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How should the First World War be taught in schools?

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Sunday, 28 June 2015, 10:10

I came across this on classroom clichés of the First World War and wondered what people thought. Teaching the First World War.

How do you introduce the First World War to students?

  1. Blackadder - shown in all classrooms in Secondary Schools.
  2. The movie 'Gallipoli' -  the last five minutes shown in nearly all Secondary Schools.
  3. Mud - taught in most classrooms under the assumption that the rain began on 4 August 1914 and did not stop until 11 November 1918.
  4. Tommy - having lied about his age is trying to come to terms with not only the weight of his equipment but also the weight of having been duped into becoming a ‘victim’. And he was then shot at dawn because he got shell shock.
  5. Machine Guns - which only the Germans had, perfect instruments for skittling ‘Tommies’ who walked very slowly towards the enemy, most machine guns being used, of course, on 1 July 1916.
  6. Officers - all public school, and all stupid!

And to add to the controversy I'd add these 'howlers':

  1. It wasn't Germany's fault. This is disingenuous as a nation should not be blamed, though the rank militarism of Germany for decades didn't help. Though not an absolute monarch like the Tsar, Wilhelm II still had significant power that he controlled in a tight group. He, and a handful of like-mined Prussians can and should be blamed for chasing after a war that they believed they could win, and should get finished and won sooner rather than later. 
  2. It all started with Princip murdering Archduke Ferdinand. A better way to think of the first months of the 'Great War' is to call it the 'Third Balkan War.' Fighting amongst peoples seeking nationhood against the domination of empires was common place and had been brewing for many decades. 
  3. The Somme Battle took place in one day, and was over before breakfast with hundreds of thousands dead. 1916 and the entire war can be summed up this event/moment, from the British perspective only, under Haig's command, on 1st July 1916. Far from being futile, and far from being a British operation, it was under direction from the French Army and both before, during and afterwards tough lessons were being learnt on how to win the 'impossible' war to get Germany off French and Belgian soil.
  4. Haig was a donkey, all the 'poor bloody infantry' lions and all commanding officers useless. (Far from it, the COs were experienced and well educated in military thinking of the age while amongst the infantry the 'volunteers' considered the conscripts to be useless. 
  5. Only the ANZACS fought at Gallipoli (The French, and British were there ... oh, and the Turks and a German officer advising them).
  6. Gallipoli was all Churchill's fault (the War Cabinet were behind it).
  7. The Christmas Truce. A no man's land version of the world cup: England vs. Germany. (The iconic photographs were taken in Salonika, not on the Western Front). 



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Heather Gout

Apologies to Rob Hatch

I might as well say sorry now, because I'm sure he'd not be pleased to read this comment.  My Canadian high school history education ticked all the cliché boxes (with the exception of Blackadder, but had that existed in the 1970s, I'm sure it would have been included).

Am I understanding Hatch correctly?  When he poses the question, "How do you teach students to be real historians", does he see this as the aim of school history?  It seems a steep ambition.  If you extend the same assumption across the curriculum, then presumably you also want to turn sixteen year olds into mathematicians and chemists and literary critics, all at the same time.

My personal view is that most people won't continue learning any academic subject beyond compulsory schooling. I don't believe a curriculum can be designed to turn them into historians or anything else.  I do wish schools had the freedom to relax, because all this uptight soul searching about what and how to teach is assuming that school is the main engine that drives us to learn.

But the main engine is ourselves, our personal motivation.  If we could figure out a curriculum that fired up motivation, then everything else would take care of itself.     


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You/re so right: motivation is everything. If Tony Robinson as Baldrick in Blackadder, and then Tony Robinson the presenter in 'The Time Team' gets a young person motivated enough to study history for A' Level or History or Archaeology ... or acting! then it has worked. 

I don't think its about teaching students to be historians, more it is a case of teachers behaving like historians and basing what they teach on the facts and these days doing so in a way that allows students to construct their point of view ... and learn enough to pass their exams.