Guides to Nowhere

I bought a book during my PGCE year. It stated that it offered ‘practical guidance’ on becoming a successful history teacher, so the purchase was a no-brainer. Two weeks into my PGCE and I’m feeling less like I hit the jackpot and more like I’m filing a PPI claim. It’s too long, and for every piece of practical advice, there are about 17 items of trivia relating to the national curriculum.

It was full of paragraphs that sounded like this:

In history, it is necessary for teachers to educate themselves on the current frameworks for progression among learners, as well as to meet the high standards imposed by the following bodies: Ofsted, the National Curriculum, the National Trust, Springwatch, the Antiques Roadshow, and the Warwick Castle Society for Candy Floss and Overpriced Hotdogs.

Teachers need to equip their learners with an ability to make inferences from a variety of sources, including primary, secondary, antiquary, reliquary, old, very old, and positively ancient.

Most importantly, teachers must allow their learners to become Little Expert Historians, who can use history to plot the course of developments through abstract concepts, such as cause and consequence, change and continuity, as well as progression.

A Little Expert Historian would give an examination of World War II as follows: ‘World War II was caused by Hitler. Furthermore, Hitler didn’t like the Jews, which led to the consequence of World War II. There were many changes in Germany, not least in terms of Hitler himself. However, the continuity between Hitler and World Wars – both of which were bad – is obvious. I partially agree that World War II was an example of progression from Hitler being angry at Jews.’

What is the fascination of such authors with abstract language? I’ve sat there clueless in the office while colleagues have practically squared up to each other over the question of whether the Cuban Missile Crisis more rightfully belongs in ‘cause and consequence’ or ‘change and continuity’. Then one day, it finally occurred to me what was happening: this wasn’t just history, it was medievalism.

You may have wondered, why were the Middle Ages such a complete waste of time? We have the Roman Empire prior to the year AD 476, and they gave us law, order, geometry, astronomy, the alphabet and Roman numerals.[1] A veritable supermarket sweep of civilisational benefits. Then they were sacked, the barbarians overcame Europe, and all was lost. Whereas the sages, architects, and philosophers of Ancient Rome were thinking about laws, temples, and stoicism, the thinkers of the medieval period scratched their egg-in-nest-looking heads, and asked, ‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ This trend of theological nit-picking is now known as scholasticism.

I read a little of the medieval scholastic work Summa Theologica online for inspiration, thinking it’d be a short read. But guess what, turns out Summa isn’t Latin for ‘summary’. It means ‘total’: it’s seven books long, and Thomas Aquinas died before finishing the work – which probably came as something of a relief.

Here’s an excerpt of Aquinas talking about charity:

Whether almsgiving is a matter of precept? We proceed to the fifth article:

Objection 1. It would seem that almsgiving is not a matter of precept. For the counsels are distinct from precepts. Now almsgiving is a matter of counsel, according to Daniel 2:24: “Let my counsel be acceptable to the Kings; redeem them thy sins with alms.” Therefore, almsgiving is not a matter of precept.[2]

Bear in mind, this is Article 5 (out of 10) on the subject of almsgiving (charity). Aquinas has four more objections to go, an interlude, and four more replies to those given objections. It makes you wonder whether he ever got around to actually donating.

Luckily for Aquinas, I’ve found one use for the almsgiving section. The next time a charity-mugger approaches you outside Tesco, just throw Book II of the Summa at him and run off.[i] Problem solved.

The point is that the abstract, legalistic debates of the national curriculum are irrelevant to trainees and NQTs. When I was a trainee, I read the national curriculum, but I didn’t have to – why would I? I’m told what to teach by my head of department. I follow the schemes of work I’m given. That’s it. Asking trainee teachers to busy themselves with national curriculum is like asking a driver with L-plates to design a contraflow system for the Coventry ring road. In a word: pointless.

The worst part is that the modern-day scholastics who contemplate how many learning journeys can dance on the head of a pin overlook one crucial fact: overwhelmingly, it is the best-selling textbook that has the most clout in British schools.

This is especially true in geography, where most practitioners are about as qualified as an aromatherapist in A&E. I myself can boast not only of having picked history GCSE over geography, before being kicked off that and earning neither, but also of having dropped geography at A level – the academic equivalent of cheating on your betrothed prior to dumping her at the altar.

So why am I now a geography teacher? I chose to switch from history to geography because of the textbook. There were too many textbooks for history, all organised under dubious headings like change, consequence, continuity … codswallop. I ditched reading the Summa because its seven books were giving me flashbacks to history GCSE. And please don’t mistake this for philistinism. The fact is, when you’re teaching on a full timetable, you never know what will happen. You may have to cover lessons for colleagues. Or the department might decide at 9pm on Sunday to run a crash-revision timetable for Year 10, starting tomorrow. Having multiple textbooks swiftly becomes untenable – especially when more textbooks = greater cost for the department, and therefore fewer available between colleagues. I often didn’t have any resources in history, since people stockpiled the Cold War textbooks like nuclear warheads. But in geography, oh yeah, that little blue book with the ant on the front – I always had it available.[3] I probably looked at the national curriculum for geography twice, but I’ve probably spent more time using the textbook than most marriages last.

I agree with the notion that ‘intelligence is the simple accrual and tuning of many small units of knowledge that in total produces complex cognition’.[4] When you think about it this way, PGCE guides that go all Summa Theologica over the national curriculum really do seem as irrelevant as the medieval scholastics – whom Erasmus described as ‘so blind as to not be able to see a stone’s cast before them, yet as sharp-sighted as possible in spying-out ideas, universals, separate forms, [and] formalities’.[5]

Trainees can look into the national curriculum later, when they head a department. For now, let’s tell trainees what to do, what not to do, and how to best impart the many small units of knowledge.

[1] Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (London: Mary Beard Publications, 2016), pp. 131–169 & pp. 527–537.


[3] GCSE Geography AQA Student Book.

[4] Daisy Christodoulou, Seven Myths About Education (London: The Curriculum Centre, 2013), p. 20.


[i] If you hear sirens, keep running.

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