Why should we share the work of academic historians?

Rachel Foster’s attendance at the WLFS history conference stirred a rather interesting discussion within my own department about the role of academic history in the classroom. Inspired by Foster’s talk, her excellent chapter in Debates in History Teaching, discussions with fellow participants of my MA and our own fertile minds we devised a list of why using academic history in the classroom is valuable. In no particular order, we suggested:

  • To provide the narrative. Historians can compel the interest of students in ways that perhaps we cannot.
  • To provide competing interpretations.*
    • To identify the key debates in history.
    • To explore how historical interpretations are constructed.
  • To model styles of writing, which was the basis of Jim Carroll’s workshop at the WLFS conference.
  • To develop historical reasoning.
  • To judge pieces of academic work. Arthur Chapman has shown me a number of examples where historians have willingly engaged with pupils in debate and assessed their work.
    • To enthuse and motivate students. Diana Laffin has a book club with her sixth formers.


There is an entirely different debate to be had, which I will blog on, regarding the limitations of using historical scholarship, and reducing our subject to academic history. History, of course, extends beyond academia.

I am keen to discuss the ‘how’ and ‘why’ use historical scholarship further. But the more important question remains the what. It is perhaps overly optimistic to suggest that more traditional schools, with their claims of quicker lesson planning, and improved behaviour management allows teachers the room to appropriately develop their subject knowledge. I’m perhaps projecting my own shortcomings onto the broader community. But given the age profile of participants in the WLFS history conference, I’d suggest I’m in good company when I say that I’m not on top of all of the historical debates surrounding the topics that we teach in school. There are some killer passages of text out there. Christine used a now well used extract from Simon Schama, “coffee table history” to illustrate a clear argument and style of historical writing. I am most particularly pleased with a section of text that I use from A Concise History of Australia to illuminate for my year nine students what life was like for convicts in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century.

There are a range of passages of text just like this. Those that you get an instinctive feel when you’re reading them that they offer you something special. One sentence gets write to the crux of the argument. A turn of phrase that beautifully ties off an entire monograph’s worth of argument. But they are in those entire monographs. One of the strengths of the history teaching community is its size, and its passion for its subject. I have yet to meet two history teachers with identical interests in specialisms. It strikes me that we need to do more to share those ‘killer passages’ when we see them. Those that we can share with students of year seven, or at least aspire to build them up towards. It is laudable the West London Free School sets a piece of academic reading each fortnight. They follow in a fine tradition of history teachers bringing historians into the classroom. However it speaks volumes that the Historical Association does not have a page to draw together these uses of academic history, in the way that it does collate thinking on a range of other curriculum issues.

History teachers are instinctively a sharing bunch. This is clearly seen with the exchange of resources and ideas following conferences such as SHP, and Robert Peal’s online resource collection to accompany his textbook series. We need to begin sharing the way we use historians in the classroom in the way that we do other resources. It would be valuable to crowdsource ways that we facilitate this process. Would one teacher and a dropbox account suffice or do we need a bigger vision?


*Ben Walsh gave one of the best lines of the WLFS conference, in suggesting that we do not send twelve-year-olds to fight grizzly bears. We send another grizzly bear. Students should not be evaluating historians’ interpretations but instead seeing how their views differ. This builds on Counsell’s own suggestions that students should ‘hear the shape and style’ of historians’ arguments.