Teaching History to Black Students in the United Kingdom

by Kay Traille (Author)
©2020 Monographs VIII, 174 Pages


At a time when populist movements have gained ground across the globe and migrants have taken center stage as unwanted pariahs in the eyes of many, this book dares to tackle a culturally relevant threat, much talked about but seldom systematically uncovered or analyzed: the socio-cultural domination that permeates the minds of many Black students in the United Kingdom as they negotiate between what they learn as history at school and their lived experiences and expectations. Kay Traille shed light on this visible invisible specter and uncovers the rich tapestry of forgotten ordinary histories that should make societies richer and better. Using the words of students, teachers, government reports and fictional narratives this book challenges the audience to place themselves into this historical stream of culture to better understand and teach black students. Through the means of critical race theory, social constructivism and aspects of social constructionism, a narrative approach and personal experiences the author excavates points of personal connection through the gateway of stories to enter worlds and make meaning. Traille points out the study of history is socially constructed and not impartial academic information and most history teachers in the United Kingdom are White, female and middle class and increasingly the students they teach are not, undoubtedly making for cultural dissonance between students and teachers. Furthermore, students and teachers knowingly and unwittingly grapple with silent vivid racist experiences in and outside of the classroom that bleed into history lessons. The way students are socialized and taught may impact on their ability to function with alternative narratives or participate as active and engaged contributors to democratic life. This book invites the audience to uncover and acknowledge cultural biases, oppressive power relationships and dominating epistemologies to emerge better equipped to plan for and teach these students, allowing them to know they are valued and an integral part of British society.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • History in Education
  • Making Sense of the World
  • Theoretical Framework
  • Organisation of the Book
  • Chapter One. ‘Why Are They Laughing?’ Learning History May Hurt
  • Peering into a Goldfish Bowl
  • Assimilation
  • Integration
  • Reforming Education
  • Government Reports: Rampton and Swann
  • Chapter Two. Social Stalemate and Views on History’s Role and Purpose in the Curriculum Since the 1970s
  • Political and Social Standstill in the United Kingdom
  • Racial Prejudice in the United Kingdom
  • History Education
  • Chapter Three. The History National Curriculum and Government Reports
  • The History National Curriculum
  • Ofsted and QCA Reports
  • Understanding Students’ Thinking about History
  • Chapter Four. Students and Teachers Talking about School History
  • Themes Emerging
  • Word Cloud 1: The Aims and Purpose of the History National Curriculum
  • Word Cloud 2: Black Teachers Interviews
  • Word Cloud 3: White Teachers Interviews
  • Word Cloud 4: Black Students’ Interviews
  • Word Cloud 5: Black Students’ Survey Responses
  • Word Cloud 6: White Students’ Survey Responses
  • Word Cloud 7: Asian Students’ Survey Responses
  • Discussion
  • Chapter Five. Students and Mothers Talking about Navigational and Ownership Ideas in History
  • Rationale for Interviews
  • Brief Overview of the Methodology Used to Decode the Interviews
  • An Explanation of Navigation Points of Reference and Ownership Categories Established from Interviews
  • Exploring Navigational Issues in Surveys and Interviews
  • Understanding Roots
  • Learning Lessons
  • Cultural Understandings/Respect of Others
  • Evidence of Continuity
  • Direction of Change as Progress or Deterioration
  • An Outline of Ownership Issues in the Surveys and an Exploration of the Ownership Category in the Interviews
  • A Brief Discussion of Ownership Issues
  • Review of Ownership Issues in the Surveys
  • Belonging Issues in the Interviews
  • Belonging with Reservations
  • Identity Issues in the Interviews
  • Imposed Identity Issues in the Surveys
  • Summary
  • Chapter Six. A Discussion of the Findings and Their Implications for History Education
  • Commonalities and Differences about What History Is For
  • ‘Learning Lessons’ from History
  • Respect of Others, Fair Play, Inclusion and Equality
  • Ownership, Belonging and Imposed Identities
  • Fitting In
  • Ties of Blood
  • Teaching Approach
  • History Is Important
  • The Significance of the Findings for History in Education
  • Chapter Seven. Conclusions and Consequences
  • Context Matters
  • History National Curriculum
  • Identity, Ownership and Curriculum Content
  • Relating and Connecting to History Content
  • Misconceptions Reinforced by Curriculum Content
  • The Big Picture
  • Pedagogy
  • Teacher Attitudes and Sins of Ignorance
  • Significant Silences
  • Classroom Practice and Academic Performance
  • Discussions and Role-Play
  • What History Is For
  • Future Research
  • Questions Arising
  • Implications for Policy Makers
  • Research Questions
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Index

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History in Education

In 2006, a flyer mailed through the author’s letter box reveals only 14 per cent of black boys have passed 5 GCSEs with Grades A-C and this had drawn people to a public meeting organized by locals and held in a community centre. The GCSEs or General Certificate of Education examinations are the first gateway to a successful career in the United Kingdom. This news hits parents hard. At the meeting angry people express their frustration, at the English educational system. Striking is their call for ‘Black History’. They are not expressing concerns about English, Mathematics, or Science lessons, only ‘History’ is mentioned by name. The GCSE results span a variety of subjects. History is optional. English and Mathematics are compulsory. Their children had probably underperformed in these subjects, yet parents were not talking about them. Palpable is the belief that if their children are taught about their cultural roots, they will cease to be a lost generation. The early specialization in disciplines in the United Kingdom means that their children are at a great disadvantage if they fail these exams and these parents recognize it. Education the great equalizer and path creator has always operated to some extent as a ‘gatekeeper’ rather than a ‘gate opener’ – spawning a system that even before the advent of market driven education in the United Kingdom arising from the 1988 Education Reform Act was detrimental to students of colour (Brown, 2000; ←1 | 2→Hamilton, 2018). A mother of North African descent exclaims, ‘My son was asked by his history teacher, and do you go to a Madrasa?’ (Islamic School) and do they teach you how to be a terrorist there?’ One by one, parents recount long stories illustrating perceived and real injustices their children encounter on a daily basis; the teacher inside rises and a silent ‘so why don’t you help – yes blame the teachers as always’. Then it dawns, the majority of these parents are likely causalities of the education system now damaging their children. You probably don’t help because you can’t help.

You see, they are children of the 1960s and 1970s; they grew up a generation of Black British born migrant children over-represented in Pupil referral Units (Schools where the most troubled and disturbed students are sent), school suspensions, bottom and remedial streams, and special schools for the maladjusted and educationally subnormal. They are causalities of the use in schools of standardized assessment tests – tests neither culturally fair nor culture-free. They are recipients of curricula and examination syllabi which take no account of cultural diversity and all combine to relegate them, and now many of their children and possible grandchildren with few exceptions to failure (Coard, 1971; Good & Brophy, 2007; Wiggans, 2008).

Time and again students when asked why we study history repeat the ‘so we don’t make the same mistakes’ mantra. Although a history teacher, doubts have formed regarding the panacea of history. Experience has taught that society seldom learns from it.

History in Education

History is often seen as multifunctional, a ‘quick fix’ which among a multitude of other attributes has the power to create cohesion in society. We use it as whipping boy, bandage and solution, the cause and the cure for a variety of pressing ills we find in contemporary society, but what do students studying history think it is for? How do they think history functions? What are their probable preconceptions and misconceptions of the discipline? Do ideas differ among ethnic groups? These are some of the questions this book tries to answer.

Teaching history in a variety of settings from Urban United Kingdom to the Southern United States and seeing how students, view and engage with the past, clearly there are commonly many similarities regarding how students in general see history, and some striking differences between ethnic groups. Why is any of this important? Increasingly since 9/11, 7/7 the British riots of 2011, the 2016 presidential election and Brexit, the educational policy of multiculturalism has ←2 | 3→shown its limitations; cross cultural experiences are normally relatively few, and knowledge about multicultural people from Asia and the Middle East are often stereotypical representations gained from popular culture.

One often stated goal of history education is to promote social cohesiveness in communities by seemingly teaching students to suppress personal cultural roots and the similarities they have with the rest of the world. Instead, they must focus on the uniqueness of their nation. Conversely, multicultural history teaching at its best has frequently been one of the main vehicles for fostering the idea of global connections and the interdependence of people. Regrettably, some studies have suggested rather than creating cohesiveness, aspects of history and the way they are often taught can recurrently alienate students, especially students of colour. We live in a world where many young people seemingly think they have little connection with the histories, traditions and values in which they have grown up, some look toward groups who promise them a sense of belonging and ownership of created histories which jar with, and often seem to menace or intimidate democratic societies.

This book begins with the belief that it is important to understand how a subject, history, makes Black British students think and feel about themselves. It has been claimed that history education has ‘under-estimated’ the way ‘emotional and affective maturation’ impact students and how they respond to doing history (Husbands & Pendry, 2000, p. 132). Perhaps it is time that we recognise that, the problem is probably not under-estimation, but disinterest in the history education research community, and this has resulted in the neglect of this area of study.

When I completed my PhD research in the topic of trying to better understand what Black students and their mothers thought history was for and their experiences of school history, someone jokingly said that for people to be interested in this topic would take burning cars and rioting in the inner cities. And although a jest, there is a ring of truth about that statement. Recent worldwide events such as the rise of the Alt-right in Europe and the United States and the criticism of Multicultural education as being a source of fracturing and fragmentation of societies, hammers home the points of peril when we repeatedly ignore or fail to acknowledge the nasty historical underbelly of racism, both personal and public in our societies.

In the middle of the meeting in 2006, the realization dawns that to properly understand the present, there is a need to look to the past.

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Making Sense of the World

Myers (2009) writes ‘The experience of immigrants and ethnic minorities in post-war Europe represents a significant silence in the history of education in Europe’. Historical silence is devastatingly destructive as we use history to make sense of the world. Generations pass on their thoughts to subsequent generations, and the way people think the past is an amalgamation of thoughts and helps build our cerebral world. Disturbing some of the ‘silence’ this book traces educational policies towards Black children in the United Kingdom, and the ideas Black students may hold concerning the past and their experiences of school history. Issues of history, education and identity are unravelled alongside the memories and perceptions of Mothers, and the ideas of History Teachers. Grounded in historiography, the inclusion of professional, personal and political dimensions helps us decode complex ideas, attitudes and expectations Black students have of the past and the discipline of history. Delving deeper into the possible and probable ways students think, offers educators a sharper snapshot of what may be going on in history classrooms. Targeting the challenges teachers will face may enable educators to create solutions at the most, and at the very least to acknowledge issues that arise silently for Black students in history classrooms across the country.

Theoretical Framework

The book uses a framework of critical race theory in education, social constructivism, aspects of social constructionism and a narrative approach to help unravel ideas and experiences. All are central to the exploration of how Black students construct meaning making and their probable understandings of dominant historical narratives and alternative histories, and the manner in which Black students are probably able to ‘think their world’ (Burr, 2015). Critical race theory, (CRT) germinated in the United States from the actions of legal activists in the 1970s concerned that although people of colour were disproportionately impacted by the legal system, there was no language or literature to critique the subtler forms of racism people of colour faced in and from the system.

Drawing from critical legal studies, radical feminism and taking insights from Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Radical American figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, and César Chávez, Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman and Richard Delgado began to apply to the legal system the idea of ‘indeterminacy’. Meaning, depending on the way you interpreted a case could determine the judgement. In essence there was no single correct outcome (Delgado, 1995). CRT underscores the fraught ←4 | 5→relationships between power and practices that shape or control our consciousness. The theory helps researchers grapple with resisting unequal and unjust distributions of power found within societies.


VIII, 174
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (November)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. VIII, 174 pp., 7 b/w ill., 5 tables.

Biographical notes

Kay Traille (Author)

Kay Traille (PhD, University of London, Institute of Education) has worked as a teacher, youth worker and college professor of higher education in the United Kingdom and the United States. At present she is Associate Professor of History and History Education in the Southern United States. She supervises student teachers and teaches social studies methods classes and United States and world history. Traille's specialties include British Empire history, Commonwealth and decolonization history, the historical consciousness of multicultural groups and the teaching of controversial histories.


Title: Teaching History to Black Students in the United Kingdom
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184 pages