Learning to 'do history'

2008-05-21 00:00

The new history curriculum has a strong focus on pupils developing the skills of reading and interpreting evidence.

For many South Africans, their memories of learning history at school are stories about the great heroes of Wolraad Woltemade and Dick King, and endless repetitions of the causes of the Great Trek.

The criticisms of the old history curriculum were many — it was Eurocentric, biased towards an Afrikaner Nationalist perspective, and it was focused on learning lots of indisputable “facts”. The new history curriculum clearly needed to be different. So what does it look like?

In the early version of Curriculum 2005 in 1997, history disappeared into the learning area called human and social sciences. There was no discernible content. For a brief time, history in fact disappeared from the primary school curriculum. However, the review of Curriculum 2005 revived the subject and it now sits together with geography in the learning area of social science in Grade R to Grade 9. This revival was in many ways due to the incoming Minister of Education in 1999, Professor Kader Asmal, who has a personal passion and vision for history.

The new curriculum understands history as the stories that historians piece together from various pieces of oral, written and other evidence. These stories are seen as constructed by particular people at particular times. The purpose of the new curriculum then is that pupils will learn the procedures of reading and interpreting historical evidence. Let’s take the Sharpeville massacre as an example to show what this means. It means that it is not enough that pupils know that a large crowd of PAC supporters gathered outside the police station on March 21, 1960, and that 69 died and 180 were injured. They also need to know that there are different perceptions about exactly what happened on that day. Why exactly did the police open fire? Why would the police commissioner tell a different story about that day than the leaders of the PAC? In what ways would different accounts be biased and whose accounts do we believe? Pupils need to engage with the written reports and photographs about that day to answer some of these questions.

The new history curriculum is strongly based on the procedures of working with historical evidence. Its overriding focus is that pupils should learn the historian’s craft, that they should learn to read and interpret evidence. The purpose is that pupils learn to read critically and not take everything they read at face value.

The content of the new curriculum has shifted away from the strong European bias of the past. The focus is on developing a conceptual understanding of the past, rather than focusing on the minute details. The overall focus is on South Africa in Africa in the world.

There is a new focus on heritage and on how local history is represented in monuments and museums. For example, a common heritage project has been for Grade 10 pupils to research the reasons behind the street name changes.

The subject of history in school is the perfect vehicle for citizenship, be it an apartheid citizen or a new South African citizen. The new curriculum has a strong focus on transformation, that pupils will make choices to change the world for the better. The curriculum’s vision is that history will promote non-discrimination, raise debates and build the capacity of individuals to address current social and environmental concerns.

So the curriculum sketches a vision of how pupils will engage critically and thoughtfully with historical evidence. This vision is then worked out in different classrooms in different ways and not necessarily in the way a curriculum document envisages. There are concerns about the curriculum.

Some high school teachers are concerned that the new curriculum is still content-heavy. This means that there is not time to cover any topic in great depth.

There is a concern that the focus on sources means that pupils don’t gain a deep, chronological knowledge of historical events. It is also not easy for teachers to find new and relevant source material. It is a challenge for pupils who have weak reading competence in English to engage with these sources in an in-depth manner.

History tests now consist of a range of sources that pupils must read and respond to. They no longer write a long history essay, but rather a short piece of writing based on the sources.

In its best form, this kind of assessment will require pupils to think critically, to compare sources and explain the kinds of bias inherent in them. In its worst form, the questions asked about sources can be simple comprehension questions that require no historical know-ledge or thinking.

It is a good thing for pupils to think critically about the past and to understand that history is a narrative constructed at particular times for particular purposes. But it remains to be seen whether the new curriculum, with its strong focus on working with history sources, will achieve this.

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