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HomeNewsChris McGovern: How our history lessons are subverted to ‘explain’ terrorism

Chris McGovern: How our history lessons are subverted to ‘explain’ terrorism


I have previously drawn attention to a model lesson plan on The Times Educational Supplement resources for teachers website, now taken down, that asked children to imagine themselves as ISIS fighters and to justify terrorism. That particular lesson plan was far from being an atypical aberration in terms of what goes when the classroom door closes. It was illustrative of how the National Curriculum for History, in particular, has been corrupted. The promotion of empathy for extremism is embedded in the Curriculum’s DNA, rather like a computer virus.

A letter to a parent from a head teacher of a secondary school, ranked “good” by Ofsted, makes this clear. The parent had expressed concern that a perfectly legitimate lesson on the American civil rights movement had degenerated into a lesson on empathy for terrorism.

The headteacher’s letter makes interesting reading. It states that the teacher concerned “did not condone terrorism” and that “neither did he or does he indoctrinate pupils about terrorism.” Even if we give the teacher the benefit of any doubt in terms of his intentions, he was clearly diluting terrorism by equating it with simple “protest”. Here is the relevant part of the head’s letter:

“Pupils in the lesson were asked to list methods of protest and say whether they were violent or peaceful. This is in the context of a topic on the civil rights movement in the USA. When a student suggested terrorism, Mr X explained that while we condemn such acts, and the people who commit them, they might believe they are using such methods as a form of protest. Mr X further referred to the example of the shooting of a policeman in Paris and explained that even though we would view the gunman as crazed and a murderer – the gunman may have claimed to be protesting against the actions of French or Western governments actions against Muslims.”

An essential part of teaching – particularly a subject like History – is to help young people to understand that there are different perspectives of events – however irksome those perspectives might be.”

The heart of the problem, here, that concerned the parent, lies in the definition of history provided by the National Curriculum. Reflecting what counts for ‘best practice’ these days, it places an emphasis on history as a skills and concept-based subject – a method of enquiry, the weighing up of evidence (in line with its original Greek definition).

In fact, though, the only thing that is unique about the subject is that is it an account of the past. All of the so-called skills and concepts surrounding history as a method of enquiry turn out to be cross-curricula. They can all be taught using, for example, a work of fiction or fantasy such as Tolkien’s Hobbit, TV’s Game of Thrones or even a fairy tale such as Sleeping Beauty. So obvious is this that some history textbook authors have gone as far as inventing their own evidence.

Teaching historical ‘skills’ and ‘concepts’ rather than a depth of subject knowledge turns out to be the easy option for teachers. Teachers do not need to know much history. They simply have to ‘cobble together’ a few pieces of carefully selected, doctored or made-up pieces of ‘evidence’ and ask the children to work out what it might tell them. And that turns out to be all a matter of opinion – value relativism – with the whole process very susceptible to manipulation in any direction in which the teacher wishes to take it.

National Curriculum History ensures that it can be a short step from the civil rights protest on the streets of Alabama to the ISIS ‘protest’ on the streets of Paris or on Westminster Bridge.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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