Revamping the approach to teaching history

Jeena Sarah Jacob

When I was a college student in the University of Delhi, going back home for the term breaks often meant a three-day train journey. Train journeys, especially those which were long, often ended with co-travellers chatting so much that by the time you disembarked they would know most of your personal and professional details. Often, when I mentioned that I was a student of history I was faced with one of the following reactions. There were quizzical looks. Why go all the way to Delhi to study history? Won’t you learn ‘where Akbar planted trees’ the same in Kerala? You must be preparing for the civil services, why else would anyone willingly study history? But most often I would hear people telling me that they too were interested in history, but that interest developed after they left school, because history in school was just so boring.

I sympathized with this last group of people because while I always enjoyed history, there were many glassy eyes in my own school cohort. I always enjoyed the subject because I had teachers who made it enjoyable for me. This was what motivated me to try and teach history in school. The school classroom provides us with our first introduction to the discipline of history. For many, it is the make-or-break space which determines their relationship with the subject. It can be argued that this is the case for any subject, but the difference is that for those who do not like math or science it is more often because it is hard, for history, it’s because it is boring.

What makes history so boring? The fixation on identifying the correct chronology of dynasties and dates of battles has given the teaching of the discipline a bad name. History is considered boring because it requires learning by rote. The question that educators and academics in the field have been trying to address in discussions around framing textbooks and pedagogical methods for the subject is how the subject can shake off this reputation.

According to the National Curriculum Framework, 2005 on which the NCERT textbooks we taught from were based, the idea was to link the subject to everyday life. The move from dynastic histories to theme-based studies of history was a welcome change. From the middle school itself, the idea that history isn’t just the story of rulers and dynasties and that it was a far broader discipline which talked of the histories of people, cities, sports, and even clothes was introduced. The source boxes with primary material was intended to pique the interest of students, and for the ones truly interested in the subject, it did. The foreword to all the history books from classes 6 to 12 talk about the need for students to engage in the content and then use their imagination and challenge the material in innovative ways. The intention was to provide creative liberty to take away from the boredom of the classroom in terms of both the teaching and evaluation process. This meant that the textbook would not be the only basis for examination. This objective of the committee that framed the textbook to create something that sparked interest and excitement and encouraged engagement with the topics in innovative ways was lost to the fact that the CBSE exams focussed on testing the student’s knowledge of the text.

This dependence on the text was also reflected in the kind of workshops that were conducted by the CBSE for teachers of the discipline. At one teacher-training session, one of the facilitators was trying to engage the cohort in various activities which could be used in the classroom to enrich the class. This included a story-telling activity, discussions on the primary sources, etc. However, the majority of the teachers there were only concerned about how to transact the content of the textbook in the classroom. The other facilitator was also focused on this aspect and took an extra session to mark out which paragraphs from the textbook must be focussed on because questions would often come from those sections. This too is understandable as most teachers, who do not receive adequate support from their institutions, are forced to focus on the textbook and leave it at that. And since all schools are now looking to advertise how many students got 100 marks in the exams, this becomes a target for teachers to achieve.

Student engagement proved to be a challenge for schools which wanted to adopt a broader approach to the subject and for teachers who looked to bring more to the classroom. Day trips to monuments and museums allowed teachers to reinforce the lessons while challenging students to imagine what the space would have been like back in time. In the classroom, activities like role-playing work well in the middle school classes, while for the senior students, something like a Four Corners debate engaged the class. It allowed for discussion between the students, each making the case for why they chose the position that they did. The limits to innovation in classroom engagement were put to test during the phase of online teaching during COVID. It was at this time that schools tried to push the boundaries of how they imagined teaching, but it also became competitive. Each school wanted to show that it was better than others at adopting tools that are available online to make their classes more engaging. Some of the options on the Zoom platform itself were quite useful. Polls were popular tools for exit and entry sessions. Padlet allowed for guided discussions during breakout group sessions. The use of the Quizlet app allowed me to have a very spirited quiz session with my class on the Constitution of the country.

These activities and others were used extensively by my colleague and myself to perk up our home-bound students. From my colleagues I heard that the middle school students responded rather favourably to the use of these apps. However when I took feedback from my class about their feelings towards the apps, they were unimpressed. One student even told me, “You’re entertaining on your own, you don’t need these gimmicks.” To some of the class 12 students, these felt like a waste of time, because they wanted to focus on the content of the textbook, ensuring that they remembered every line, word and meaning so that they could replicate it in an answer during the final exams. To others these activities felt juvenile and added nothing of value to their class experience. And here both problems came full circle.

The pandemic also saw the syllabus being reduced to support the students who would find the course difficult to navigate on their own and teachers who had to navigate a whole new world of online instruction. The choice in the chapters reduced at the time were, I felt, indicative of what was to come in terms of curriculum change on a broader level. This suspicion was confirmed when after the announcement of NEP in 2020, a decision was made to cut out some chapters from the current textbooks. Keeping in mind that the aim of NEP is to reduce the burden on the student and provide them with the opportunity for experiential learning, the rationale behind the exclusion of certain chapters has also been provided. The reasons include, similar content in previous classes, overlap with content in the same class, difficulty, easy external access to information that doesn’t require the intervention of a teacher and finally, content which is irrelevant to a current context.

Based on this rationale, three chapters have been removed from the class 12 history textbooks. All the chapters in book one, which deal with Ancient Indian History have been maintained as is. Books two and three focus on themes from Medieval and Modern Indian History respectively. The chapter titled ‘Kings and Chronicles; the Mughal Courts (c. Sixteen-Seventeenth Centuries)’ from book two and two chapters, ‘Colonial Cities; Urbanisation, Planning and Architecture’ and ‘Understanding Partition; (Politics, Memories, Experiences)’ from book three have been removed. The removal of these particular chapters, to my mind, is not congruous with the stated rationale. The chosen chapters silence certain key aspects of history that students must know about.

Let’s take the chapter on the Partition. It may be argued that there is a similar chapter in the Indian politics textbook in class 12. However, the approach of both of these books is different. That is because of the methodological differences in the approach to the subjects by the experts who write them. The objective of the history chapter on the Partition is to introduce the students to the use of oral history as a source of history. This method would be used along with other sources in order to reconstruct the experiences of people that would have otherwise not been recorded. In the political science chapter the aim is to analyze the Partition and its aftermath in the context of how it played a role in the way decisions on nation building were affected.

The aim of teaching the students these lessons is not only to inform them about what took place, but to also introduce them to the methodology employed in these subjects so that they can make informed decisions about their future studies or use these methods in their chosen fields. It must also be kept in mind that a student who does history need not do political science. The way to implement the NEP 2020 should not be by striking out chapters. The variety of methodological approaches and the breadth of topics must be maintained and careful consideration must be made while restructuring the content of the textbooks to ensure a fair and balanced representation of history.

In fact, this must be the change that should be brought about in the teaching of history in schools to keep it from becoming boring. Engage the students with the content that inspire the writing of a chapter and involve them in the process of how historians arrive at their conclusions. This will allow the students to think laterally as well. It will remove the burden of remembering facts and rather push the student to think more about how the past is unearthed. It would also equip them to think of how data can be collected, organized and how it can be analyzed. This is a skill that will serve them well in multiple fields. Along with this changes must be brought about in the method of examination where the questions do not demand a verbatim parroting of the textbook. Middle school students who encounter history for the first time must be introduced to the method of studying the subject through examples that they can access from their own lives. They can be introduced to the idea of material remains by just discussing something that is considered an heirloom. The fact that they can choose anything from a pot to a piano will open up their understanding of how objects, both mundane and rare can be used as sources of historical knowledge. None of these ideas is revolutionary or new, the discussions on pedagogical practices have always highlighted these requirements.

Students come to a class with the expectation of it being enjoyable and enriching. Teachers with whom I have shared the honour of teaching and the pleasure of interacting with, go beyond the call of duty to ensure that the need of each of their students is taken care of. However, they are also stymied by systems which are the product of the times and of expectations. Students need to get 100 marks in their subject, the schools and parents demand it. The exam patterns have set students and teachers in a rut. We have bright young minds, with so much potential coming to our classrooms, sometimes just a change in the direction of what is being done is all the change that needs to be made to make boring old history enjoyable, relatable and relevant.

The author is a former school teacher and is currently teaching at St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. She can be reached at

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