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Project Background

Importance of numeracy skills in history

E.P. Thompson described history as ‘the queen of the disciplines’ (Thompson, 1978). By this, he meant not just that all disciplines have their own history but that history itself draws from, and requires knowledge of, a wide range of other disciplines: economics, literature, sociology, law, languages, politics, archaeology, anthropology and so on. Mathematics can just as readily be included in this list; indeed, certain branches of history have made systematic use of quantitative and statistical approaches, most notably econometric history.

The Dearing Report (1997) designated numeracy as one of the key skills that should feature among the outcomes of all UK higher education programmes. This proposal was not welcomed by all historians; while quantitative techniques certainly feature in the discipline, they are by no means universally valued within it. Moreover, even historians who use these techniques harbour concerns about their students’ limited understanding of mathematics and about their lack of interest in, and often antipathy to, applying their existing mathematical skills, let alone to developing new ones (see below).

Recognising these limitations, the Quality Assurance Agency’s (QAA) benchmark statement for history, first published in 2000 and then in a revised form in 2007, is far more permissive. It does not include numeracy among the generic skills that history undergraduates might be reasonably expected to acquire. However, it does recognise that some branches of the discipline might incorporate methodologies taken from other disciplines and makes the “strong recommendation” that, where appropriate, provision should be made in undergraduate history courses for developing at least one from a list of several additional skills, which includes numeracy and quantitative methods (QAA, 2007). As far as benchmarking recommendations are concerned, then, numeracy need not feature in undergraduate history courses, despite the value that can be attributed to it in terms of historical study, employability and life skills.

Nevertheless, over the years, historians with an interest and expertise in numeracy have provided a good deal of guidance on the types of quantitative techniques that are useful in historical investigation. In some instances, attention has been focused on explaining these techniques, incorporating examples of how they can be applied in historical investigation (Archdeacon, 1994; Darcy and Rohrs, 1995; Feinstein and Thomas, 2002; Floud, 1973; Hudson, 2000). In other instances, a case study approach has been adopted, demonstrating how quantitative techniques can be applied in investigating a varied range of historical themes (Aydelotte, et al., 1972; Haskins and Jeffrey, 1990; Lorwin and Price, 1972: Wrigley, 1972). For the most part, but by no means entirely, discussion in these works is pitched at a basic level, thereby providing history undergraduates, as well as their teachers, with helpful advice on the types of quantitative investigations they can undertake. Publications in several specialised branches of the discipline also demonstrate the value of applying simple numerical techniques, with historical demographers being to the fore (Drake, 1961-2, 1974, 1982; Wrigley, 1966). The journal Local Population Studies contains numerous short articles that employ a varied range of quantitative approaches that undergraduates and others can readily apply in analysing demographic data. Rather less has been written specifically about the teaching and learning of quantitative techniques in undergraduate history, although some instructive and welcome examples have been offered, dealing with the types of source material that can be used and the investigative approaches that can be adopted (Charlton, 1977; Freeman, 2010; Johnson, 1993; Rodger, 2009; Rosner, 1993).

Further guidance on using quantitative techniques in historical investigation has featured in books and articles dealing with ICT, with one historian depicting computers as “the handmaiden” of quantitative history (Anderson, c.2008). Coverage embraces the uses to which ICT can be put in studying history, including database and spreadsheet applications. Again, much of the discussion is pitched at a level that requires fairly basic numerical understanding, a key aim being to demystify the terminology and concepts that ICT usage involves. The trailblazing volumes published by the Association for History and Computing during the late 1980s and early 1990s mainly present case studies, but also incorporate learning and teaching sections (Denley and Hopkin, 1987; Denley, et al., 1989; Mawdsley, et al., 1990). Other works, however, focus specifically on learning and teaching matters, including classroom approaches (Lambe, 2003; Lloyd-Jones and Lewis, 1994, 1996, 2000; Perkins, et al., 1992; Spaeth, 1996; Spaeth et al., 1992). Yet others are aimed at a more general audience, but the approaches covered nonetheless have application in teaching history undergraduates (Cameron and Richardson, 2005; Davis, et.al., 1993; Greenstein, 1994; Mawdsley and Munck, 1993; Schick, c.1990; Trinkle, 1998). In addition, there is a specialist volume on the use of databases in historical research, again aimed at a wide audience, including undergraduates (Harvey and Press, 1996).

Useful though much of this guidance on quantitative methods has been, it has not persuaded the majority of history tutors, or their students, about the value of numeracy as a key skill. Indeed, the contributions relating to ICT usage may well be valued more with regard to ‘soft’ ICT skills, such as word processing, internet use and presentational skills, than to quantitative approaches. While such skills are certainly important for history undergraduates and assist them considerably in their studies, it cannot be assumed that where ICT features in their courses it involves quantification.

The publications dealing with numeracy in undergraduate history courses have aired the advantages that incorporating a numerical dimension can bring, particularly in fostering historical understanding (Floud, 1973; Hudson, 2000). However, in recent decades, numeracy has also become strongly linked with employability issues, as noted above. The 1980s began an economy-driven shift towards a more ‘enterprising’ curriculum that led to the eventual incorporation of the skills agenda in external and internal quality assurance and validation procedures. This shift was encapsulated in the Dearing Report and, subsequently, in the government’s decision in 2001 to make ‘employability’ a performance indicator for higher education (HEFCE, 2001). The new paradigm incorporates the development of a range of key or transferable skills, numeracy amongst them, in degree-level courses and history has not been immune to it.

Despite the benefits that numerical techniques can have for history undergraduates in terms both of their historical studies and their future job prospects, other dimensions of the history curriculum have been accorded much higher priority. This point is well-illustrated by the decline that has occurred during recent decades in the provision of degree-level courses in economic history, where quantification in one form or another is standard fare. Since the 1980s, economic historians have commented on this decline, at all levels of education, charting its course and reflecting on the means by which it might be halted (Coleman, 1987, 1995; Daunton, 1985; Harte, 2001). Only two UK universities now have distinct economic history departments, namely the London School of Economics and Glasgow University, with stand-alone undergraduate programmes in economic history. Nor is this trend confined to the UK, as is evident from a recent study charting the decline in economic history provision in Canadian universities (McCalla and Day, 2003). Likewise, in the USA, the number of college history departments with an economic historian fell from 54.7% in 1975 to 31.7% in 2005 (Cohen, 2009). These developments are not confined to history, as a recent report on the social sciences has demonstrated (Newman, 2009).

In the UK, the sharp decline in economic history provision occurred in tandem with a rapid increase in the number of undergraduates studying history overall and created acute dilemmas for economic historians. Should they move into management/business/economics departments, where quantitative approaches were the norm, or re-locate to history departments, where an emphasis on quantification was far less likely? Those who chose to move to history departments experienced two problems. Firstly, they faced the marginalisation of economic history within the broad curriculum. This was partly the result of increasing optionality within history programmes, which opened up a much wider range of choice and led both students and teachers to shift away from the economic dimension as quantitative applications became increasingly sophisticated and complex and, for many of them, frankly impenetrable. The reciprocal of this trend has been the advance of social and cultural history (Burke, 2008) which tends not to regard quantitative analysis as integral to historical study. A downward spiral has therefore developed with fewer students being taught the subject, leading to fewer lecturers entering the profession with the necessary background, skills or enthusiasm. The consequence is that history departments are now composed of a majority of staff who prioritise literary, communication and visual skills over the acquisition of numeracy skills and who are often uncomfortable with using, let alone teaching, such skills. Secondly, there have been changes in the content of economic history modules. This is a more subtle set of changes and the evidence is less tangible than for the structural ones. While modules still make reference to the importance of quantification, the tendency is for the numerical material to be pre-packaged and interpretative, with less emphasis placed on direct engagement with quantitative techniques. At the same time, the resort to ICT in many cases has become a substitute for numerical understanding. In short, students may acquire a technical capability and a familiarisation with the ‘outcome’ of quantification (manipulated elsewhere) but are left with only a superficial understanding of numerical analysis.

What has to be recognised as well is that there is disagreement about the appropriateness of particular skills for history students. While the cautious benchmark statement embodied this debate, it was also evident in how the profession responded more generally to the rise of the skills agenda. History, in fact, proved very good at developing most of the skills identified by employers and history lecturers successfully embedded these skills in the curriculum, making learning outcomes much more explicit and encouraging students to be much more reflective about skills and their relevance. The 1990s witnessed a growth in pedagogic initiatives involving the UK’s HE historians, led most notably by History 2000, a government-funded project to promote the development of teaching and learning, which inspired numerous conferences, workshops and publications that disseminated new approaches to teaching the discipline (Booth, 2003; Booth and Hyland, 1996, 2000; Timmins, et al., 2005) But, notably, the skill least developed in all this pedagogic activity was numeracy. A report published by the Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology in 2005 showed that history at university was contributing nothing to what limited ability undergraduates had in numeracy (Nicholls, 2005b)istory, Cl. Meanwhile, history graduates reported that there was a demand for numeracy skills in the jobs they had taken and that university had improved their ability in every one of the ‘employability’ skills except numeracy. It was evident as well that history graduates had applied for jobs where numeracy was not a main requirement – in other words, the lack of this skill was limiting their employment opportunities and general ‘marketability’ (Nicholls, 2005b). At the same time, a study by the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy found that ‘embedding’ mathematics within practical and vocational training was particularly effective (Keating 2007). The appositeness of numeracy to a historical training renders it fit for just such ‘embedding’ but the profession has yet to embrace the opportunity.

In summary, numeracy is receiving limited attention in the university history curriculum, despite its value in enhancing both employability and historical skills and the availability of publications extolling its usefulness. Indeed, with the decline of economic history and the rise of social and cultural history there has been a retreat from teaching numerical and quantitative approaches. Moreover, the situation in history is by no means atypical. Deficiencies in the teaching of quantification can be found across the social sciences, as evidenced by the recent Macinnes report for the ESRC (summarised in Newman, 2009) which found that, on average, students receive only about 12 hours of teaching in quantitative methods across the whole of a three-year degree. It is hoped, therefore, that the research and findings here will have much wider applicability and provide lessons for cognate disciplines. This is the context for the history dimension of this project, for the reassessment of the importance of numeracy in the study of undergraduate history and for the recommendations that are included at the end of the report and on the recommendations webpage.