While some good individual points have been made by constructive critics of our draft, I have to record that, amidst all the debate which the draft history curriculum has stimulated, no coherent single alternative model has emerged as a superior rival.”
1) A knowledge of key events, changes and people in history is critical to an understanding of past and present and a foundation for appreciation of other subjects.
2) History education is severely limited by a lack of time at Key Stage 3.
3) Point 2 makes achieving the depth of knowledge demanded by Point 1 extremely difficult, ruthless prioritisation is essential.
4) The curriculum needs to allow sufficient room for teachers to employ originality and creativity and to demonstrate the meaning and relevance of the subject to students.I promised to cut the Gordian knot these tangled demands form. Here is my proposed solution, (followed by justification, exemplification and evaluation):
Half of the Key Stage 3 History curriculum should be composed of fifteen prescribed topics. Schools and teachers should be entirely free to design the other half.
I have moved from suspicion of this solution to recognising it’s merits only recently, because…1) We can provide students with a narrative of British and world history on which to base their understanding of history, literature and other subjects. Inasmuch as being placed on the curriculum guarantees anything (on which more below), we can ensure students understand key events: not just that it happened, but why it happened, what it led to, how it has been interpreted.2) All those who want a say on the curriculum can have one. Michael Gove was right to note that “There is no part of the national curriculum so likely to prove an ideological battleground for contending armies as history.” There is nothing wrong with this, it reflects history’s importance in establishing our identity and future as individuals and a nation. A process of consultation might provide a productive channel for the conflicting demands that history should uphold British values, allow us to critique those values, showcase humanity’s greatest achievements and provide insight into the lives of ordinary people. Subjects which require historical knowledge, such English, Citizenship and Philosophy, should also have an input. Stealing Laura McInerney’s idea of staggering curriculum reviews, perhaps each elected government could be allowed to remove one topic from the prescribed list and replace it with another.
Isn’t this quite limiting?
Fifteen topics is an arbitrary choice, but I think it has much to recommend it.
1) Limiting the amount of content, increases the likelihood students will understand what we do cover. Everything we know about learning suggests we need time for repetition and reinforcement. Rather than trying to cover everything (and doing so badly), let’s cover a few things… and ensure we succeed.
2) It will make it easier for other subjects which rely on history. A teacher would either know that a topic has been taught, or if it has not, they would know what has been taught with which it can be linked. For example, for a teacher teaching Oliver Twist: students have not studied social history of 19th century London in great deal, but they have certainly studied the Industrial Revolution so the teacher can draw out links between students’ knowledge of the broad social changes at the time and the specific context of the novel.
3) We can be honest about what students will leave us not knowing… and we can start articulating real solutions to this. This returns to my previous point about the disingenuous approach taken by many critiques of students’ ignorance. If we can agree fifteen topics which must be covered in Key Stage 3, if we believe this provides insufficient historical knowledge for intelligent, articulate citizens (and I’d submit that this is the case), then genuine responses, going beyond tinkering with the curriculum, become more important. If you think something is missing from the prescribed list and it still matters, either suggest something to remove or accept that you can’t have everything and find a way to create more time and space. Here are some possible solutions:
– allot more time to History at Key Stage 3 (allot and a lot)
– make history compulsory to 16, as in most European countries
– improve subject-specific CPD for primary school teachers
– consider more deeply how the curriculum and the way it is taught can inspire students to love history and continue studying it.
Schools and teachers will be free to design the other half
A history curriculum should be a framework that allows both scholarship and effective teaching to thrive, allowing the teachers of history to exercise a judicious dosage of autonomy and interpretation within agreed but flexible parameters.”
There are many ways in which autonomy allows teachers to tailor their curriculum to their students.1) As I have argued recently, showing students why history matters is intrinsic to ensuring successful learning. There are many ways teachers could use freedom to choose to identify and exploit topics which will interest and motivate students. A history of migration unit was highly effective in my former school where the vast majority of students were first or second-generation migrants. A history topic tied to a local area, students’ interests or recent events might do the same elsewhere; central government cannot possibly specify topics that will inspire all students.2) History is essential to understand current events, which is both good in its own right and further demonstrates history’s relevance. History can support our students in understanding what is happening around the world, why it’s happening, and what it means for them. These events cannot be predicted, but when they do occur, history can offer a worthwhile perspective on them: an interesting idea Simon Coyle used in my former school was to consider how we might deal with a swine flu outbreak now; then compare the methods proposed with approaches to the Plague in the seventeenth century.
3) Students ask important questions which might never have occurred to their teachers. A highlight this year was a debate between students, which led a delegation to come to me to ask ‘Didn’t women fight in World War II as well?’ There’s a great lesson in this. By building on these personal interests, teachers can link students more closely to history.
4) Teachers have areas of specialism and interest; these are the topics on which they are most inspirational. As Jo Facer (who exemplifies this passion) said recently: “It’s really important people teach what they love.” Specialised content knowledge is an essential component of great teaching; freedom to choose some of their topics is an ideal way to exploit the knowledge teachers have. Colonial Sudan doesn’t find a place in any Key Stage 3 textbooks (at all, as far as I know) – but a year studying it for my dissertation positions me well to design and teach genuinely intriguing lessons which can exemplify critical issues of empire.
5) This leaves scope to develop exciting cross-curricular projects. I have just succeeded in fitting a fourth cross-curricular topic into this year’s history lessons, so this is a subject close to my heart. In terms of the history curriculum of itself, it made little sense to teach Shakespeare’s life and times in October last year. However, the English department were teaching Macbeth and we were preparing our students to visit the British Museum’s Shakespeare exhibition, so it was a great opportunity to provide context for students’ understanding of the period and demonstrate to students how History and literature are intertwined.
Isn’t this absurdly fragmented?
1) Freely chosen topics would be integrated within the school’s curriculum. I’m not suggesting for a moment that they be approached in isolation: “It’s February, we’ve finished the prescribed curriculum, now it’s my turn.” These topics would be designed to develop prescribed themes, offering deeper case studies or contrasting examples. For example, when studying empires in my former school, I created a double lesson on Cyprus: this was particularly appropriate because 25% of students came from Cyprus (North and South); it also acted as a case study reinforcing what we had learned about specific empires (since Cyprus was occupied by the Romans, Byzantines, British and so on…) This is directly linked with point 2:
2) The freely chosen topics will supplement and enhance understanding of the core. To give an example from my projected topics below, it is possible to go from World War I to World War II (both prescribed). However, a topic I have chosen, The Interwar Years, would help students to understand Appeasement, rearmament and the birth of the Welfare State and NHS. So this would reinforce understanding of core themes while also offering interesting and original approaches to them.
3) Learning is messy, flexibility offers space to deal with this. By definition, exemplifying the many ways this affects learning is tricky. However, examples which come to mind include students who have reached secondary school with a patchy understanding of history, or students who have misunderstood a historical topic or event through something they’ve been told, or seen. Some freedom leaves scope for me to create lessons or units which addresses these issues.
Essentially, this is the chance to tailor learning to students’ needs and interests.
A first draft of how I might implement this:
The prescribed half
(Entertaining as the argument as to which fifteen topics are the most important historical events ever, this is an example of how the principles above might work, not the purpose of the post, so please refrain. I know there are fascinating, important things missing. It upsets me too. In redrafting, I have already turned the fifteen topics I allowed myself into seventeen).
The Norman Conquest
The Civil War
The Industrial Revolution
The expansion of the franchise
World War I
World War II
The Renaissance & Reformation
The French Revolution
The British Empire
Technology and Modernity
The free half
The Hellenistic Age
The Ottoman Empire
Africa – colonisation and decolonisation
The Civil Rights Movement
Twentieth Century propaganda
Memorialisation and memory of the Twentieth Century
The rise and fall and rise of China
The history of Anti-Semitism
The history of Maths
The history of architecture (/buildings)
A history of migration to Britain
Migration – a fascinating, under-explored, and ludicrously misunderstood topic which is central to the experience and lives of Britons as a whole and my students in particular
The History of Maths – one of the highlights of my teaching year this year, with great links to learning in maths and innumerable fascinating characters and opportunties.
This applies elsewhere and it may solve at least one troubling problem
Like it or not (and personally I feel pretty uncomfortable about it) the people on our banknotes and in the canon of most subjects are dead, white men. Without wanting to rehearse the entire debate (which Harry Webb and Sue Cowley have done fairly thoroughly here) as ED Hirsch has argued, participation in society requires knowledge of world and British history – and the canon of this is predominantly dead, white dudes. For example, the leading characters in the history of maths (all but three are men); the most influential pieces of world literature, (for example, of the sixteen poems prescribed for Year 6 by Core Knowledge, one poet on the list is female, all sixteen are white).Does this meet the interests or needs of all my students? Does it provide all of them with people they perceive as role models? Sometimes, not always. There is no reason why a female, first-generation migrant should not see the work of a dead, white, male literary genius and think – that’s me. However, there are good reasons why, for example, organisations promoting STEM careers for women focus upon female role models. The element of freedom in this curriculum leaves space to fill this gap. For example, when I designed a lesson on migrants’ contributions to Britain, I deliberately chose individuals who represented the largest communities of first and second-generation migrants in my then school.
It gives a dangerous, inaccurate impression of what success looks like in a range of fields not to recognise and highlight the lives and achievements of people who are not dead white dudes. In short, dead white dudes would likely form the majority of the prescribed curriculum, but this could be counter-balanced in the freely chosen half.
(There’s a counter-argument to be made that this marginalises multicultural education. But right now I’m trying to find a way to reconcile core knowledge with multicultural knowledge, and I’ll beg leave to address one question at a time. There’s a whole post to be written on this one day).
The enacted curriculum and the implementation gap, or – a superior curriculum – so what?
Good curriculum design can lead to good history teaching”
So part of me feels this debate isn’t even that important. History teachers want to deliver a curriculum which offers students an understanding of British and world history, a chronological framework in which to place their understanding and understanding of the significance it holds. Changing the curriculum will not affect that. It’s been fun, but I have spent too long blogging on the curriculum and I’m looking forward to taking the blog back to what matters: improving teaching.
PS – As I was finishing redrafting this article, the latest pre-released leak of changes to the curriculum appeared. Although it seems to reflect changes in some aspects of the draft I considered in writing this, nothing in this leak appears to invalidate anything I’ve written above.
Limitations: this post raises more questions than it answers:
– Who chooses the freely chosen sections? My gut feeling is teachers (not departments), but this raises many possible problems.
– There’s much more to say on sequencing and chronology in history teaching
– I would like to further consider how learning history in school inspires lifelong learning
– These posts have skimmed over cross-curricular links which I will come back to.
– I’m pretty sure someone proposed an idea like this for the curriculum, possibly many years ago, but I’ve failed to track it down. This argument fits into long-standing debates over the curriculum and I have not done enough to position this idea within those debates.
– If we are concerned about time to cover core content, there’s an obvious case to be made to remove the freely chosen topics. Hopefully the merits of these topics are clear, but if not, under my proposals we could just double the time for core content by removing freely chosen content.
– There’s more to be said about how we encourage students to raise their own historical questions and how we as teachers answer them.
– I’ve presented my topics as topics – not as enquiry questions.
Finally, the quotations from Robert Guyver come from an article in Teaching History 122 (paywall).