Seven myths in history education... strange & stubborn misconceptions

Seven myths in history education… strange & stubborn misconceptions

Wait man, I’m doing magic.”
(A student, looking the wrong way and waving her pen around in circles, on being asked to face me)

I’ve never understood what was going on in Sibel’s mind when she said this.  Her intent gaze at my whiteboard – rather than on the class, for whom she had been known to perform – led me to wonder whether her belief was sincere.  Thankfully, this was a one-off; the rest of this post focuses on students’ assertions which, while equally odd, are made more frequently, and perhaps deserve more attention.

Students make wildly incorrect statements about history (and, I presume all their subjects) all the time.  I’ve argued before that these errors are often distorted by the media, business and politicians to their own ends.  Perhaps one reason why they get away with this is that we misunderstand how students arrive at these mistakes.  As Dylan Wiliam has noted:

When a child says, “I spended all my money,” this could be regarded as a misconception, but it makes more sense to regard this as overuse of a general rule.  Adding or ed to a verb to form the past tense works most of the time, so the child may be guilty of nothing more than playing the odds!”

“Some people have argued that these unintended conceptions are the result of poor teaching….  But this argument fails to acknowledge two important points.  The first is that this kind of overgeneralization is a fundamental feature of human thinking….  The second point is that even if we wanted to, we are unable to control the students’ environments to the extent necessary for unintended conceptions not to arise.”
Embedded Formative Assessment, pp. 74-5.

Students arrive in the classroom with their own mental map of history.  It may combine what was understood and remembered (or misremembered) from primary school, television and parental conversations, with ideas from games such as Assassins Creed (useful in recognising Byzantine buildings, it emerges) and, perhaps most potently, the narrative students have settled upon to explain the world around them.  A simple example: if your knowledge of prehistoric times is based on the Flintstones, the ideas that dinosaurs shared Earth with humans is presumably plausible.

So, while this is both entertaining and frustrating, I’d contend that we should not overlook the opportunity to use these misstatements to identify what students are really thinking; the better to elicit and modify these ideas, through techniques such as hinge questions.  To quote Wiliam again, teachers are better able to support their students if, they

…seek to learn from the students’ responses… not, “Did they get it?” but rather, “What can I learn about the students’ thinking by attending carefully to what they say.”
Ibid., p.85.

So, with the aim of correction, or at least entertainment, here are my seven (least) favourite myths.  Not only are none made up, inclusion is based on my having heard them several times, independently.

1) We will not be studying dinosaurs

Don’t look so disappointed – the word ‘history’ refers to the written record of events.  So history starts around five thousand years ago, with the invention of writing.  We will look at ‘prehistory’ (the clue is in the name) briefly to provide some context to the birth of civilisation, but we aren’t going back before the Stone Age.
1a) Not only did humans not coexist with dinosaurs, they failed to do so by a margin of about 65 million years.
1b) Natural history is not history.  We will not be visiting the Natural History Museum.

2) William the Conqueror’s invasion of England did not secure Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne

The queen is descended from William the Conqueror (apparently, she is his 22nd great granddaughter), but according to analysis, so is 25% of the British population.  The twists and turns to get from the former to the latter are pretty convoluted, and while we will examine the accession of the Stuarts and the Hanoverians, I couldn’t fully explain each of John of Gaunt’s children’s descendants’ role in the Wars of the Roses even if we had time.

(For a ludicrously detailed explanation, try this. If you only have one day, try this.  For the 25% figure, start here).

3) That Al-Khwarizmi invented algebra does not explain why we have it now

Likewise, the fifteen-hundred or so years between Roman and Victorian sanitation efforts suggest that the former does not explain the latter.  Objects and ideas are invented and then spread, or are forgotten, or passed mysteriously from one place to another.  Indeed…

4) Things don’t only get better

Almost every student appears to assume a Whig-like development of science, technology and emancipation up to the apex of human civilisation (now).  One of the things that never ceases to inspire me with awe, however, is the might and majesty of past civilisations which have almost completely disappear.  Consider that Xerxes could (allegedly) muster 1.7 million people, bridge the Hellespont, cut a canal past Mount Athos…  and Persia could collapse into nothing.  Athens fell, the Roman Empire ended, the library at Alexandria burned, the Mongols sacked Baghdad…  Without wishing to play Cassandra, there is no ineluctable march of progress – we (at least some of us) happen to live in a aberrant age of relative peace and prosperity – history suggests it won’t last.

5) People in the past were not stupid.

Firstly, let’s consider what is meant by ‘stupid.’  Can the student making this statement design a space shuttle, explain the internet or even the American constitution – or are they just basking in reflected glory?  Secondly, can any modern student compare their knowledge with that of the polymaths of the past: could they catalogue the world’s knowledge in the manner of Aristotle or Pliny?  Thirdly, let’s consider how obvious things are once they are invented or proved; it’s pretty smart to create something new: the printing press, telescope or vaccine, for example.  If any student is unconvinced, I would invite them to name our next great invention.  And explain how it works.

6) If Copernicus had never been born, we would still have worked out heliocentrism.

Scientific discoveries are out there – albeit individual, unique…  If Copernicus had never been born, someone would have worked out heliocentrism.  If Harvey hadn’t proved the circulation of the blood, someone else would have done so.  Maybe not then and there – that’s what makes it interesting after all!  Although no one else could have written Chaucer or Shakespeare, I think it’s fair to say that, genius as he was, someone else would have worked out gravity by now.

7) Martin Luther King did not free black Britons from slavery.

Nor did he free African-Americans from slavery.  Slaves had been emancipated under Lincoln a century earlier.  It’s tempting to say there’d never been slavery in Britain itself – although that would downplay serfdom.  At least, we can note that the Somerset Case prevented slavery in Britain – indeed, the house to which I’m attached at school, Sancho, is named after the first African known to be published in English and to have voted in a British election – and that was in the eighteenth century.


What do these ideas have in common?  A simplicity of explanation, which telescopes past into present and the mosaic of past events into broad-brush pictures and grand narratives.  Something Andy Day wrote a while ago seems almost the best description of progress in history (and geography) I can think of – it is to do with breaking down narratives and explanations into increasingly complicated and uncertain pictures – a one-sentence explanation grows to book-length as it seeks to encapsulate the messiness of reality.  Perhaps, then, the biggest job of history teachers is flesh out and confuse students’ limited pictures of the past, getting nearer and nearer to ‘what really happened.’

Further reading
Zoe Elder has written a great blog on the importance of seeking errors in the classroom.