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History teaching in Spain


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#1 Juan Carlos Ocaña

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Posted 07 June 2003 - 07:50 AM

Teaching History in Spain

Secondary education in Spain is split up in two: Compulsory secondary education (Educación Secundaria Obligatoria - ESO) (12-16 years old) and Upper Secondary Education (Bachillerato) (17-18 years old). After passing a Bachillerato examination, students can go on studying at the university.

To be a secondary education teacher in the last two courses of the compulsory education and in the upper one, one needs to have a degree at the university. For example, in history, you have to study at university for five years.

The student teacher also has to study one year of “teacher training” (pedagogy). There are now some plans for enhancing these pedagogical aspects and to include this approach all the time the student remains at the university. Currently, this one year “pedagogical” course is studied after studying history, biology or whatever for five years.

History and Geography are united in a same subject at ESO. In Bachillerato you have different subjects that can be taught by a History and Geography Teacher: World Late Modern History, Spain’s History, History of Art and Geography. Normally, ESO students receive 3 hours of History or Geography. The different subjects in Bachillerato are taught 4 hours a week.

A secondary education teacher has to teach about 18-17 hours a week. Heads of Department, as in my case, have to teach about 16 hours a week. Unfortunately, the salary gap between an ordinary teacher and a head of department is far narrower in Spain than in Britain.

There are some annual leaves to do different sort of educational pieces of research (pedagogy, using ICT, improving foreign language teaching, etc.) Teachers have to apply for sabbatical years and quite a few get them. In my case, this year I am off school setting up an online course about “International Relations over the 20th century”. Although it will be in Spanish, when I upload it online, I would like you to give me your opinion about it.

The average class in the ESO is about 30 students. Normally in Bachillerato there are fewer students in each class. Last year I had two classes of 14 students. We have the lowest birth rate in the world and so there will be fewer Spaniards in the future.

In the early 90s, the Socialist government passed a new educational law that introduced very advanced teaching methods: using primary sources, teaching the students the way how historians work, promoting research activities, active learning, mixing up history and social sciences, teaching focused on topics instead of a chronological approach… and so on.

Nowadays, there is a sort of backlash, supported by a lot of teachers, trying to foster a more traditional method of teaching in the sense of coming back to a chronological way of organising the subjects or highlighting the specific features of history.

Broadly speaking, a Spanish teacher is very free in his teaching work and government inspection is almost nonexistent. To be inspected by the educational authorities, it is necessary that a teacher uses very controversial methods, holds extreme views (racist, homophobic…) or do not perform well in the classroom.

Spanish youngsters tend to behave in a less disciplined way than other European students. And, at the same time, teachers and students relationships tend to be more casual and less formal.

Although there is a common framework all over Spain, regional governments have a lot of control over educational matters. Curricula can slightly vary. For instance, nationalist regional governments in Catalonia and Basque country try to promote a nationalist conception of history, which, sometimes, is as ridiculous as the Spanish nationalist history that older generations learnt under Franco’s dictatorship. This sort of approach brings about a lot of debate, of course.

#2 Andrew Field

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Posted 07 June 2003 - 10:02 AM

This is really interesting to read - thank you. Some things sounds marvellous and, as is often the case, some things not as marvellous.

Firstly the online course you are preparing sounds really interesting. I'm sure everyone here would be more than glad to assist in anyway we can, both in a technological and (positive) critical way. You say that it will be in Spanish, but it would be marvellous to explore the possibilities to provide it in English too. I'm sure whoever is funding the enterprise would be able to identify the potential benefits from its use in Britain, and by far and away the largest market, the USA.

I think we should have a similar scheme here in Britain - with a year off I'm certain we could produce some excellent materials.

Life with limited inspection sounds wonderful. From your and your colleagues' perspective how do you view the repeated inspections that those in Britain 'enjoy'?

It is excellent to get information on how history is taught outside Britain. From my own personal viewpoint I would be very interested to know more. For example which topics do most teachers do cover - and are there any topics that deliberately avoided?


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#3 Dan Lyndon

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Posted 07 June 2003 - 02:08 PM

In the early 90s, the Socialist government passed a new educational law that introduced very advanced teaching methods: using primary sources, teaching the students the way how historians work, promoting research activities, active learning, mixing up history and social sciences, teaching focused on topics instead of a chronological approach… and so on.

I think that many of us would be very interested if you could share some examples of the areas that you mentioned above. After all these are transferable skills which all of us could make use of. Of course you may need to translate the sources, for example (my Spanish is not so good, and French O Level can only get you so far) but the way in which you teach these skills may be slightly different from the way in which teachers in the UK do.
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#4 John Simkin

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Posted 10 June 2003 - 10:10 AM

In the early 90s, the Socialist government passed a new educational law that introduced very advanced teaching methods: using primary sources, teaching the students the way how historians work, promoting research activities, active learning, mixing up history and social sciences, teaching focused on topics instead of a chronological approach… and so on.

Nowadays, there is a sort of backlash, supported by a lot of teachers, trying to foster a more traditional method of teaching in the sense of coming back to a chronological way of organising the subjects or highlighting the specific features of history.

Juan Carlos raises several important issues that I intend to reply to over the next few days. In this posting I want to consider the links between governments and history teaching methods.

I suspect there was a close link between the radicalisation in teaching methods and the demise of fascism in Spain. For example, I doubt very much if Franco would have encouraged active learning and using primary sources to study the Spanish Civil War.

The use of primary sources and the emphasis on the need to interpret the past was very much a grassroots revolution in Britain. However, it came about during a period when a Labour government had introduced other reforms that encouraged teachers to rethink what they should be doing in the classroom. For many years history teachers were reluctant to adopt what became known as the “New History”. However, I know from the sales of the early Tressell books, there was a significant number of history teachers who were fully committed to the “New History” and heads of department were willing to spend a large percentage of their capitation on these materials. These teachers also taught with SHP materials, although large numbers were critical of its attempts to concentrate on perceived non-controversial topics.

The real breakthrough came with the introduction of GCSE. As a result of this examination system the “New History” became the dominant ideology in the classroom. This upset the powers that be and convinced Margaret Thatcher, amongst others, that the New History had to go. This subject is explored in Robert Phillips’ book, History Teaching, Nationhood and the State (1998) and his article, Government Policies, the State and the Teaching of History (2000). Phillips quotes an article by Martin Kettle in the Guardian that was published on 4th January, 1990. Kettle writes: “If the Prime Minister can change the way we are taught history, she will have succeeded in changing the ground rules for a generation to come. It is a big prize.”

The story of how Thatcher lost that battle is covered by Phillips in his book. During this period I was a member of an advisory group that represented the publishing industry in this debate on National Curriculum History. I was able to observe at close quarters what went on. We owe a great deal of thanks to people like Roger Hennessey, Chris Culpin, Tim Lomas and Nick Tate in defeating Thatcher’s attempt to remove the “New History” from the National Curriculum. We also need to acknowledge the role played by the classroom teacher who complained in their thousands about the original proposals put forward by the committee led by Commander Michael Saunders-Watson. Thatcher must still be asking herself how she lost this battle. After all she got Kenneth Baker to handpick a committee that was made up of opponents of the New History.

Juan Carlos states that these progressive methods has resulted in a blacklash from conservative forces within Spain. Yet in Britain, after 24 years of reactionary government, the New History is still firmly in place. However, it has been severely undermined over recent years by the emphasis being placed on assessment. There is no doubt that traditional history was easier to assess. I remember this was a common complaint about the teaching of empathy. However, as we argued at the time, the difficultly of assessment, is not a valid argument against teaching something that is considered to be of value.

#5 Juan Carlos Ocaña

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Posted 10 June 2003 - 12:05 PM

Firstly the online course you are preparing sounds really interesting. I'm sure everyone here would be more than glad to assist in anyway we can, both in a technological and (positive) critical way. You say that it will be in Spanish, but it would be marvellous to explore the possibilities to provide it in English too. I'm sure whoever is funding the enterprise would be able to identify the potential benefits from its use in Britain, and by far and away the largest market, the USA.


My sabbatical year is coming to an end and I have the strange feeling that I should have focused my work on other direction. The point is that there are not too many websites suitable for higher secondary education or undergrate students, so we have to create contents, texts... to be available on line. It takes a great deal of time. John Simkin's Spartacus is a good to example to follow.
What I would like to do in the future is to create didactic activities to be carried on line: Webquests, quizzes, all sort of interactive activities...
There a lot of teachers involved in this forum that have set up some fine examples of these sort of activities.
You can have a glance at my web site on Historiasiglo20 (20th century history) and on the web on History of International Relations during the 20th century

Juan Carlos raises several important issues that I intend to reply to over the next few days. In this posting I want to consider the links between governments and history teaching methods.


All along the last decades of the past century teaching methods were one of the most important battle fields between conservative and progresist stances all over Europe. In my opinion, progresist approach has won the battle. The failure of Ms. Thatcher's attempt is an example of a balance of power that, as far as I know, exists all around Western Europe. You may be surprised by the fact that the last educational law of Franco's dictatorship was quite progresist as regards teaching methods. So massive had been the victory of new teaching methods all over Europe! I am sure that it has to do with changes introduced in Britain during Harold Wilson's government.
...However, I have to accept that I am quite perplexed. In my opinion, view that maybe should only be applied to Spain, both left wing parties and unions have a rather "conservative" position as far as education and teaching methods are concerned. Most of their leaders are thinking about youngsters and problems from 30 years ago. Those youngsters are now quite mature and those problems sometimes have not to do with current reality.

Finally, I think that this sort of seminar should try to bring about a broad exchange of information about teachers work condition and teaching history in the different European countries. In this sense, I have just received a post from a French teacher, François Jarraud who runs an excellent web site "Le Café Pédagogique" and who is trying to carry out a research titled "How live Teachers in Europe today?".
Probably it would be interesting that this forum and that web site could be complementary so that we all have a clearer idea about our profession in Europe. I am sure it will be very positive for everybody.

#6 Nico Zijlstra

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Posted 10 June 2003 - 05:42 PM

Juan Carlos has an interesting point here:

A secondary education teacher has to teach about 18-17 hours a week. Heads of Department, as in my case, have to teach about 16 hours a week.

If new didactics hould be introduced into the classroom, teachers should have time to work on new materials and aquire new teaching methods.
In the Netherlands teachers normally teach between 25 to 26 hours a week. Including preparations of lessons, marking tests and normal extra curricular activities, there is too little time left for teachers to devise new teaching methods like e-learning.
I would suggest that governments should be made aware of the importance to introduce reformes and the need for teachers to have time to create new teaching materials.

#7 John Simkin

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Posted 18 June 2003 - 05:28 AM

Normally, ESO students receive 3 hours of History or Geography. The different subjects in Bachillerato are taught 4 hours a week.

A secondary education teacher has to teach about 18-17 hours a week.

The description of history teaching in Spain raises issues about what goes on in Britain. As several people have pointed out on the History Forum over the last couple of weeks, in many schools, students only get an hour a week of history between the ages of 11-14. After that only a minority get any history teaching at all. At primary level the situation depends very much on the school. However, in many schools students receive very little history. Politicians like Charles Clarke, who criticise history teachers for not teaching certain topics, seem to be unaware of this. Clarke also appears to be unaware of why some topics like the Second World War are sometimes repeated. When the National Curriculum was originally drawn up it was done so on the assumption that it would be taught to all students throughout their school life. By making history optional at certain stages has completely undermined the attempts to provide a logical history curriculum.

Politicians response to this complaint is to suggest that we make the school day longer. However, I personally think that the student spends far too long in the classroom. The 17-18 hour week in Spain seems far more sensible. Currently the student finds it extremely difficult to cope with such a long day. It is interesting that we would not expect a university student to be able to cope with so many hours of teaching.

Nor can teachers cope with this situation. They desperately need more time to prepare their lessons and to mark their students work. This time will only be found if the time spent in the classroom is dramatically reduced.

#8 Richard Jones-Nerzic

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Posted 18 June 2003 - 10:50 AM

Politicians response to this complaint is to suggest that we make the school day longer. However, I personally think that the student spends far too long in the classroom. The 17-18 hour week in Spain seems far more sensible. Currently the student finds it extremely difficult to cope with such a long day.

The 17-18 hour week that Juan Carlos refers to is teachers contact time, not, I suspect, the length of the school day in Spain. Teachers in France work similar hours (or less) but the school day (even allowing for 2 hours at lunch) is longer than that in the UK. I teach in an International School that follows the English school day but French holidays (15 weeks not including bank holidays) and am amazed when I get home in the early evening to see very young children being met by their parents at 5 or 6 o'clock.

For me the central problem of the English education system is the number of classes a teacher has and the lack of preparation time and marking time that results. I suspect that Spanish teachers are paid less than their English colleagues, this is certainly true of French teachers who I would say earn about 20% less. But then there are the benefits of being civil servants. How much can a Spanish classroom teacher expect to start on and what is the maximum they hope to earn without taking on additional responsibilities?

I have two other questions. How does the teacher training year work in Spain? I have friends who teach in Spain and who trained in the early 90s. From my observation, the practical preparation for being a teacher was less intensive than in the UK. Most of their time was spent preparing for an examination which my friend described as being 'not unlike the Eurovision Song Contest'. Perhaps things have changes since? When I trained I did about 12-14 weeks of teaching practice and the rest of the time was spent in college. This has changed in the UK in the last 10 years and I now suspect students do not get much time for reflection or theoretical study.

My second question concerns the nature of school examinations in history. Take students at the end of ESO for example. Are there exams? Are the exams nationally organised? Does the teacher have a choice of syllabus? Are the textbooks 'approved'? What skills are assessed? Could you put an example of a page or two form an exam paper on your website with perhaps a brief explanation? Sorry this last point is a bit cheeky but I would be really fascinated to see it! :D
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#9 Juan Carlos Ocaña

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Posted 18 June 2003 - 10:58 AM

I agree that students spend a lot of time at school everywhere. In Spain, students attend at 30 one-hour lessons a week, and besides they do it following "Spanish timetable": from 8:30 up to 14:20 and then having lunch at home.
Teachers teach about 17-18 hours a week, which I consider to be a reasonable amount of time.
The main point is how many hours of history teaching they received all over the time they spend at school. I can hardly imagine how you, British history teachers, are able to help your students to get some valuable History knowledge with so few hours of History teaching.
There have been some interesting research here in Spain on what history do students know after Secondary education. The results highlighted that their ideas or opinions are more influenced by TV or movies rather than school lessons.
... Forget teaching Ancient Rome and make them watch "Gladiator"!

#10 Juan Carlos Ocaña

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Posted 20 June 2003 - 06:53 AM

How much can a Spanish classroom teacher expect to start on and what is the maximum they hope to earn without taking on additional responsibilities?


I cannot tell by sure, but I think that a novel teacher would earn about 25.000 € and the maximum without taking on additional responsabilities about 35000 €. Far less thant the British ones.
There was recently in Eurostat a research on that question using PPP data. And I remember that, taking into account the cost of life and focusing on "big" countries, British and German were the best paid and our Italian colleagues were the worst paid. Shame on you Mr. Berlusconi!

How does the teacher training year work in Spain?


This is one of the main problems of teaching in Spain, indeed. Twenty years ago, when I finished my degree (five years), future teachers studied their History degree, specialised in Ancient, Middle Age, Modern... History, and had a couple of weeks of real training at a school! Things have been changing last years. And the last project that is about to be passed in the Parliament, increase the teacher training time.

Take students at the end of ESO for example. Are there exams? Are the exams nationally organised? Does the teacher have a choice of syllabus? Are the textbooks 'approved'? What skills are assessed? Could you put an example of a page or two form an exam paper on your website with perhaps a brief explanation?


Uff! A new general secondary education law just passed by the incumbent government lays down a general national exam will be sit by all students after finishing not ESO (Compulsory Secondary Education - 15-16 years old), but Bachillerato (Upper Secondary Education 17-18 years old)
.... I will try to answer next questions in a later post. B)

#11 Juan Carlos Ocaña

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Posted 20 June 2003 - 08:59 AM

Does the teacher have a choice of syllabus? Are the textbooks 'approved'? What skills are assessed?

Quite a complicated question in Spain: Syllabus are approved by Spanish government, although Regional governments can decide on a part of it that ranges from 45-35% (Autonomies with its own language: Galicia, Basque Country, Catalonia, Valencia and Balearic Islands 45%) History is the most important subject from a nationalist point of view!
Syllabus in Compulsory Secondary Education (12-16 years old) are rather flexible and teachers can introduce some modifications. It is not the case in Upper Secondary Education as students will have to sit an examen based on official syllabus to enter the University.
Textbooks should be approved by educational authorities, but it is necessary to say that you can find a broad range of high-quality textbooks now in Spain.
Evaluation criteria focused on:
Concepts: writing an essay, defining a concept, comparing historical processes...
Practical skills (Procedimientos in Spanish, I am not sure about the right word in English): reading, analysing and commenting texts, maps, images, films, graphics, statistics...
Finally, it would be a good idea to open in the forum a section on examens, I could send the last History examen that Madrid students sit to enter University.

#12 mikel

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Posted 11 August 2003 - 10:31 AM

The university entrance examination Juan Carlos mentions, the Selectividad, is awful! Out of all the topics covered during the two years of the history course, the examiner chooses just 4 questions of which the student much select 2. He/she has about 40 minutes to write an essay on each of his choices. As you can imagine, this is a complete lottery and many teachers spend hours poring over old Selectividad papers trying to spot this year´s questions....
As far as the use of original sources etc is concerned, there is really very little time available for this. The syllabus is quite extensive and you have to cover it all because of the nature of the exam. This means topic work and work with original sources comes second to covering the material. I think this is a case of government educational policy being rather negated by the demands of the examination students are require to teach -- a bit like the squeeze that´s been put on "fringe" subjects by the demands of SAT exams in English, Maths and Science.
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