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1As conceived by the French Department of Education, the role of history and geography teachers consists of three elements: a duty to pass on knowledge and expertise, a duty to support students in their intellectual and civic development, and a duty to give each student the means to make the best possible decisions about the future. These responsibilities can be summed up as instruction, education, and guidance and integration. To succeed in this worthwhile and challenging task, the teacher may rely on the two cornerstones of knowledge and pedagogy. We can see this approach in a report issued by the inspectorate of the Grenoble school district, dated 2010.


To be able to fulfill the task entrusted to them—to teach, to contribute to the education and the social and professional integration of the students placed in their care—teachers must have undergone training and gained the skills specific to each of the three aspects of their role. However, the full acquisition of such complex and diverse skills takes time and must extend over a whole career, gradually encouraging the development of a personal teaching style. With such a goal in mind, teachers should be aware that the kind of tasks they are assigned may vary over their working life in accordance with the requirements of the system. For example, they may be asked to contribute to adult continuing education, to teacher training, to adaptation and integration programs, or to work/study courses.
Teachers’ initial training should have a dual purpose. It should guide future teachers toward an understanding of their responsibilities by helping them gain an overview of the profession as a whole, but it should also give them the motivation and the ability to pursue their own continuing professional education. This will enable them to follow developments in both the education system and their particular discipline, while at the same time adapting their actions to the very diverse group of students for whom they will be responsible during their careers.[1]

3It is interesting to note that, while training is presented as an essential factor in teachers’ adaptability and success in the numerous and shifting roles encountered over a typical career, the emphasis is placed above all on their initial training. According to this passage, this is a matter of giving young teachers the means to continuously educate and train themselves so that they will be able to closely follow official policy and apply new scientific and epistemological developments. In order to provide young teachers with the best preparation, regional boards of education tend to target their budgets (which obviously vary according to school district) toward initial teacher training. But beyond the understandable desire to facilitate new teachers’ entry into the profession, might we not also see this policy as a way to relieve some of the financial burden of continuing professional education, which is often more expensive and complicated to put in place? The provision of continuing professional education nevertheless remains a key issue for the teaching of history in secondary schools.

4Tracing the evolution of continuing professional education reveals an interlacing of practical considerations (the drive to make employees more effective), ideological orientations (the place of continuing education within the world of work as a central principle of popular education), and often drastic budgetary decisions (as less and less funding is made available). Between 1945 and 1970, a period marked by strong economic growth and significant recruitment in the public sector, the continuing professional education of public servants was almost exclusively limited to preparation for exams and competitive recruitment programs (concours). The end of postwar prosperity did not directly result in a public commitment to continuing professional education. The law of July 16, 1971 (no. 71-575) imposed new financial obligations on public-sector companies (calculated as a percentage of the total payroll), with the aim of encouraging personal development and social mobility. Continuing professional education was no longer aimed solely at preparing employees for new technological developments and changing working conditions. While this law was also intended to apply to public servants (Section VII: “Provisions relating to employees of national and regional government”), the institutional recognition of state employees’ right to continuing education was more specifically established by the law of July 13, 1983, which concerned their rights and obligations, and by the decree of June 14, 1985. This last piece of legislation divided continuing professional education into three main types: that organized by the administration itself, that devoted to preparing for exams and competitive recruitment programs, and finally that chosen by public servants for their own personal development. It was specifically this third strand that established the right of all teachers to receive the best possible support in their duties and, by association, in keeping their knowledge and expertise up to date. [2]

5In the French secondary education system, history and geography teachers are employed in middle schools (collèges), high schools (lycées), and vocational high schools (lycées techniques); they can find themselves before young people ranging from sixth to twelfth graders—in other words, from ten to twenty years old. They teach these students scientific methods and knowledge, the key historical reference points tested on the exams sat at sixteen (the diplôme national du brevet), the concepts drawn from academic research on which eighteen-year-olds must write essays for their baccalauréat, as well as a wide range of factual knowledge promoting the critical study of texts. All this knowledge and expertise is broadened and deepened in lessons, developed according to a spiral structure (with periodic reviews of key concepts consolidating knowledge in layers) so that concepts and ideas are taught gradually and progressively over the course of a single year or a whole enrollment period. To achieve this, official directives such as curricula and educational support strongly encourage teachers to keep their historical knowledge up to date, particularly via the detailed work surrounding the curriculum and the many resource sheets available on the Éduscol website. [3] Bibliographical aides, practical worksheets, and web portals run by school districts are all useful resources on which teachers can draw in order to better teach the ambitious curriculum, which is marked by a desire to maintain as close a relationship with research as possible. [4] Similarly, many of the provisions made by national and regional education and teaching inspectorates (inspecteurs généraux de l’Éducation nationale, IGEN; inspecteurs pédagogiques régionaux, IPR) serve as a reminder of the vital links between research and secondary education. Visits, internships, and training days all offer advice and guidance directed toward these goals.

6All these measures are designed to meet the challenge of making history a discipline that is both rigorous and abreast with developments in research. As the middle- and high-school curricula demonstrate, the knowledge imparted in history lessons is current and takes the latest academic approaches into account, even if the transposition of these approaches into the classroom is not always easy to accomplish. In order to make this ambition a reality in schools, teachers are regularly reminded that continuous independent learning—in other words, keeping up with research methods and outcomes—is part of their general job description. To acquire all the necessary information, they must constantly seek out, read about, and engage with the latest developments in academic history. However, day-today pressures, the difficulties inherent to teaching, and the demanding nature of the curriculum make this an uphill task. Moreover, individual study does not always guarantee that the information acquired is the most relevant. This is why the role of independent learning, which is vital but in reality yields varied results, should not be used as an excuse to cut back on institutional provision for continuing professional education. For most teachers, the latter remains an essential cornerstone of their professional development and expectations are high.

7The continuing professional education of secondary-level teachers was guided by the schools inspection board until 1982, when projects for the continuing professional development of national education staff were implemented at the level of school districts (Missions académiques de formation des personnels de l’Éducation nationale, MAFPEN), each of them a flexible structure with an academic at its helm. This initiative brought together the different bodies involved in training: the technical groups that would provide each school district’s training program (Plan académique de formation, PAF), the regional bodies that would provide training for a group of schools, and the research groups that would establish links with universities. After an adjustment period, the MAFPEN scheme was generally well received and provided support for the dramatic development of secondary education. However, some of the targets specified at the scheme’s outset were not met. It did not always succeed in tightening the bonds between initial teacher training and continuing professional education, and the commitment of university staff (already rather limited in the early stages) faded over time, both in terms of developing the PAFs and when it came to delivering continuing education courses. In 1998, the MAFPEN scheme was integrated into university-based teacher training institutes (Instituts universitaires de formation des maîtres, IUFMs). While institutional frameworks come and go, evolve, merge, and change their titles, everyday realities still apply on the ground and teachers rightly continue to have many expectations in terms of training.

8For teachers to be able to manipulate the knowledge they convey, and to avoid reducing their role to a simple operation of filtering information into young minds, it is crucial that what they teach be supported by an exacting and rigorous knowledge of the discipline, its historiography, and its debates. It is particularly unfortunate that, beyond keeping knowledge up to date and passing it on through teaching, the current links between research and secondary education are marked by a rather static vision of the interaction between the production and the dissemination of historical knowledge. There is a clear paradox in applying ever-increasing pressure to incorporate the findings of recent research into secondary-level curricula while allowing the gap between schoolteachers and university professors, between education and scientific research, to widen.

9What are the practical ways for a secondary-school teacher to maintain close links with research? Once a future teacher has completed a university degree in history and passed the competitive recruitment examinations, opportunities to encounter researchers in an official or institutional capacity are few and far between. To make this observation is not to complain that we have been abandoned, but simply to highlight this ambiguity in our profession. Teachers are there to pass on the methods, ideas, and words of people with whom they no longer spend enough time. If this plea to nourish our teaching and practice is nothing new, it offers an opportunity to remind ourselves what is at stake in the relationship between teaching and research, not only for middle- and high-school teachers but also for university researchers and lecturers. It is by preserving this link throughout the entirety of a working life that history teaching can retain the critical and intellectual ambition that makes it such a key feature of the French education system.

10The difficulties are multiple: daily time constraints (especially for younger colleagues, learning on the job on many levels and dealing with issues that have not always been addressed in their training); the lack of resources (in spite of lending libraries and digital resources, books do have a cost and funds awarded to history teachers are finite); not to mention the rather restrained use made of these resources in converting knowledge into teaching materials (which tends toward old-fashioned shortcuts and one-dimensional simplification). However, the central issue is the simple fact that not all teachers have equal access to research. With all due respect for the new middle- and high-school curricula, and even taking into account the good will and scientific rigor of our colleagues, we must acknowledge that references to research are rather haphazard. For the many teachers who no longer have a foothold in higher education (only a minority will be pursuing higher degrees or providing occasional teaching cover), the principal recourse continues to be the continuing professional education offered by each school district. Currently coordinated by school-district training bodies under the responsibility of the IPRs, this training can take different forms and varies greatly from one school district to another.

11The first piece of the scheme’s apparatus is the training plan, or PAF, published at the end of the school year. From mid-June onwards, secondary-school teachers have access to a range of subject-specific, cultural, and professional training programs. These might include courses on transferring skills, teaching difficult classes, setting up partnerships, or lesson planning in accordance with the new curricula. Despite their independent organization and variations in their titles, all school districts propose three main categories of course: purely subject-based courses that concentrate on one or more themes of the curriculum, aiming to update knowledge and problematize debates and usually designed for focused use in applying the curricula; “practical” courses addressing new teaching methods and particular challenges in classroom management, guidance, knowledge transmission, and evaluation; and “cultural awareness” courses with a focus on the arts and interdisciplinary projects. It is up to the teachers to make their selection and then, if they so choose, to enroll in late August or early September for three or four courses to which they have access depending on different criteria. Because these courses have a limited number of places, not all colleagues gain a place on their first choice, especially for the many widely enjoyed “cultural awareness” or “practical” courses.

12Moreover, in the school district of Créteil (Île-de-France), for example, a large proportion of the PAF is devoted to initial teacher training, to educational issues specific to the district, and to new requirements relating to core skills, sometimes poorly understood by teachers. In reality, the “noria effect” of the continuous overturn of teachers employed in the district makes it necessary to maintain numerous support systems for younger colleagues or those encountering problems. Considering these provisions and the courses set up by heads of institutions, Créteil provides a range of high-quality courses, but ultimately not all of the district’s three thousand history and geography teachers can derive a practical benefit from them.

13In this often impressive provision for initial and continuous training, the role of research, which should in theory play a large part, also varies according to the school district and the given year, depending on the commitments of the university staff involved and the funds allocated by the regional boards of education. The training on offer is often oriented toward supporting teachers in the implementation of new aspects of the curriculum. As a result, subject-specific PAF courses are more numerous in some school districts than in others, even though they provide an opportunity for stimulating exchanges between colleagues from the secondary-and higher-education sectors on how to transform knowledge into teaching at secondary-school level. When a new middle-school history curriculum was introduced in 2008, the training initiative had an invigorating effect in Créteil. The organized support of higher-education staff and the IPR was essential in helping teachers implement the new units on India under the Gupta Empire and medieval Africa, and all middle-school teachers were invited by catchment area to come and refresh their knowledge on these new topics. This kind of refresher course on subjects that are not widely covered in university programs would benefit from being repeated.

14Nevertheless, though these courses on aspects of the curriculum can be intellectually beneficial and conducive to the kind of individual learning that stimulates thought and informs teaching practice, they are no replacement for more general training in current research findings and methods. To teach history well, teachers need to follow epistemological developments within the discipline and ensure they have the means to keep up with recent publications. This should be a key goal of continuing professional education, responding to pedagogical problems and the heterogeneity of teaching staff. Furthermore, continuing professional education in historical research should not simply be a question of acquiring new knowledge, but should focus on new research methods and techniques—transposing these into the classroom is both a challenge and a tool. For a teacher to target courses more effectively toward students, he or she must have a sufficiently broad vision of the discipline, particularly the systems used to build scientific arguments, in order to grasp the issues at stake and to structure his or her own knowledge. This is an essential tool in satisfying the teacher’s passion for history, but also in retaining the students’ attention, stimulating their interest in the subject, and getting them to apply themselves to completing the agreed targets. Mastery of a subject is also the first element of a teacher’s authority, and can sometimes provide a way of overcoming problems encountered in difficult schools, where a solid and up-to-date training offers teachers a safety valve in the face of multiple pressures. In certain years some school districts, including Paris, have chosen to integrate general training into working hours (notably on Wednesday afternoons) in addition to the usual courses.

15Historical research evolves rapidly, a fact that is both reassuring and exciting, and the potential field open to the middle- or high-school history teacher is vast. As a result, our discipline is rich in new lines of research and methodological perspectives. Without limiting ourselves to themes suggested by political context or commemorative anniversaries (in terms of both curricula and practice, studies of the Great War and its many centennial celebrations have enabled this period to be taught from the perspective of the combatants’ experience), we need to constantly regenerate and question what we teach. To prevent a sort of structural stagnation in their teaching as their careers become longer and longer, it is essential that teachers keep abreast of developments in research, continue their epistemological reflections, and master advances in historiography. In spite of the willingness and hard work of the vast majority of history and geography teachers, it is a reality that a teacher’s knowledge and relationship to that knowledge can become outdated and distant over time. In the Créteil school district, requests for continuing professional education reach a peak when staff are aged between thirty and forty. At this stage in their career, teachers are still close to the spirit of their university education and continue to display the energy that will drive their own learning in both general and more specialized history. This dedication is less widespread after the age of forty, even though many years of teaching still lie ahead. Despite the efforts of the IGENs, the IPRs, and other training bodies to provide all teachers with opportunities to refresh their historical knowledge, there is no general scheme permitting regular exchanges between secondary-school teachers and university professors.

16Outside universities, there are few historians in the classroom. That is not where they belong, of course, but it is where, with enthusiasm and precision, we teach the results of their work. This articulation between secondary education and research has implications for how we conceive the teaching profession, as well as for historians and their discipline: over and above the ability to manipulate data, maintaining links with research assumes maintaining contact with the historical profession itself, lending middle- and high-school history a depth that goes beyond simply learning facts or remembering dates. Historians themselves should transmit their own version of history, their research, and the sometimes circuitous routes they have followed to secondary-school teachers, so that this transferal can be nourished by the historians’ practice, their slow, methodical progress, their new sources, even their doubts—in sum, their intellectual journey.

17There is also no better opportunity than this to remind ourselves and our students that history is continually under construction, that it is written, rewritten, and revised, that it is a discipline requiring scientific evidence, comparisons, source checking, traceability of references, and that its horizons are vast. It is in this way that we can highlight the complexity of historical knowledge and ensure that history remains an ongoing process of investigation rather than a fixed point in the minds of students. For historians, the past is not a set of facts carved in stone. Creating institutional links between researchers and secondary-school teachers would also provide an opportunity to break down barriers between Bourdieu’s “foot soldiers of the social realm” and the university community. Beyond the basic demands of our profession requiring us to follow the curriculum, we need to work on the content and epistemology of those programs with the very people who practice and write history. We would all benefit from a shared reflection on the most effective ways to communicate our discipline: how best to hand off the baton if not through dialogue and acknowledging each other’s skills? This would also provide a way for researchers to look toward the future of the knowledge that they construct, enabling them to keep a close eye on how their work is assimilated into society via the intermediary of secondary-school teachers.

18In this way, and without necessarily sticking to a sometimes restrictive periodization, one might envisage general training days with academics, who would present their latest research and thus renew our understanding of antiquity, the Middle Ages, the early modern period, or the modern era. Imagine a sort of personal training “account” that would span five years and allow each teacher to return regularly and periodically to university. Institutionalized interchanges like regular meetings would realistically take into account the constraints on a teacher’s time, and could even be incorporated into evaluation schemes (which would incentivize them without making them compulsory). In this context, graduate teacher-training institutes (Écoles supérieures du professorat et de l’éducation, ESPEs) could invite higher education staff to take on a bigger role in training the teaching community and emphasize the importance of academic knowledge as the bedrock of the knowledge conveyed in the classroom. While fully aware of the complex and costly provisions that such projects demand, I believe that teachers who for various reasons cannot attend events such as the annual Rendez-vous de l’histoire in Blois or audit open courses at universities should nevertheless have concrete opportunities for the training that would bring their teaching practices into line with research. This is the duty of our education system toward those who form the indispensable cogs in its machine. In order to achieve consistency in all our teaching and our practice, the links between research and secondary education should be developed and constantly tended, not just in theory and discourse but also in practice, and become more actively integrated into our long-term professional planning. This would be one way to keep the flame alive in our schools and in the teaching of our discipline through the intellectual development of the men and women of tomorrow.


  • [*]
    This article was translated by Joanna Stephens and edited by Hollyann Nelson, Chloe Morgan, and Stephen Sawyer.
  • [1]
    “Enseigner l’histoire-géographie et l’éducation civique. Principes généraux et conseils,” académie de Grenoble, Inspection pédagogique régionale d’histoire-géographie (2010), (my emphasis).
  • [2]
    Evaluation of the continuing professional education policy for primary and secondary teachers (covering the period 1998–2009), report no. 2010-111, October 2010.
  • [3]
    To help implement these new curricula, resources have been designed in the form of factsheets. In both disciplines the factsheets provide key information on various topics, concepts, and issues, taking into account sources relating to the history of the arts and proposing further bibliographic and online references.
  • [4]
    The portal is a dynamic example.

Academic research has a tremendous impact on the scientific and methodological quality of history teaching in secondary schools. Yet the bridges between higher and secondary education are not always sufficient to meet this challenge. To what extent can teachers’ continuing professional education make history teaching more consistent with the findings of historiographical research and debates?

Hayat El Kaaouachi
Collège-Lycée Henri-Wallon, Aubervilliers
Translated from the French by
Joanna Stephens
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 09/02/2017
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