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The First World War in the Classroom

The importance of the First World War in public discourse has been emphasised as centenary commemorations continue – and debates blaze around how it should be taught in the classroom.

The former education secretary Michael Gove expressed a concern that World War One was glossed over or used to put forward a particular political viewpoint, worrying that TV comedies such as Blackadder Goes Forth were presented to students as fact.

His fears, however, are rather unfounded, according to a new exploratory project funded by the AHRC as part of its Care for the Future theme. ‘The First World War in the Classroom: Teaching and the Construction of Cultural Memory’ was a study led by Dr Catriona Pennell of the University of Exeter and Dr Ann-Marie Einhaus of the University of Northumbria, designed to establish how the First World War is taught within history and English literature.

Pennell and Einhaus have known each other for some years, and had often discussed what they believed was a misperception that the First World War was “mistaught” in schools through a reliance on the canonical poetry of writers such as Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Their shared background and interest in outreach work, building bridges between schools and universities, led to the development of this project, working with teachers of history and English to see what material they deliver and how they deliver it.

“We wanted to see how a major historical moment was being taught in the present, and what that meant for the future in terms of understanding the construction of memory of the war, 100 years after the event,” explains Dr Pennell.

“It’s a contemporary issue, there are misperceptions about how the war is taught, but no-one’s bothered to ask teachers themselves in a sustained and methodologically focused way, and that’s what we wanted to try and do - give teachers a voice, but in a rigorous and research-based way.”

Such a broad topic required a carefully plotted exploratory project, which Pennell describes as “simply dipping our toes in the water”. Across nine months, the team conducted a national survey of the way World War One is taught in secondary schools and further education in England, allowing for coherence in looking at the same curriculum. They also organised two workshops as well as three regional focus groups, in Exeter, Newcastle and London.

WW1 in the Classroom Symposium, February 2013.

Simon Kinder from Gresham’s School in Norfolk, then the head of history but now deputy head, was involved from the outset as the school thought it was important for them to maintain and improve their teaching in the subject.

“We definitely wanted to look at the First World War again as an institution,” he explains. “Our school lost 108 pupils and three members of staff in the First World War, and we wanted to make sure this was an opportunity to look at it afresh.”

“I was struck by responses to the question ‘What topics do you teach?’” says Pennell. “The top three answers were the trenches, the origins and causes of the war, and the Western Front. I am a historian and concerned about that, because it suggests quite a limited view. Where is the war in Africa or the Ottoman Empire? Origins and causes are important, and I understand why that’s popular - it’s key to understand causation as a historical process, and the outbreak of the First World War is a neat topic and an important one. But I think I’d have liked to see more diversity within the curriculum.”

What is particularly interesting for Pennell, though, was that teachers agreed with her, and said that they wanted to teach more diverse elements relating to the war.

“They felt frustrated by the limitations of what’s on offer to teach, but they have to teach it because when it comes down to exams, if they haven’t taught it, their students are going to be disadvantaged and their league tables are going to suffer,” she says.

Pennell is hugely complimentary of the teachers she worked with during the project.

“We found a huge degree of dedication from our participants,” she says. “Of course, they were self-selecting - it’s unlikely that a teacher who is not passionate about World War One would bother to take part – but they had a commitment to this subject which meant they engaged with the subject in the classroom and in their leisure time, on trips and reading. They’re constantly thinking about the best ways to teach it.”

Those assertions that teachers are happy to show television sitcoms and present them as factual accounts of the war are completely false, according to Pennell.

“Something like Blackadder Goes Forth is used as a window into deeper, more critical discussions, not evidence,” she says. “Unguided viewing of television programmes in the classroom would get you an Ofsted failure immediately. Teachers know how to use material.”

Schools are also gathering and interrogating their own material now as a teaching and learning experience, leading directly from the project.

“We’ve now set up a database which is running between 2014 and 2018, with students doing the research,” says Kinder. “They’re going to put together a historical database of all our pupils that fought and use that as a community resource as well. That’s a direct result of our involvement in this; the final product will become part of our classroom teaching of the First World War.”

Pennell is realistic enough to know that this is the first stage of what could be much more detailed research, but wants the report to act as a call to action, encouraging exam boards and schools to broaden their horizons.

“If exam boards could diversify their specifications, the teachers will teach that, and students will benefit,” she says. “And secondary education would really benefit from increased interdisciplinary work. English teachers would benefit from liaising with history departments to do cross-curricular work, enabling poems to be given historical context, and allowing the poems to be used as historical sources. It would allow the poetry to be contextualised and allow history to be illuminated by first-hand experience.”

Kinder for one hopes the project continues and develops further, allowing for dialogue between schools and encouraging further input from the academy.

“The joy of this for me was how the process went on,” he admits. “It’s been one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever been involved in.”

For further information, please go to the WW1 in the Classroom website.

Article by Carrie Dunn

All photos courtesy of Kevin Murphy Photography.

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