A 'superior rival' to the draft history curriculum

A 'superior rival' to the draft history curriculum

I like a challenge.

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.”
Michael Gove

Tom Sherrington’s discussion of the work to design an alternative qualification framework by the Heads’ Roundtable this year has been inspiring, most of all in the belief it embodies that constructive criticism involves offering better alternatives, not just highlighting problems.  In this post, I will outline an approach to the Key Stage 3 History curriculum which I believe offers a superior rival to the draft we have been offered.  I believe its principles could also be applied to subjects including English Literature, Geography, RS and perhaps Citizenship.Building on my previous post, I am designing this curriculum based on these constraints:
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.

1) Prescription

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.”
Robert Guyver

There are many ways in which autonomy allows teachers to tailor their curriculum to their students.1) As I have argued recentlyshowing 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

For the sake of argument, here are the fifteen most important topics to understand history, literature and the modern world.
(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).
Core: British
The Norman Conquest
The Tudors
The Civil War
The Industrial Revolution
The expansion of the franchise
World War I
World War II
Post-war settlement
Core: World
The Greeks
The Romans
The Renaissance & Reformation
The French Revolution
The British Empire
The Holocaust
Technology and Modernity

The free half

These are simply choices I might make – things which particularly interest me and/or I have found particularly interest students.  Some of them I have taught, some of them I will teach, some of them I hope to teach one day.
Depth Studies
The Hellenistic Age
Convivencia Spain
The Ottoman Empire
Scientific Rationalism
Africa – colonisation and decolonisation
Inter-war Britain
The Civil Rights Movement
Twentieth Century propaganda
Memorialisation and memory of the Twentieth Century
Overview studies
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
An example of the rationale for three of these topics which I have taught previously:Convivencia Spain – I had to fight to get this on the syllabus in my old school, my colleagues had never heard of it, but if you want an intriguing, forgotten period of cooperation between Jews, Muslims and Christians, with lessons for modern society and a rich culture of art, music and architecture, this is for you.
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

This would work for many other subjects.  Prescribed texts in English and broader choices left open to teachers.  Core coverage of world religions and scope to focus on those most important to the local community in RS.  Essential elements of Citizenship coupled with an examination of the issues and influence which predominate around the school’s local area.This goes some way to solving the ‘dead white dudes’ 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”
Robert Guyver

With almost all my posts, at some stage, I wonder whether I am wasting my time, arguing for something blindingly obvious.  Is there any point to the entire argument I have made above?  Good curriculum design can lead to good history teaching.  It can do no more than that.In the Mr Men speech, Michael Gove presented the enacted curriculum, what is taught, as the problem, then presented a change to the intended curriculum, the National Curriculum, as the solution.  Yet nothing about changing the intended curriculum guarantees the enacted curriculum will deliver the change he wants.  A teacher could follow the new National Curriculum to the letter and still teach the whole thing using what Mr Gove called ‘infantilising,’ ‘play-based pedagogy.’  Or, to return to the absurd example I raised in my previous post, a student might study a brilliant, rigorous curriculum, but still spend only sixty hours on it in their entire secondary school career and leave remembering little and understanding less.  Mr Gove could do more to ensure good history education by worrying more about the time allocated to cover the curriculum, than the content of the curriculum.  A good curriculum with insufficient time to teach it is no solution.Additionally, I believe the existing curriculum in effective history departments (the vast majority) will look something like what I have outlined above already.  In a fantastic piece last week, Michael Fordham considered the current curriculum’s demand to teach: “The development of political power from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, including changes in the relationship between the rulers and ruled over time, the changing relationship between the crown and parliament and the development of democracy.”  He listed twenty-one different topics which he deemed essential to cover this and concluded that: “If taught properly, the current National Curriculum for history is incredibly knowledge-rich.”  Yet it also allows a huge degree of choice in terms of where depth studies a placed and the world history taught.  In my former school, which follows the current draft of the National Curriculum, I always had space for important, exciting, relevant additions to the curriculum.  To an extent, all my ideas would do is formalise the status quo.

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).

[Originally posted 7th July, 2013]


07/07/2013 5:18am

I think while much of what you say is commendable, it all hangs on that vital bullet point: more time is needed for History.
Even 15 topics, spread across 18 half terms is quite a lot. In the many schools where History gets only 60 or 90 minutes a week that doesn’t leave a great deal of room.
I’d prioritise the compulsion to study history to 16 so that we can begin to look at what we could do constructively with a decent amount of time.


07/10/2013 11:56am

I couldn’t agree more!


Warren Valentine
07/07/2013 6:44am

You know how much I enjoy your writing and this post certainly builds upon your previous article on the nature/quality of history teaching at present effectively.
I would certainly agree with you that effective history departments – of which there are many – probably operate along similar lines. I have yet to walk into an excellent history department and not find some bizarre idiosyncrasy, though of course there is always a fantastic rationale behind that. The case of Convivencia is certainly an interesting one and certainly something I will now have a look into whilst I have got the summer holidays. One of the joys of teaching is teaching something new. In one of my PGCE placements I had to teach the Rwandan Genocide, something I ashamedly knew nothing about but the process was a joy.
I think it is extremely helpful to move the debate on in the direction you suggest. We are often unfairly castigated for students’ ignorance and I don’t think we can have an effective conversation without acknowledging the principle that we can’t teach everything that we would like. I truly believe it is impossible. What we do need is to understand a core common ground. We can then weave in topics of our own interest which enhance student’s understanding of this key content but take into a range of other factors relating to history education that you mention in posts like your one on relevance. I also wonder, have you read Gaze’s TH article on making history relevant to students’ own backgrounds, itself quite a contentious issue I think.

One of my good friends on my PGCE year has an excellent idea for a small end of Key Stage Three enquiry. He poses the question “What belongs in the story of Britain?” in which students effectively plan their own opening ceremony for the Olympics, refining & critiquing the criteria they are using and recapping their studies over the previous few years. I wonder whether this sort of activity might have a place in your curriculum, encouraging students to recognise that they have barely scratched the surface, something we’ll need students to do if we accept they are leaving with gaps we’d ideally like filled at some point.

Just a few thoughts I had whilst reading it, put in quite a haphazard scattergun fashion! An impressive and enjoyable read as always.


07/10/2013 11:59am

Thank you, as ever, for your thought-provoking comments and reading suggestions – I shall look up the article your recommended. I think your characterisation of history departments is spot on – at some stage we should collect the strangest things taught that fit into the curriculum somehow.

In my former school we did a unit at the end of Year 9 called ‘Memorialisation’ – we looked at how the twentieth century has been remembered and commemorated (looking at both existing monuments and reviewing the history of the century) and created our own monuments. I love your idea as well though – a great way to use students existing knowledge and get them thinking like historians.


Kris Boulton
07/09/2013 11:52am

Great read Harry.

I’m undecided on the free choice parts, and I’m equally undecided on the ‘teachers are at their best teaching what they’re passionate about.’

The problem is that I wonder whether specifically *what* we know holds too much value and influence. What if what a teacher is passionate about just isn’t that useful to know about, compared with an alternative?

Also how can I follow your blog by email… ?


07/10/2013 11:55am

Thanks for the thoughts Kris; I’d be interested to hear your thoughts for and against free choice. Your question on how useful what we know has given me a lot to think about.

My first reaction is that in a sense none of history is useful – or all of it is. Which is to say in some ways none of it is intrinsically useful (in a cold winter people might well burn history books if there were nothing else left – although I’d personally rather freeze). On the other hand, almost any period or event in history offers insights about others. Trying to teach today about slavery in North America required me to go into some detail on the travels of the Israelites with Moses – which I wasn’t even particularly intending to do. Ultimately everything is connected.

It depends what the ‘alternative’ is. I think there are a series of influences on what topics would/could be chosen, which I’ve tried to explore. There are things I’m passionate about I haven’t yet thought how to teach at all (twelfth-century intellectual history, for example). Whereas I’m passionate about Colonial Sudan and it acts as a great case study of many aspects of empire.

So the bottom line is that if teachers were passionate about things which genuinely have no connection to anything (Papuan prehistory, perhaps?) I think they’d have to refrain – or at least consider which alternatives might be useful or valuable in the other senses outlined above.

I’m going to have to work out how to make the blog better organised over the summer – will see if I can add a magic box to make it easy to follow and I’ll let you know.