• Why Research your History Teaching?

    by  • April 10, 2006 • Uncategorized • 8 Comments

    There is a valuable body of literature that shows the value of research for trainee teachers, teacher trainers and established teachers[1].


    A common justification for and aim of teacher research is that of “emancipation”. Hopkins reminds us that, “Teachers are too often the servants of heads, advisers, researchers, textbooks, curriculum developers, examination boards, or the Department of Education and Skills” and asserts that “by adopting a research stance, teachers are liberating themselves from the control and command situation they often find themselves in” and that therefore “the teacher is engaged not only in a meaningful professional development activity, but is also engaged in a process of refining and becoming more autonomous in, professional judgement”[2].

    In helping new teachers reach a healthy level of critical judgement we can avoid the pressures of school life that might otherwise interfere with their developing professional judgements. Such pressures include, intitiatives, from a government, local government and school management level, media pressure, and “pupil data” (almost exclusively numerical and often based on IQ testing) amongst others.


    So, helping more experienced and beginner teachers use research techniques, and ideas from research, is about helping them develop as competant, professional and autonomous teachers.

    Christine Counsel et al [1] outline three ways in which research based ideas can aid in this development. Firstly they argue that research is a source of “high quality new ideas” which trainee teachers “might be able to use in developing their practice”. Secondly all teachers (even established ones, in the face of external pressures) are “under pressure to justify their practice as being appropriate and effective” and “being able to show that their practice is consistent with the accumulated findings of high quality educational research”, is “among the mmost persuasive ways in which this can be done”.

    Finally, Counsel et al argue that having new ideas and being able to point to research to justify one’s own practice is not enough, because “expert practice depends in critical ways on its context” and that coming to an informed, and justifiable opinion, and refininf one’s practice in the light of such opinion of an idea from research, “depends on teachers themselves being able to engage to some extent in the processes of research”.

    History teaching is under-researched, and guidance for teachers, old and new, is overtly descriptive or overtly prescriptive

    Chris Husbands, Alison Kitson and Anna Pendry set out three main furrows of history teaching and learning that researchers have ploughed, but claim that, apart from these areas, history teaching “is a considerably under researched phenomenon”[3]. Further, they argue that much of the guidance that is available to history teachers is either overtly prescriptive, or descriptive.

    Descriptive guidance, exemplified for Husbands et al in Ofsted reports and subject overview reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectors, is guidance in which individual lessons are described, or classroom examples of effective practice are “teased out”, to provide “portmanteau” guides. The problem with such guidance is that it is often far removed from its context, “the ways in which the ingredients of professional practice are combined, nor the circumstances in which good or effective practice is likely to develop”.

    Prescriptive guidance, often found in the form of “how to teach”, or “livening up your lessons” texts for teachers, is guidance in which “a model of good and effective proatice is etihter implicitly or explicitly developed and classroom strategies [...] are recommended, often with the aid of examples of lesson plans, teaching resources, or pupil’s work. According to Husbands et al, although teachers find these ideas useful throughout their development, there are a number of “difficulties” that accompany such guidance. These include, a tendency to “simplify the complexities of professional practice”, and a lack of “evidence-based practice”, in which “the underlying ideas of good practice remain under-analysed” and “taken for granted”.

    The three areas of history teaching that have been subject to analyis and research, according to Husbands et al, include children’s understanding of history, the purposes of history teaching, and teaching history itself.

    Challenges of Research

    Research is a challenging activity for trainee and established teachers.

    Firstly, teacher research is time consuming, and in a busy schedule for PGCE students, teachers and teacher trainers it has to be made to “pay its way” and thus to be practically useful.

    Secondly, teacher research is complex and subject to many preconceptions. Constructing literature reviews requires access to libraries and to guidance. It takes time to learn the language and methods of research, and often formal guidance in the way of courses on research are unavailable or expensive. Many teachers have a vision of research in a pharamacological model, with huge numbers and control groups, with the aim of producing wide generalisations, which means that research is something that others do, probably in white coats with clipboards.

    Thirdly, research in general is undervalued by many in the teaching profession. There is, even in history teaching, a strong “commonsense” approach to teaching a body of knowledge to vessels with greater or lesser capacities. To an extent this attitude represents a “barricades” view of professional autonomy, where one is autonomous if one allows no-outside influences to affect one’s teaching, but it is also true that much educational research has been difficult to apply to classroom teaching because teachers and researchers “do not conceptualize teaching in the same way”. Hopkins argues that effective learning is not the result of “a standardized teaching method but the result of both teachers and pupils engaging in meaningful action” and that traditional approaches to education research have been to try to discover standardised treatments for educational problems – an example perhaps of guidance that is, in the words of Hubands et al, overtly presctiptive.

    Fourthly, and finally, many teachers are unable to share their findings, or the problems they come across, and overcome, in the process of their research. Sometimes because of the factors outlined above teacher research is a lonely farrow. In school new and student teachers feel already especially exposed to pressure about their teaching and, when faced with difficulties they might be encouraged to “stop experimenting” and concentrate on “teaching”. When research is completed it might be difficult to discuss new ideas in departments where experienced teachers feel threatened by new expertise, or who are dismissive of research in general for reasons already discussed.


    1. Counsel, C. Evans, M. McIntyre, D. and Raffan, J (2000) The Usefullness of Educational Reasearch for Trainee Teachers’ learning. Oxford Review of Education Vol. 26 Nos 3 and 4. [counseletal2000]
    2. Hopkins, D. (2002) A Teacher’s guide to Classroom Research Open University, Maidenhead [Hopkins2002]
    3. Chris Husbands, Alison Kitson and Anna Pendry. Understanding history teaching. Maidenhead; Open University Press, 2003. isbn:0335212727. [HusbandsKitsonPendry2003]


    8 Responses to Why Research your History Teaching?

    1. April 11, 2006 at 12:36 pm

      It is very clear from your well explained posting how significant research is within teaching training. However, given everything else that is packed into the PGCE year I found the essays I had to write nothing more than a severe irritation. I haven’t looked at them since :(

      It, however, it absolutely vital that new teachers develop, as you describe, a “healthy level of critical judgement”. The best way for reseach to be encouraged is in partnership with the school mentors (either the whole-school one or the subject mentor). Establishing an excellent working relationship between mentor and student teacher is vital. Thus, rather than asking the student teacher to put together yet another essay justifying their subject in the national curriculum some really valuable research can be undertaken. Something that helps push the partner school in new directions and also helps illustrate the worth of the student teacher to the school and the worth of the school to the student teacher.

      That is then valuable research!

    2. April 12, 2006 at 3:47 pm

      I would disagree with Andrew about the value of the essays that I
      wrote for my PGCE, some of which I have often thought about since
      teaching. This may have been because they were about pedagogy rather
      than history teaching per se and also because they were about a topic
      that I am still interested in today; gender and education. However I do
      think that it is very difficult for Beginning Teachers or teachers new
      to the profession to be in the position to be deeply reflective about
      their work and also have the experience to really understand how
      children learn effectively and how teachers teach effectively. It is
      only after more than a decade of teaching that I have started on
      various action research projects and feel in a strong position to be
      able to carry out some effective work. Last year I carried out some
      research about teaching writing skills in History as part of a whole
      school action research group. You can read our findings here
      http://www.comptonhistory.com/innovation/innovation.htm My own project
      involved working with a year 10 class and developing teaching material
      that encouraged more able pupils to be 'concise and precise' in their
      writing. This year I am carrying out a larger action research project
      using Belle Wallaces TASC (Thinking in an Active Social Context)
      framework. My top set year 8 students will be working on a multimedia
      project on the Transatlantic Slave Trade using Logovisual Technology
      Boards to help them structure their thinking. The aim of the research
      is to establish how effectively students can use a thinking skills
      framework to improve their independence and their group work skills. I
      hope to present the findings at the SHP conference this year with
      Belle. I have really enjoyed the stimulation that doing some action
      research has provided and would strongly recommend other teachers to do
      the same. The research does not have to take a long time – last year it
      was done in 3 lessons and the writing up took about 2-3 hours. 

    3. Ed
      April 12, 2006 at 9:19 pm

      Thank you for your comments Dan and Andrew.  I'm writing something for the HA at the moment on this topic, so your comments are greatfully received.  From what I've been reading in connection with this writing project, research needs to be integrated in a practical, almost "what's in it for me" way into PGCEs in order for trainees to value it, or to get anything out of it.  
      I think that's fair enough. I remember my PGCE with as a challenge.  We used research to great effect in our subject meetings, but the piece of work that I found to be the most useless was a research piece done for "professional studies" that I felt  was tacked on and irrelevant to my daily practice as a teacher.

    4. Nick Dennis
      April 16, 2006 at 10:58 am

      Interesting post. I always had a problem with educational research based
      on the ideas mentioned above and because I'm very aware that it is always
      context and time specific. How can this research apply to my class of 33 very
      different students? I read articles because they provide new ideas and
      sometimes they actually provide a good understanding of the way we learn
      historical ideas (Dennis Shemlit comes to mind). I would suggest however, that
      this last point it where there is a major problem. How many articles on history
      teaching are truly interdisciplinary and read footnotes rather than just
      quoting them? How many studies are long-term projects that can show change over
      a period of time, different situations and in different age groups? I mean no
      disrespect at all, but these are questions that need to be thought about. I am
      also concerned with the idea of 'emancipation'. By pointing out the limitations
      of current research, would using that research really 'free' the teacher in the
      way that you seem to suggest? I think it would act as start, so it would really
      be process rather than an event.
       I do think teacher led research is a good thing but I would really like to see something that really demands to be read rather than a rehash of a book chapter that was published a few years ago. 

    5. Ed
      April 16, 2006 at 2:52 pm

      Hi Nick, thanks for your comments.
      You're absolutely right in that that the emancipation to which I refered is only realised as part of the process of the teacher themselves carrying out their own research.  Perhaps I should change the heading to "emancipatory".  It's the ability to resist pressures from outside that reading and research can give teachers and student teachers, rather than this freedom coming from merely reading other's research.  I'll make this clearer in the final draft.
      I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you write "How many articles on history
      teaching are truly interdisciplinary and read footnotes rather than just
      quoting them?", perhaps you could explain.
      I don't agree that research has to be "generalizable", by which I mean that it can be applied in every situation, if you stary tuned, over the next couple of posts I'll explain my opinion.
      Finally, again you're right in that this post is based on things that other people have written.  This blog is for me to record what I'm reading, thinking, and writing about at the moment, and it's probably not desparately original. Hundreds (thousands?) of educators, many of them history teachers, have probably gone here before me, but I think I've got to make the journey myself, there's no shortcut.

    6. Nick Dennis
      April 16, 2006 at 7:14 pm

      'I'm not sure I
      understand what you mean when you write "How many articles on history
      teaching are truly interdisciplinary and read footnotes rather than just
      quoting them?", perhaps you could explain.' 
      Often when people use writers outside their discipline, possibly because
      they find the work difficult or overwhelming, they rely on the interpretation
      of other researchers. This can mean they miss the point entirely. The point
      about quotes is meant to suggest that people use these interpretations rather
      than actually doing the work themselves. 
       As for research being applicable to every situation, it doesn't have to
      be, hence my context and location specific comment.
      Please don’t feel that I’m trying to knock the idea of
      educational research – far from it. It is a journey that only you can make. Is
      this posting part of your literature review? I would suggest casting your net a
      little wider outside the traditional literature. It might allow you to see why
      the traditional limits of research still remain and what is needed to go past

    7. Ed
      April 16, 2006 at 8:01 pm

      I’m intrigued, but still puzzled Nick.You’re right, it’s kind of for a literature review (I’m doing some writing for the HA, but hope to use it in my diploma studies). What’s the discipline to which you refer?  Is it history, history teaching, social science, social science research?  This is a genuine question, as I’d love to read the stuff you’re referring to, the stuff outside the traditional literature.   My thanks were genuine, this kind of second opinion is one of the reasons I decided to write using a blog.  I just hope I’m not breaching academic rules by working collaboratively! Ed.

    8. Nick Dennis
      April 16, 2006 at 8:45 pm

      By 'discipline' I mean history teaching/education. There is a wealth of literature that exists in any of the social science disciplines that may help. Personally, I have become intrigued by the ideas of some people working in special needs (Feuerstein was an example I tried to get some feedback on – I have yet to sit down and read any of his work myself). Do you use BIDS? Type in the topic you are interested in. 

      I have no idea where your research is heading so I don't think you have to worry about breaking academic rules! Moreover, the the final work will be your own so what little feedback you get from the blog should make no difference. 

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