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.