What a wonderful world: teaching Humanities

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My first teaching post was as a ‘Humanities’ NQT. Having studied some Theology during my degree, I was excited to teach KS3 RE alongside KS3 and KS4 history. I was less than thrilled that I would also have to teach KS3 geography; having given up geography aged 14, I was rather alarmed and exceedingly anxious. The summer before starting my job all I could think about was how ill prepared I was for this task in terms of subject knowledge (map skills, anyone?) and lack of enthusiasm.

Early career teachers in the humanities often find themselves facing the decision about whether to hold out for a ‘pure’ single discipline job or to apply for humanities roles. I would hold as a principle that subjects deserve to be taught by subject specialists (see this blog by Heather Fearn for more on why this matters). However, the reality is that most RE, geography and history teachers, even if employed for their primary discipline, will invariably end up with at least one or two periods of the other subjects on their timetable at some point – for historians this is incredibly likely due to the nature of teacher supply.

As a beginning teacher going into this situation, I benefitted enormously from working with an incredible Head of Humanities who was also a geographer. She oozed enthusiasm for her discipline and always had her door open ready to receive my novice questions with kindness and patience. The department had also put a great deal of thought into the sequencing of the KS3 humanities curriculum and the ways in which the modules students studied intersected across the subjects to create a coherent narrative.  Teaching RE, geography and historical enquiries which complemented and built on each other provided a vital access point for this historian into the other disciplines.  It encouraged me to invest time in building my subject knowledge/ approach because it allowed me to reap the rewards in my own subject.  Once I realised this, I was better able to face the challenge of being a ‘humanities’ teacher. 

So what did I learn in over a decade of teaching all three humanities subjects as a historian?

It is important to appreciate the distinctiveness of the humanities subjects.

History teachers (certainly this history teacher and many of the student teachers I’ve watched) have a tendency to teach RE and geography as an extension of the history curriculum – they are not. Key aspects of geography are also inherently scientific in nature and requires an entirely different knowledge and skills basis again.  It is therefore really important to spend time before you start teaching the ‘other’ subjects to get your head around their substantive and disciplinary conceptual underpinnings

As an introduction to this (and please bear in mind these are just the briefest of summaries): 

  • History entails students engaging with historical enquiries to develop their substantive knowledge of different periods and events, building their understanding of substantive (first-order) concepts such as ‘empire’, ‘republic’, ‘peasantry’, whilst also learning to use disciplinary (second-order) concepts such as causation, change and continuity, interpretations, to shape the way in which the substantive is understood and debated. 
  • Geography involves developing pupils’ understanding of substantive concepts such as weather, climate, landscapes, settlements, whilst also exploring the distinctive big ideas of place and space, connections, proximity and inter-relational thinking. Woven through is the ability to learn, understand and apply procedural skills such as data collection (fieldwork), data presentation and analysis (including GIS) and developing logical conclusions through a prism of enquiry and exploration. 
  • Religious Education (or Religious Studies) encompasses ‘learning about’ and ‘learning from’ religion to develop an understanding of the foundations of religions, the practices and beliefs of major world religions and the role of faith in community and culture.  It means exploring questions of faith and ethical dimensions of moral and social understanding and understanding your own ethical and moral viewpoints.

Taking the time to really understand these distinct features of each subject is crucial as orientating curricular elements away from their disciplinary purpose is a real risk.  Teaching only through the ‘disciplinary lens’ of your primary subject easily leads to misconceptions arising for pupils and the curricular intent being lost to the detriment of pupils’ education in both the individual and collective humanities. Understanding their distinctiveness also means you understand the need for your own subject knowledge enhancement and take it seriously – one of the best ways to do this is to engage with the subject associations the Historical Association, Geographical Association and the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education.

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Try not to be scared and instead appreciate that there are aspects of complementarity between the humanities subjects which can help your preparations to teach.

Becoming a humanities teacher will likely place you in the margins of your ‘comfort zone’.  However, if this is the way the curriculum has been designed in your school, it is possible to find a degree of complementarity within the subjects and utilise these. Seeking a more ‘joined up’ approach can enable different perspectives on understanding ‘the world’. If carefully thought through these can be of benefit to pupils seeking to ‘join the dots’ in their emerging frameworks of understanding.

A good example of this could be seen in the Year 9 humanities modules I had the privilege to teach which intersected around the theme of ‘Japan’.  Amongst other disciplinary foci, the geography module on Japan allowed pupils to develop an understanding of physical geography of the country.  Consequently, when pupils encountered Hiroshima and Nagasaki in their history module, as the sites where the atomic bomb were dropped at the end of WW2, they were already equipped to build this new knowledge into their geographical understanding of the country and its population.  Studying Shintoism and Buddhism in their module on ‘Beliefs’ that year was also informed by their pre-existing encounter with the shrines found in public and private spaces across Japan.  Their questions about the motivations of kamikaze pilots in WW2 were answered in part by their growing understanding of the religious beliefs underpinning societal attitudes.

Even if you are only picking up one or two lessons of the allied subject on your timetable you are being given a window into understanding from the ‘inside’ why the curricular thinking within and across the school matters (see Counsell’s blog series on curriculum design and leadership here). and how it can make pupils experiences of encountering ‘new’ knowledge more meaningful.   If you are tasked with teaching the humanities you need to take seriously the responsibility to understand how you can make the most of the appropriate links that can and should be made. You should also be on your guard to avoid false connections that can lead to misconceptions and simplistic, superficial understandings. 

An opportunity or a compromise?

Whilst I would maintain that all subjects deserve to be taught by subject specialists, if a cross-disciplinary approach is required, this snapshot hopefully provides a glimpse of the opportunities that can arise for the curricular thinking of teachers and departments.  So, if facing the prospect of a humanities job I’d encourage beginning teachers to not be scared. Instead, take the subject knowledge enhancement that will be required seriously. Dive into the rich conversations and understandings of the past, people and place that this opportunity offers. And most importantly, take the time to understand what makes the humanities so importantly distinct despite their richly woven relationship with one another.

A final plea

And one final plea as I end – As a non-EBACC subject, RE teachers often find themselves the lone representative for the subject in large humanities faculties where they support an extended team of non-specialists to teach their discipline.  If you get RE on your timetable, please teach it with an open non-judgemental mindset.  Whatever your own perspective on faith and religion, it plays an important part on our society, global understanding and historical narrative.  It deserves to be taught well and with respect.

Further reading & references:

Counsell, C. (2018) Seniour Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (A) curriculum as narrative, The Dignity of the Thing [https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/07/senior-curriculum-leadership-1-the-indriect-manifestation-of-knowledge-a-curriculum-as-narrative; accessed 11/05/2021]

Eaude, T. and Catling, S. (2019) The Role of the Humanities in a Balanced and Broadly Based Primary Curriculum, Impact [https://impact.chartered.college/article/the-role-of-the-humanities-balanced-primary-curriculum; accessed 11/05/2021]

Fearn, H. (2014) The problem with ‘Humanities’, Esse Quam Videri [https://heatherfblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/23/the-problem-with-humanities-3/; accessed 11/05/2021]


With thanks to Mal Kerr and Celia Butler for checking the subject summaries.


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