The problem with ‘Humanities’

I believe in the importance of teachers who understand the discipline of their subject. When teaching history non specialists are, for example, more likely to:

-Impose the values of today unthinkingly when judging the past (‘whites were racist in 1920s America’)
-Present the decisions of past people as if they were stupid and we are more wise.
-They are less likely to understand the broader context of events and draw parallels to develop understanding of second order concepts.
-When teaching ‘skills’ non specialists are more likely to teach a mechanistic approach to source analysis leading to students parroting ‘the source is unreliable because it is biased’ and other positively harmful mantras.

I recently chatted to someone that believed students should have one humanities teacher throughout KS3 and that prompted this post (which I hope will be viewed by him as constructive!) His motives were laudable as this would allow a teacher to thoroughly know and support each child. It is a necessity at primary level but this approach at KS3 would mean many children NEVER being taught by a subject specialist in history, my subject. Perhaps this doesn’t matter, they will at least have a ‘humanities specialist’. However, although teacher might, over time, become specialised in more than one humanities subject that is the only way the term ‘humanities specialist’ has meaning.

It is true that a humanities department also seems to make lots of sense from a managerial/administrative level. If all subjects ‘about people’ are organised as one subject, timetabling is simpler and you can have just one faculty head. If students can’t be required to study all the subjects available ‘about people’ there is some logic in requiring then to study at least one. However, do these subjects actually have much in common as subject disciplines? Thinking about and studying ‘people’ is pretty broad… I’ll focus my discussion on what I see as the most problematic issue, the difference between the knowledge and skills of history and geography graduates.

My problem with having a ‘Humanities Department’ is that joining geography with history is fairly artificial. The subjects are simply not very similar and thus geography teachers may well not understand the discipline of history and vice versa.

As a history teacher which other department do I look at to get an idea of a student’s potential in history? The only other really similarly essay based subject at GCSE is English. I taught KS3 English for one year and then rather unfortunately quipped at a job interview that English was ‘history without the content’ (turned out it was an English teacher interviewing me). I hear of Teach First candidates with history degrees teaching English and I can see some logic in that. Very few history graduates won’t have done English A level. I actually found it quite hard working out what I should be stressing and drawing out in my year as an English teacher but beyond the skills any teacher would bring I did understand something about setting extended writing, had strong(ish) literacy skills and appreciated literature – the same would be typical of most history graduates. However, if I was asked to teach geography I would be utterly clueless as I know nothing about it beyond general knowledge and my study of history (another humanity…) hasn’t equipped me with any knowledge of what makes a good geographer.

Think of this another way. If a non specialist was asked to teach some history would you think, ‘Well never mind, at least they did geography A level! After all that is about people too…’ Geography has little more content overlap with history than biology and in fact physical geography clearly overlaps more with science. I would suggest that a science graduate is as well equipped to teach geography, if not better equipped than a history graduate. An English graduate is more likely to have studied history at A level and would understand more about teaching extended writing. Quite frequently school timetables have made children choose one humanity. This means that history GCSE, let alone A level, is actually LESS likely to have been studied by a geography graduate than other subjects.

I am not making an argument to ignore the particular skills and knowledge of the individual teacher in front of you. Many teachers have years of experience teaching history and geography and do a good job. Someone in our school taught Music and Classical Civilisation last year because of her particular knowledge and experience and it made sense. Neither am I unaware of the constraints on timetables that sometimes dictate teaching by non specialists.

The problem is with having a ‘Humanities Faculty’ that embraces the notion that the subjects within it share the same disciplinary approach and that the teachers are especially well qualified, through their degree and teaching experience in their specialist subject, to teach other ‘humanities subjects’. This is simply untrue with history and geography and most dangerously can lead to students having NEVER been been taught my subject, history, by a specialist throughout their schooling.

It is not the purpose of this post to really delve into WHY history is a distinct discipline and thus requires specialist teachers. However, if one accepts (the fairly uncontroversial contention) that history IS a distinct discipline and yet one chooses to allow children to be taught ‘humanities’ by one teacher at KS3, one can only assume that this is because good history teaching is not the top priority. Perhaps other priorities are more important but the fact that children’s historical or geographical understanding is probably short changed in the process must be acknowledged.

Finally, when there ARE specialist teachers used at secondary level, a ‘Humanities Faculty’ is a managerial construct.

7 thoughts on “The problem with ‘Humanities’

  1. I agree with much of what you say here. I would argue that history and geography are discrete disciplines, and that a history or geography graduate is *likely* to have the best subject knowledge to teach them. Therefore, a ‘Humanities Department’ would be a largely managerial construct.

    The problem is that being a history or geography graduate does not *necessarily* mean that you have the subject knowledge needed to teach them.

    For example, a friend of mine who received a first-class degree in history, and is moving schools next year, is terrified at the range of historical knowledge required of him to teach history at an 11-18 grammar school. His own degree, like many, had a pretty narrow chronological range and there are literally hundreds of years worth of history of which he has no knowledge whatsoever.

    Similarly, many people start teaching secondary geography with little or no knowledge of physical processes because their degree, as many are, was focussed solely human processes such as migration, development and globalisation. As you say, is it any more unreasonable for a history specialist to teach landform processes to a 12 year-old, as it is someone with a human geography degree?

    In my own ‘specialist’ subject, religious education, most theology and religion degrees have no subject knowledge link to secondary RE whatsoever. How many Oxford theology graduates do you think could speak comfortably about Hindu deities? Very few, I suspect. And what about philosophy graduates, can they make good RE teachers even if they’ve not studied world religions? I’m certain that they can, even though some PGCE routes will not admit philosophy graduates. As a consequence, many philosophy graduates are cast out into the wilderness: teaching citizenship, maths or English, doubtless with great success.

    I think you are absolutely right to say that you should have a strong command of the subject area in which you intend to teach. But, in the humanities, at least:

    1. A degree in that subject may correlate only vaguely with the secondary curriculum.
    2. As a consequence, MUCH more needs to be done from an ITT perspective to support trainees’ curriculum, as opposed to ‘subject’, knowledge. I think Kris Boulton has written excellently on this.
    3. It may be possible for a school to provide better curriculum-knowledge training such that, at KS3 at least, a humanities teacher could feel confident, and teach well, across more than one subject.

    Of course, all of this is totally unnecessary if each of the geography, history and RE teachers are able to see their pupils more than once a week; OR you take the view that only seeing them once a week is not a problem. I think that when multiple teachers see their pupils for only an hour each week this is a problem, and I suppose this is the elephant in the room.

    I am, as yet, undecided. This was very thought provoking – thank you!

    1. Thanks very much for commenting! I agree with you regarding the fact that specific subject knowledge is not necessarily known by NQTs. In my first few years I was constantly preparing topics I had no background in. This summer I am mostly reading about Elizabeth I, ready to teach a new A2 course.
      However, that is not really the thrust of my argument. I did graduate with a grasp of the ‘discipline of history’. Therefore I was less likely to fall into the sort of traps I listed at the start of the blog that are examples of very poor history teaching and are nothing to do with subject knowledge of particular topics.
      If it is just about knowing topics we need have very little in the way of subject specialisms in schools at kS3. Why not have a history graduate doing sciences? I might as well learn about photosynthesis for next term as Elizabeth I… and I know more about it than volcanoes! Maths teachers could tackle RS. In fact any teacher could be asked to do anything where the knowledge could be reasonably mugged up over a long holiday. Traditionally expertise in the discipline of a subject was essential and with good reason.

    2. I agree with you to a point, but your history graduate friend should have a good understanding of what history is as a discipline and this should assist him greatly in delivering the subject over & above somebody starting in the same place as him in terms of subject knowledge.

      I completely agree with the comments about a history teacher teaching Geography! I have been required to do this at KS3 in a grammar school during the course of last year. I have to say, I taught it only with mixed success. My understanding of progression in geography is loose, and came across much more effectively in the delivery of human geography. My ability to build in what us historians would call your ‘first order concepts’ in physical geography was at best shakey! There are reasons why we need to have non-specialists teach humanities subjects, I have yet to find a department that can perfectly match up the hours of disciplinary staff and the hours of each subject to be taught, but you are right that this must be acknowledged as a limitation and we should not be treated as inter-changeable across the subjects! I fear for somebody I know, who teaches Geography and will deliver KS4 RS next year – it will be tough, I imagine!

  2. What you describe is a situation that is treated as perfectly normal in science. Physics is frequently taught by people with no experience in the subject. Welcome to our world.

    1. My husband is a physics teacher. He despairs when physics is taught by biologists. He does A level marking and is horrified by how frequently it is clear a class have just been taught wrongly. Your world is not unfamiliar to me…

  3. As a geographer with a science degree, who did science A levels,but teaches a range of humanities subjects I concur. When under pressure in my second and third year of teaching I pointed out how hard it was teaching seven different subjects. For which I got short shrift. I have narrowed my range slightly since then but the range is still challenging and there is never time to prepare and work up my lessons in the way that I would like. I find all the subjects I teach fascinating and my lifelong interest and pleasure in reading around the subject takes me a long way, but never as far as I would like. I think the geography is impoverished by me having to spread my time. This seems unfair on the students. I have spoken to a friend in France where similar problems occur some parents have similar concerns.

    Where I work I am certain this situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Recently students have been timetabled science literacy lessons. I feel like shouting from the rooftops geography is science literacy and we would love an extra hour of geography. Likewise students have been timetabled extra hours in English when I think more time in geography or history would build their literacy skills and give them a little more variety. As I say we are crying out for this time.

    As well as this it can be hard to obtain the level descriptors for other subjects, but I am told I need to use the language of levels in all my subjects.

    We have just lost our RS specialist and there is no intention to replace her, so in some ways we perhaps need to be grateful we have two Geographers.

    1. SEVEN different subjects! I really feel for you.
      It seems you are right as good comprehension comes from knowledge of the world that can be acquired through studying a range of subjects. Have you seen the Willingham Youtube clip on this? It is the one titled ‘reading is comprehension’ and it explains why learning a range of subjects is important to literacy.

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