Don't look back in anger...

Black Adder Over The Top Screengrab

I felt like I was back on teaching practice last week. And not just because Blackadder was in the headlines and on the TV then, too.

I'm referring to the current controversy about the teaching of the First World War, as we approach its centenary.

As a student teacher of History in the late 1980s you had to be aware of a pamphlet, written in 1971 by Professors Jeanette Coltham and John Fines.

In it, the authors articulate a rationale for studying History that is based on the skills that children acquire from it. The period of History isn't that important per se. Its all about their understanding of how to analyse, evaluate and interpret the evidence upon which accounts of the past are based, and then go own to build their own accounts of that past using a further range of skills and concepts.

This approach revolutionised approaches to teaching about the past and shaped the History Curriculum for the next two decades.

It encouraged young people to be the 'detectives of the past'.


I was/am a History teacher of the post-Coltham and Fines era. The thousands of lessons  that I have taught since that PGCE course, and the four textbooks Key Stage 3, GCSE, AS and A Level textbooks that followed have all been shamelessly inspired by an approach that sets out on excite, engage and enthuse young people about the past.

I've always looked for a relevant 'in'; a connection with the present to bring the past to life; to make it relevant; meaningful.

I've got students to be TV reporters at the Peasants Revolt, set up a Facebook page for Napoleon and Tweet from Trafalgar. Is this anachronistic? Yes, of course it is! But you explain that. Does it engage and interest. Definitely!

So, the 'current' debate about using Blackadder to introduce students to the horror and sacrifice of the First World War is far from new. Of course you don't use it alone.

You use it in the context of war poetry, and art, and photographs - as well as diagrams, maps and narrative.

Think though history textbook

In my Key Stage 3 textbook, I want students to see the horrors of war through the eyes - and poems and letters - of a perhaps lesser known  poet of the First World War from Gloucestershire, Ivor Gurney: a gentle, civilised pre-war musician, composer and writer whose experiences of the nightmare of trench warfare took him to a post-war mental hospital from which he never emerged.

Ivor Gurney in uniform

www.ivorgurney.org.uk provides more information on Gurney's life.

The chapter's subtitled 'Strangle Hells', after the title of one of the poems he wrote after the War, in 1919. The first lines read:

'There are strange hells in the minds war made...'

These emotions resonate with the painting 'Hell' by the French artist, George Leroux, which I also ask students to interpret in context.

Hell by George Leroux

So, as others get themselves worked up, I won't look back in anger on the current arguments raging over how to teach the First World War. I'l just have a wry smile. Maybe  History does sometimes repeat itself?