Reviews and Views

The trouble with Cynefin

Today, the Culture Committee at the National Assembly published its report on the teaching of Welsh history in schools. This report is likely to do more damage, in the long run, I feel, to the credibility not of the new draft National Curriculum for Wales but of the Committee itself. It is not an objective or credible report, in my view, and has drawn on a very narrow and selective set of evidence to make recommendations which the evidence was not meaningfully able to support. I shall move to the main question of Cynefin in a moment, but to begin with I wish to draw attention to the evidence provided in oral testimony – now that the documentation is freely available, such matters can be properly discussed. Oral evidence was supplied to the Committee over two days, with one day set aside to consider carefully the question of BAME inclusion in the curriculum. The first day of hearings heard from two teaching unions – UCAC and the NASUWT – as well as three very curious organisations: the Welsh History Campaign, the Owain Glyndwr Society, and Dyfodol i’r Iaith. It did not hear oral testimony from academics, professionals in the heritage sector, or anyone, indeed, who could shed any true light on the emerging curriculum.

Those three organisations mentioned bear closer scrutiny. What stake does the Owain Glyndwr Society have in the development and implementation of a brand new curriculum for Wales, bearing in mind that its primary aims (taken from the society’s website) are: ‘to honour the memory of one of the greatest figures in Welsh history, to erect a fitting monument to Owain Glyndwr, to attempt to identify the grave of Owain and mark it appropriately, and to endow a scholarship in his name’. Whilst these are laudable antiquarian objectives, this is not an organisation in a serious position to provide meaningful evidence on the teaching of Welsh history in schools, present or future. The same may be said of Dyfodol i’r Iaith, a Welsh language pressure group whose principal purpose seems to be to ‘campaign for Wales and its people, winning support and respect for the language and ensuring that the Welsh language remains a live issue on the political agenda’. All fine, but the objectives of the report are about the teaching of history, not about the persistence of the Welsh language. So that’s two problematic sources of evidence.

And the third, the seemingly appropriately titled Welsh History Campaign or Ymgyrch Hanes Cymru. The figure who provided the oral evidence I know personally, having graduated with PhDs from Swansea University at the same ceremony and having shared the same doctoral supervisor. But leaving aside the individual, who at least was once a history teacher, the organisation as a whole is not really a history campaign, but an organisation comprised largely of members of Cymdeithas yr Iaith – to adopt the language once used to describe Communist Party activities, this is a front for the bigger crew. Of the first day of evidence gathered in session at the Assembly, then, there are grounds for significant doubt about the relevance and pertinence of the evidence from the majority of groups that provided it.

This brings us to Cynefin. Cynefin can easily be understood as a buzzword, but it is no more a buzzword than Heimat is in Germany. As the person who suggested the incorporation of Cynefin into the curriculum in the first place, I feel a certain degree of responsibility for the way it is interpreted and likely to be implemented. I do not share any of the qualms expressed in the report – I, too, have spoken to numerous teachers and headteachers, and indeed the Minister herself, who immediately recognised the possibilities of the concept and its strong relationship to not only the local but to the entire Welsh Dimension and, of course, to International Perspectives (WDIP). Cynefin simply enables education about place, history, and culture to grow outwards, as a child’s own understanding of its world expands. That means, for instance, being able to link family histories to wider historical events; being able to take the history of Merthyr Tydfil and explore why it is different from the history of Cardiff or Caernarfon, to say nothing of Cairo or Cadiz or Chicago. Nothing about the concept of Cynefin implies that history teaching must exclusively be about the local. Nothing about it which says students will leave school not having studied the Second World War, the Tudors, the Holocaust, or even Owain Glyndwr. But it will mean that children will be able to recognise the historical facets of their own communities alongside the other aspects of the past we would hope they leave school with.

So yes, that does mean, for instance, taking the excellent work – and I hope he doesn’t mind the plug – of Dr Cai Parry-Jones, which shows the remarkable extent of Jewish settlement in Wales (and, of course, the places where Jewish settlement was historically absent), from Bangor to Brynmawr. It means, too, taking the research of Dr David Morris of the West Glamorgan Archives in Swansea about the place of people of colour in eighteenth century Wales. It means, perhaps, taking my work on LGBT people of colour in the docklands of Cardiff and Barry. We are in a position, now, where in-depth research across a swathe of Welsh history can be used to diversify the teaching of the subject in schools. But how we utilise that research in a form appropriate to delivery in a general curriculum is quite a different question – indeed, quite a different point – to lamenting the over-dominance of slavery as the means of exploring non-white histories. I quite agree that such over-dominance is a problem, but we should be in the business of providing solutions not just complaints and lamentations. Unfortunately, without talking to those who have the specialist knowledge, rather than contemporary pressure groups, the Committee’s findings are potentially misleading.

The point about Cynefin is this. If you are learning about the Jewish synagogue and institutions in Brynmawr or Bangor or Pontypridd, as part of the Humanities AoLE (or a History or RS lesson) you are learning about your local place. Your ‘cynefin’ in the traditional sense of the word. But the question of why Jews ended up in those communities is impossible to avoid. That means connecting Bangor to the Baltic, Pontypridd to Poland, learning about the shtetl and the migration of Jews and Jewish culture, and knowing, perhaps, that one of the first Hebrew textbooks ever published in Wales was published in Merthyr Tydfil by a company which otherwise released -oh, the irony – textbooks on Welsh history and Welsh language instruction for use in schools. Otherwise, you are not really doing Cynefin and you are not really educating in the spirit of the new curriculum.

Museums, of course, do this sort of inclusive education all the time. Go to the National Museum in Cardiff at the moment and you’ll find photographs of 1930s Germany alongside very stark, depopulated, shots of mining equipment, gasometers, and pithead gear. There is a similar photographic exhibition on in Newport. There will be others in museums up and down the country – most museums being, of course, local to the place in which they are situated. But go into Pontypridd Museum, a classic of its kind, look up at the ceiling and you’ll find an incredible piece of art made from wood imported from the Baltic and Siberia. Walk across from that museum and go into the Lido’s heritage centre and you’ll find tiles from Belgium and Northern France because that’s what was used to tile the roof. Walk in the other direction up towards Ynysybwl and you’ll come across the White Bridge, at one time the largest concrete bridge in Europe made using a process of reinforcement invented by a Frenchman, whose company offices for the UK were in Briton Ferry. I could go on about these things, but to make any kind of claim that Cynefin will limit the study of history is inaccurate. In so many ways, Cynefin will free teachers to be inventive with the materials at their disposal.

I shall conclude this post with an anecdote of my own. In a previous life, as a heritage officer, I took a group of six and seven year olds from a local infants school around our local park and taught them about the gazooka and how to play it. They were looking at the concept of carnival, so had quite understandably studied what goes on in Brazil, but there was no Welsh content because there was nothing anywhere to help guide teachers towards the history of the old coalfield jazz bands. And so, we were able to put together an outdoor lesson at the bandstand about gazookas, about carnivals, about the commonalities and differences between Brazil and Wales. At the end of the session, they marched back to school playing the gazookas I had given them. This is Cynefin. All it needs is a bit of imagination and a bit of expert support from people with the freedom to compile the suggestions for teachers to make use of.

Is it anything really to worry about?