History lessons in peril
Anyone involved in the teaching of history is at the moment very confused and pessimistic about the future of this subject, as evident from the flood of letters and articles in the media. The cause of the confusion and worry is not difficult to pin down. We are anxious because there is a very real danger that our subject will disappear from the timetable as a subject in its own right and history might only survive as an ingredient of environmental studies. In theory, one can still choose it as an option in Form III but in practice this will become increasingly unlikely if students have not been having history lessons in the previous years.
We have been told that resisting change in the new curriculum will result in "a regress in our general educational level" (Frank Ventura, The Sunday Times Education Supplement, April 12) and that the current restructuring is to make "history and other core subjects more relevant to the students' needs" (Mario Schiavone, The Times, April 4).
On the one hand criticism of the changes have been called "misplaced" and "premature" while on the other hand we are being told "change is inevitable".
But what is this great change and "modern" innovation that we must be prepared to accept in history? It is a proposal to join up the humanities, that is, history, geography and social studies, into one subject in secondary school, an approach known in education as "thematic and interdisciplinary teaching", highly fashionable in the 1970s. A method which was, in fact, also advocated in Malta's teacher training colleges back in the 1950s, which would now make it over 50 years old! But being an old idea is not a crime; the real crime is perpetuating the same mistakes and not learning from other countries' experience.
Unfortunately, rather than being the hoped-for dynamic new way of teaching, this method was the death knell of the three subjects. For example, back in the 1980s in Britain, where this approach had been very popular in some schools for some time, history inspectors were alarmed at how standards in the subject in these schools had fallen and how history teaching had become just an outline of facts and information. There was a loss of rigour and the distinctive nature and methods of history were compromised. Furthermore, integrated approaches in general were criticised for creating undemanding tasks and watered-down versions of the subjects. Students were often bored and found thematic approaches tedious.
Few people apart from practising history teachers are aware of the great changes that have occurred in the way one teaches history. It is no exaggeration to say that, of all the subjects in the curriculum, history teaching is the one which has undergone the most radical transformation. Effective history teaching now focuses on the learning of specific history skills and concepts, which are difficult to teach but extremely rewarding where children's learning is concerned.
Source work appeared in O level history Matriculation papers for the first time in 1986 and by 1998 the then president of the Malta History Teachers' Association reported that "Today, it is not a rare occasion for our students to handle photocopies of official documents, letters, diaries or caricatures ..." (Grech, 1998:23).
We have made huge strides by moving away from note-taking and listening to "lectures" given by the teacher towards creating a learning environment where the unique thinking skills found in history may be practised by the students. Unique thinking skills crucial for a citizen in a democracy. Students in Maltese secondary and primary schools today do evidential work based on primary history sources on a regular basis, and it is encouraging to note progress with regard to history teaching in Maltese schools.
In a recent research study on history teaching in Malta, it was observed that "Teachers who graduated prior to 1980 rarely, if ever, use 'New History' methods, whereas almost all of those who graduated after 2000 often or always use 'New History' (the term 'New History' means history teaching focused on skills, concepts and evidence work) methods in their classroom" (De Giorgio, 2008:59).
Removing history as a separate school subject will indeed throw us back educationally where history is concerned. This is a concern from somebody who for the past 20 years has dedicated her research work to the pedagogy of history and is, unfortunately, only too aware of the deplorable consequences and experiences of other countries that replaced the humanities with "integrated approaches" and reduced or eliminated the presence of history on the school timetable.
Please let us not go down that path.
James De Giorgio (2008), History Education in School: A Survey of History Teachers' Views in Malta. Unpublished B.Ed. (Hons) dissertation, University of Malta.
L. Grech (1999), The use of sources in the teaching and learning of history in Maltese secondary schools - Interpreting the Past Using Sources in History Teaching. Euro Clio Publication Bulletin Nr.11.
Dr Vella is a senior lecturer in the pedagogy of history at the University of Malta, the history co-ordinator of the Faculty of Education and teaches history to B.Ed. (Hons) and PGCE student teachers.