Sarah Moody Ė TV History in the classroom and museum education departments


My research involves looking at school pupils as an audience of history TV programmes, and some of the uses and impacts of history TV in the classroom and in another educational setting Ė museum education departments.


Previous research into the study of history in schools reveals that many adults feel their history education was limited, but find enjoyment from TV history programmes, and in many cases say they act as an expansion of their history education. Current political and media interest in school history revolves around the significance of history in the curriculum and arguments about what a British history education should include. Yet almost 1500 schools last year did not enter any pupils for GCSE history exams despite OFSTED stating in its 2006 report that they found history to be the best taught subject in UK schools with well qualified and resourceful teachers. History is not currently compulsory as a GCSE subject and with only 30% of all British secondary school pupils studying it at 14-16 and even fewer at A-Level there may be a danger of it being dropped as a GCSE subject altogether, as archaeology was a few years ago. A criticism by many teachers of history is that schools place emphasis on results and attainment targets, putting pressure on teachers to coach pupils in how to answer exam questions in as narrow a way as time constraints allow. In addition, these exams are often not written by historians, and it has been suggested that some of them bear little resemblance to the ways in which historians actually use sources. 


As a former history teacher myself I wanted to find out what resources history teachers are using and how TV plays a role in the history classroom. Like a lot of the teachers that I have interviewed, I used fictional films more often than documentary as pupils immediately engage with material they find familiar and/or visually exciting. For example, Iíve used the chariot race scene from Ben Hur to begin a year 7 class on the Romans that captured their imagination, and made them eager to find out more using the other materials I had provided which included replicas of objects and text books. Itís worrying to think that a lot of children get their ideas on history from fictional film, but only if they see this as the definitive historical truth. A good teacher wouldnít use film clips as the only resource in a lesson. Several of the pupils I have so far interviewed found watching TV in class more enjoyable then reading books or doing worksheets for varying reasons, the most common answers being that it is fun and easy. However when pressed about what they had watched a group of year 5 primary pupils were able to give me an in-depth account of how Sid the Saxon and Vik the Viking came to be enemies and how they lived their lives.


I attended a conference this week held by the Institute of Historical Research which asked Does History Matter? School teachers, policy makers and university based historians all argued that of course history matters and suggested ways in which the curriculum needs to be addressed. A couple of weeks ago a new history curriculum was unveiled which for the first time ever uses the word identity as one of its aims. Although this links to citizenship it is interesting in that is asks how history is relevant to the way in which we live in contemporary society, and asks teachers to make links between the past and present. It also links to trends in public history including genealogy, heritage and the nature of exploring local histories and personal identities. Several people at the conference expressed their frustration with the way that history in schools is divided into topics that donít connect with one another and leave pupils without an overall history and sense of chronology, and how the same topics are repeated over and over again from primary to secondary level, and again in universities with world war II as the main culprit, crudely labelled as Hitler studies. Out of interest I have been studying some of the MA history modules here and found myself yet again studying Hitler using BBC documentary as a resource in class. But as one speaker suggested, although this topic has been done to death, teachers can change the way in which it is taught by using it to link to modern day issues of genocide and asylum seeking. One teacher stated that her pupils asked to study more world history topics, and although its perhaps worrying that some pupils donít see WWII as global history, its probably because the curriculum tends to focus on the same sources and perspectives without looking at hidden histories Ė the people that made an impact on history but have been forgotten as they arenít curriculum-worthy. The consensus at the conference was that if history does become partners with citizenship it should be to show how people in the past have struggled for citizenship, including ethnic minorities in Britain, and how modern day communities came to be. The results of this conference and a list of the speakers can be found on the IHR website.


One of the reasons I chose to contrast the use of TV history in schools and in museum education departments is to look at the ways in which museums are interpreting the curriculum and linking this to public history and heritage spaces. Museum visitors are not necessarily a typical TV history audience that spring to mind, but just walking round some of Londonís museums recently I saw how regularly documentary and sometimes fictional film footage are used in museum displays. For example at the Tower of London visitors to King Edwardsís palace are invited to watch a 5 minute film on a large screen and then go to his bed chamber to meet him and chat. There have been recent studies on the use of drama and re-enactment in museums but it would be interesting for a further look at TV as a museum tool. Because of the strong inclusion of WW one and two in the curriculum I looked at the Imperial War Museum which has TV screens in all its exhibitions, including one aimed at children as war evacuees where I saw children sitting watching the archive footage attentively on screens. The museum tends to use its own specially produced documentaries, but annually asks secondary pupils to take part in a film making competition, and as from this September will launch a new education workshop using history programmes made for TV which I cant wait to learn more about.


Iíve also been observing education workshops at The Collection, a museum in Lincoln, and have undertaken some interviews with pupils there. These are mostly with primary pupils but it was interesting to film a yr 8 secondary school workshop on the Romans recently, which involved drama and had the pupils acting out Roman court cases. It bizarrely ended with ten minutes of citizenship that asked pupils to discuss big brother, and although the pupils were engaged in a debate, it didnít connect with the rest of the workshop, but the leaders later explained to me that they were obligated to include citizenship sections for all secondary age groups. The Lincoln museum has found using TV history programmes successful in the past but they are hesitant as they worry teachers will feel cheated if a resource that they could use in their classroom is used in a workshop the school is paying for, so we have discussed how we could include the use of documentary in the workshops, perhaps with me getting older pupils to make their own films to be shown to primary pupils. With the use of ICT being significant to the curriculum several practitioners are looking at the ways in which young people engage with the media and with subject knowledge by making their own films, including projects run at the Institute of Educationís centre for the study of children, youth and media. Also, Ben Walsh whoís here and I hope he doesnít mind me saying, has done some work with pupils in Newcastle in making their own films using archive footage, and he also runs teacher training workshops in getting teachers to use TV and film clips as resources from different angles Ė not just to build atmosphere.


I hope to continue my interviews with teachers and pupils and to survey the ways in which TV history is used in relation to a changing and unstable curriculum. This is an interesting time to look at the history curriculum and its relationship to ideas about what kind of history and whose history should be taught in UK schools and how this relates to the issues of public history being articulated by TV history programmes. I will continue to compare my classroom findings with observations of museums and their educational role, and the ways in which they are tapping into use of film to explore national identity. And I have also been interested in comparing my findings of UK history education with American schools where thereís more emphasis placed on history education generally, and the use of TV history in schools is being encouraged in several ways, for example recently by the History Channel which selected 150 schools in Philadelphia to have free TV documentary resources and grant money to work on their own documentary projects over a three year period.


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