Curriculum ‘hampers’ teaching of Great War


Teachers feel hampered by practical constraints around the teaching of the First World War.

A year-long research project has found that teachers are keen to apply more innovative teaching methods to convey the events of the conflict in their “broader, more complex” sense. However, at the same time, they feel bound by “curriculum stipulations and exam board stipulations”.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the research has been conducted by academics at the University of Exeter and Northumbria University. It found that with history teaching, the focus on traditional topics, such as such as the causes of the war, soldiers’ experiences, the trenches, and/or the Western Front, is “a result of key stage, curriculum content and exam board specifications, rather than a refusal by teachers to integrate broader and more complex topics into their teaching”.

The report added: “Some of our respondents felt strongly that conveying the complexity of the war’s experience is important and endeavoured to achieve a balance between investigating suffering and sacrifice and war as a catalyst for personal and social development, despite restrictions to teaching time and content.”

With the war covered by both history and English, the researchers also found problems with an overlap between the subjects.

The report states: “One of the most fundamental questions for teachers appears to be the remit of their respective discipline. 

“As both history and English teachers lay claim to teaching the cultural history of the war, whether through literature or non-literary sources, this can result in friction as well as unnecessary overlap between the two subject areas.

“The issue is aggravated by (and in turn partly causes) the current dearth of systematic cross-curricular work.”

Dr Ann-Marie Einhaus, co-author and English literature lecturer at Northumbria University, said: “A key challenge for teachers today is how to make the war matter to each new generation of pupils. The emphasis that has been placed on traditional First World War topics such as soldiers’ experiences of the trenches or the Western Front is felt to be a result of practical constraints.

“Innovative methods are indeed already in place, and many teachers find value in adopting a regional focus to their teaching to really engage their students, or in using traditional texts and poems as a window into deeper, more complex discussion. However, there is a definite feeling that curriculum content and the need to teach to exams are hampering the evolution of First World War teaching.”

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