For years, learning about the First World War at school has been a key part of History and English Literature courses. For pupils, it might spark a lifelong interest, or it might be their only exposure to the period. In order to explore how teaching the history and literature of the war has contributed to the way in which the war is remembered, a research project has considered secondary schools in England as sites of cultural knowledge transmission.
The First World War in the Classroom project, funded by the AHRC, has just published their findings. Through regional focus groups and an online survey, the project found that there remains a strong sense of dedication to teaching the period, that popular representations such as Blackadder are used as windows to deeper discussion, and that the focus on some aspects of of the conflict (causes, the trenches) are a result of curriculum content and not a refusal by teachers to integrate more complex topics. The project also hopes to act as a “call to action” for academics to get involved with schools during the centenary periods to support training and teacher development.
Teaching in English literature and History is complicated by some concerns over the subject remits, with overlaps sometimes causing friction. The report suggests that cross-curricular work would produce better results. The report also found that teachers feel a widespread obligation to combine teaching of the war with developing pupils’s empathy and a moral stance towards warfare.
Dr Ann-Marie Einhaus (Northumbria University), one of the researchers from the project, comments on the key issue the research aims to address:
Ultimately, however, the greatest challenge we face is to make the war relevant to each new generation of pupils in their turn – and how better to do this than by exploring the war in all its many aspects?