One of the trends in professional historical writing since the early 1990s has been the growing focus on telling the big narrative through a multiplicity of smaller narratives. Some of these small stories confirm that big narrative; others contradict it. The success of two bestsellers, Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1998) and A People's Tragedy by Orlando Figes (1996), show how popular this approach is with the wider reading public. The question to ask is, why have they sold so well? My answer would be that by concentrating on individuals these historians engage our interest in our fellow human beings. It is the people in the past who we want to know about, to think about and to feel empathy for. Yes, we are interested in understanding the big events but we need to make sense of these in terms of their impact on the lives of ordinary human beings.
This trend has been reflected in developments in school history in England and Wales. In the years following the introduction of the National Curriculum, history teachers felt constrained by its perceived content demands. Those of us working with a wide range of history teachers during that time, remember how often the fear was expressed that history would become a dreary catalogue of people and events with limited explanation of their significance. This was seen as a backward step, especially after the 'skills' and 'evidence' revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, much of which was characterised by a new emphasis on depth. It looked like the return of the dry 'outline' studies of the 1950s. In the 1990s, however, as a result of revisions made to the National Curriculum and history teachers' growing confidence and skill, innovative approaches to handling and overcoming 'content overload' have developed. These initiatives have involved a more positive approach to the 'big' story - or the 'overview' as history teachers now call it - and a greater skill in managing connections between the big stories and the small stories in pupils' learning.