make history more 'accessible' to our pupils, are we helping to develop their historical imagination? Or are we depriving them of the knowledge this imagination requires?

The motivation for empathy in history teaching seems to be a fear that pupils find the subject boring or old-fashioned. Subjects such as the English Civil War, the French Revolution and the British Empire can now be skipped over because they are considered too difficult or Eurocentric for the children of today. Pupils are more likely to be asked to investigate the life of a slave on a nineteenth-century plantation or the role of women in the Civil War. This is seen as making history more accessible and interesting, and teaching children to be tolerant of different belief systems. But if children's knowledge depends on those aspects of the past that are easy to teach and learn, they will end up with a patchy view of the history.

Historical imagination requires a good knowledge of the subject. Without this children can only make up stories from the past. A colleague recently described an essay by a GCSE candidate who was studying the Chinese communist revolution of 1949. Pupils were asked to imagine they were participating in Chairman Mao's long march and to write an account of their experiences. This candidate wrote an exchange between a mother and daughter about the mother's discomfort, because her foot bindings were too tight and there were still several thousand miles to go.

The use of empathy in the classroom tends to concentrate on the hidden voices from the past: the peasant or the mill- worker. This can lead to banal, unchallenging lessons. Pupils may have a limited knowledge of the feudal system, but know that peasants had no rights and were tied to the land; they may also have been shown a picture of a peasant's cottage. The resulting written work is very often a narrative description of a dull and miserable life, which changes little from period to period. Pupils may have little sense of time or historical context, but will get a mark as long as their answers are plausible if not historically accurate in any specific sense.

Roleplay and empathy work are not necessarily bad classroom techniques, but they can become a substitute for teaching historical content. History teachers should be asking whether what we teach should be based on what children want to learn, and questioning the consequences of this. If history were completely designed to relate to children's lives today, we might deny them access to knowledge and subjects which could arouse their curiosity in a world bigger than the small one they inhabit.

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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