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Seeing yourself: 40 years of Black History Education in the United Kingdom

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In the year 2000, I bought “The British Millennium: 1,000 Remarkable Years of Incident and Achievement” a pictorial history of Great Britain (The Hulton Getty Picture Collection, 2000). Flipping through the copious pages, I expected to find something relatable on a personal level in at least the last fifty years of pictures. But in 987 pages of images, I found three photos of Boxing Champion Lennox Lewis, one of Rugby hero Jeremy Guscott, and a picture of the Spice Girls. 

A little less than twenty years earlier in 1981 young Black people erupted in spasms of anger that tore through parts of major cities around the United Kingdom. Brixton in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapel Town in Leeds, and Toxteth in Liverpool all witnessed disturbances. The previous year riots had also occurred in the St. Paul’s district of Bristol. Lord Scarman’s report into the unrest chronicled, “complex political, social and economic factors” as contributory to the riots. Undoubtedly in the minds of some BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) parents was the question of education. 

Many people regardless of ethnicity frequently look to education as a door opener to better opportunities. The economic, political, and social stagnation of the 1970s and the fact that BAME people were often the last in and first out of employment, frequently in low paying work, pushed many to want better for their children. However, the panacea of education had and has always operated as a “doorkeeper”. It spawned an even more narrow gateway when the 1988 Education Reform Act introduced a market driven education system, and racial equity, and equality became casualties of a market driven colour-blind approach to education. 

Racial disparities should come as no surprise. As far back as the 1960s it is clear the educational system was then and is not now immune from covert and overt racism. Macro and Microaggressions, along with conscious and unconscious bias have many times encouraged stereotyping and profiling of BAME students in the education system. Multicultural education and anti-racist policies were and are both promoted and dismissed to ameliorate issues of schooling. Moreover, the belief probably still flourishes among some BAME communities that history curricula should give BAME students more inclusive views of themselves. Furthermore, there are also calls from politicians and parts of the public for School history to play a significant role in the forging of public national identities and improving intergroup relationships. History for some still teaches lessons worth learning or at the very least remembering.

The 1988 Education Reform Act mentioned previously included several “neutral” provisions such as allowing parents to specify their preferred choice of school and a new National Curriculum for England Wales and Northern Ireland. Inspecting this new History National Curriculum (HNC) strand’s content for recognizable BAME cultural identification, reveals marginal inclusion of BAME people and their contributions to British history. 

Revisions to the National Curriculum followed in 1995, 2000, 2007, and 2014. The 2000 History Curriculum had much in common with the 1995 version. Significant changes included directions to teach citizenship and “Thinking skills” plus catering to “inclusion”. The statutory inclusion statement gave teachers some freedom to modify the National Curriculum. 

The 2014 new National Curriculum was perhaps even more controversial than the original. It was criticised over its exclusionary nationalistic English Literature and History curricula. Michael Grove the British Education Secretary’s ideal of a “Golden Thread” of British history saw education continuing to play an increasingly “political” role in establishing what it meant to be British. And this stance placed schools at the centre of the British “war on terror” particularly aimed at British Muslim students.

At the start and on the edge of a new decade, in 2001 and 2011, British streets were again punctured by riots in Bradford and Oldham, by mainly Asian young men, suggesting an era of transition was well underway in that community regarding what they would tolerate from sections of British institutions and society. The old choices of assimilation, integration, and nationalism as a means of social cohesion were and are no longer the only alternatives, as the rise, demise, and rebirth of jihadist groups have proved attractive to some disaffected young people and the notion and reality of Brexit has brought for some nostalgia of a perhaps mythical bygone era and for others regret at Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. 

These issues were and are complex. For many BAME students, any lesson content if it is interesting and well taught is likely enjoyable. For others content which excludes people they consider ancestors, may teach them they are invisible, and unimportant. Furthermore, the idea that British history preserves, and transmits concepts of national identity may often seem alien to some but highly feasible to others. 

What impressions have all these changes had on school history and students? As might be expected it has been a mixed bag. The complexities of individuals coupled with the often warring notions as to why we teach history have produced a complex heady mixture. Research by Doharty (2019) details microaggressions experienced by Black students in school during Black History Month. Other research suggest ethnicity has little impact on how students receive different history narratives (Huber and Kitson 2020). However, in the United States research  and personal narratives continues to strongly suggests that students’ cultures and backgrounds play a significant role in perception of lesson content and classroom experiences (Coates, 2015; Emdin 2016; Wilkerson; 2020). 

Societies are sometimes guilty of cherry picking the past to excuse, promote, and to engender a sense of purpose in everyday life. And the study of history should probably have some impact on the way people perceive society. But any single “Best” version of the past is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. Studying history in a democracy should require analysis, exploration, and independent thought. School history has always been highly contested territory.

In the wake of the Windrush Scandal which questioned the identities and belonging of Black people to the United Kingdom and in the wake of Brexit we cannot demand unquestioning loyalty of BAME students if what they see around them jars with the history they learn at school. 

School history should allow students to ask questions. Students don’t need and probably don’t want easy answers that actually answer little. Students need to understand how to examine and evaluate commitments and attachments people hold to competing contentious narratives of the adult world. These are skills that studying history and how it works nourish. Additionally, perceptions, real, or imagined, marginal groups have of how they are represented, or not, in history may well be mainly an affective reality; but a reality we cannot choose to ignore.

Because when we look at a group picture taken of us, we always look for ourselves, first. 

References

Alexander, C. & Weekes-Bernard, D. (2017). History lessons: inequality, diversity and the national curriculum. Race Ethnicity and Education, 20(4), 478-494.

Coates, T. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: One World.

Cantel, T. (2014). National identity, plurality and interculturalism. The Political Quarterly, 85(3), 312319.

Doharty, N. (2019). ‘I FELT DEAD’: Applying a racial microaggressions framework to Black Students’ experiences of Black History Month and Black History, Race Ethnicity and Education, 22(1), 110-129. 

Emdin, C. (2016). For white folk who teach in the Hood and the rest of Y’all too: Reality Pedagogy and

Urban Education. Boston Massachusetts: Beacon Press. 

Evans, R. J. (2011). The wonderfulness of Us: The Tory interpretation of history. London Review of

Books, 33(6), 9-11.

Hamilton, D. G. (2018). Too hot to handle: African Caribbean pupils and students as toxic consumers and commodities in the educational market, Race Ethnicity and Education, 21(5), 573-592, DOI:

10.1080/13613324.2017.1376635.

Harris, R. (2014). The history curriculum and its personal connection to students from minority ethnic backgrounds, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(4),464-486. 

Huber, J. & Kitson, A. (2020). An exploration of the role of ethnic identity in students’ construction of

‘British stories.’ Curriculum Journal, 32(3), 454-478.

Tomlinson, S. (2015). “Fundamental British Values.” In The Runnymede School Report: Race,

Education and Inequality in Contemporary Britain. (Eds.). C. Alexander, D. Weekes-Bernard, &   J. Arday, 10–13. London: Runnymede Trust.

Traille, K. (2020). Teaching history to Black Students in the United Kingdom. New York: Peter Lang.

Wilkerson, I. (2020). Caste the origins of our discontents. New York: Random House.

Understanding Memory and Learning

Almost everything we do requires some form of memory. Most of our everyday actions require memory, but we seldom notice this. They’re like everyday appliances that work unseen in our homes and only the absence of them reminds of their presence. Unseen like electricity we tend to only notice when it is absent or the key that won’t open the lock as usual. Absence alerts us to their presence and usefulness.

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We remember facts and skills through practice and rehearsal until some become like second nature. I remember things like how to drive my car seemingly by instinct, but if I must use another car with instruments placed slightly differently, it takes time for me to feel comfortable, reaching for the handbrake with my foot instead of my hand or vice-versa. We remember passwords and once upon a time phone numbers, were things many could recite but this is almost a lost skill as our phones now do this for us. Some memories are stored deeply perhaps never to be retrieved. Other memories float on the surface bubbling and spilling over regularly into our lives.

We are even guilty of Magpie like behavior of stealing the shiny memory nests of others and hoarding and mixing them until they become parts of our memory and our own prized possessions. Moreover, when we retrieve memories, we don’t produce exact photocopies. Memories are reconstructed in the retrieval process. We compose a picture and add and subtract and create what for us is an exact copy.

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Our brains can also separate our memories and memories can be stored relatively quickly and unintentionally. We can also divide memories up into spatial and autobiographical memory which are almost inexhaustible and new situations can change our memories and the way we see things. Our memories are important because they help us build relationships among facts, events and our experiences.  Amnesia or the lack of memory is a devastating condition as we are becoming all too aware of with the seemingly growing prevalence of various forms of Dementia and Alzheimer’s like diseases and the devastation on individuals and families.

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In order to become more effective learners, we need to develop ways of organizing information using memorable tactics making it easier to recall. Growing up some used music Mnemonic Devices such as ABC songs to help remember the alphabet and Word Mnemonics to remember things like Musical Scales, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (EGBDF)” to remember the lines of the Treble Clef from the bottom to the top, and the Great Lakes of the United States are for many in my generation engrained in the word “H.O.M.E Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie.” Mind maps are another device that help us make connections and give visual understandings of complex content.  But for memory to work at an optimal level we need periods of rest between retrieval and reviewing the information we’ve stored, that is spaced intervals for memory to work well. Which is why reviewing material at the start of any lesson is so important for students in and outside of the classroom.

Helping students understand that instead of reading information repeatedly they would remember more efficiently if first they wrote down what they remembered about a topic. Then checked the textbook or their notes to see what they missed out. This repeated retrieval process is a much more efficient and a better way to understand and remember any content.

Above all we need to be able to relate personally to what we want to remember. Motivation is often very self-centered.  Effective teachers try to encourage their students to make up their own memorable devices when they are learning important material, if they want it to stick.

Moreover, the best ways to remember something is to keep retrieving and reconstructing the memory/information. Sadly, we all do this too often with negative memories and play them repeatedly so engraining and storing them and stopping the act of forgetting.

Most educators know how to store up all the tiny wonder moments of teaching and student learning which startle us from time to time, retrieving and replaying them when faced with the opposite and enjoying this rollercoaster ride, we call teaching. Good memories help us thrive and survive and are needed now perhaps more than ever.