Interpretations and sources: Year 7 history lessons are very different from my memories of schooldays when we learned “facts” and the stories in which they played a part. Occasionally, there may have been a suspicion that the facts presented had been chosen very selectively, but there were never teachers who would have suggested that what we were told was just one interpretation and that we should compare it with other interpretations of the same events. There were certainly never teachers who asked us to think about the sources being used and to consider how the use of different sources might produce a different account of events.
The current nine week learning cycle for the eleven and twelve year old history students has focused on the question, “Should Britain apologise for the slave trade?” Today’s class was on interpretations of who was responsible for the end of the slave trade. The well-known British campaigners were set alongside the slaves who revolted in the Caribbean, both were compared with the economic considerations that paying wage labourers was cheaper than keeping slaves and that some goods were cheaper from Cuba or Brazil.
Students in their first year of secondary school are much harder-headed than they were in the past. Perhaps the online world and the virtual reality many of them inhabit has made them natural sceptics; perhaps the advent of fake news has caused them to distrust conventional claims.
Whatever the cause of their scepticism, they took quickly to the idea that the threat of violence on a Caribbean island might have more impact on local decisions than laws passed in a Parliament that was weeks away by sea. There was an even quicker appreciation of the idea that if a trade didn’t make money, then the trade would quickly cease. “They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t make money out of it, sir.”
It has been heartening to watch how a class of mixed ability students could grapple with apparently complex ideas about how history should be read. If they have developed a strong critical faculty at so early an age, it bodes well for their capacity for inquiring thought as they grow older.
Students equipped with questioning skills at the age of eleven will hopefully become citizens who are prepared to question, probe, interrogate and challenge mainstream thinking. To understand that there will always be different interpretations should mean that they will never simply accept what they are told.