The Future of Learning and Teaching in Social History: The Research Approach and Employability

By Timmins, Geoffrey | Journal of Social History, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Future of Learning and Teaching in Social History: The Research Approach and Employability


Timmins, Geoffrey, Journal of Social History


Thinking about the future of social history in pedagogic terms raises several fundamental issues that require detailed and on-going consideration. Decisions on precisely what social history students should cover, and on how strongly social history should feature in their programmes of study, are likely to provide the natural starting point for deliberation. Yet the problem at once arises of selecting content from an enormous and growing range of possibilities, leading to the question of whether particular dimensions should be considered of such importance that, at least as far as programmes of study within particular institutions are concerned, they become part of a core curriculum which all students are required to take. And the possible tension also arises between what social historians would like to teach and what students are likely to find of interest and use value, both within and beyond the realms of social history.

Inseparable from content in planning the present-day history curriculum, including its social dimension, is the issue of skills development. A dichotomy may have been perceived to exist between teaching history and developing students' cognitive and other types of skills, but the debate has now shifted to deciding on the emphasis that should be given to skills' promotion. Enhancing students' historical awareness and understanding, as well as fostering their interest in history, remain the key aims. Yet the issue has to be faced that only a small minority of students can follow careers in which they are able to use their historical knowledge to any appreciable extent. Addressing the skills agenda, however, not only brings considerable advantage in achieving the key aims, but also in highlighting the use value of history degrees with regard to employability, especially when the wide range of occupations into which history graduates go, and the elevated positions to which they aspire, are taken into account. (1)

In addition to considerations of content selection and skills development are those of teaching and learning approaches. Whilst lectures and seminars continue to predominate, neither are strangers to criticism, particularly because they are seen to be ineffective in the learning process. (2) However, higher education historians are well to the fore amongst those who are devising and implementing more experiential and independent forms of learning, not least by encouraging students to engage with primary evidence. Given the richness and variety of the source material at their disposal, social historians are well placed to participate in such activity. Moreover, in history as in other academic disciplines, active and independent forms of learning are being facilitated by the growing use of virtual learning environments, both to enhance provision of the resources with which students can work and to facilitate communication within the learning communities of which they are a part.

Adding to the list of curricular issues that must be addressed in relation to the future of social history teaching is that of how students should be assessed. Discussions about assessment embrace a wide range of concerns, including, for example, achieving consistency and transparency in grading students' work, a matter that seems generally to be addressed with the use of assessment criteria and accompanying statements of attainment. (3) But of fundamental concern, too, is the balance that should be struck between examinations and coursework and about the form that both should take. In teaching all types of history, the ways in which these matters are handled can have a marked impact on student performance, the more so when they are specifically addressed in relation to student needs and aspirations.

A final area of consideration remains to be noted. It concerns the notion of progression. (4) At issue here is how the teaching of social and other types of history can be made more challenging for students as they proceed through their programmes of study.

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