Trying, and perhaps failing, to design a great history curriculum

Yesterday, I visited the beautiful East Riding town of Beverley for the first time.  I had to confess to Andy Day, my sage guide, that I knew nothing of the king’s attempt to enter Hull that began the hostilities of the Civil War – or of that city’s preeminence, after London, in the production and store of munitions.  One more historical knowledge gap, I suppose…  Unintentionally, I have started collecting examples of smart and successful friends lacking bits of historical understanding to remind me that no knowledge is core – or that every curriculum is failing to teach us all of history.  Why not add myself to this list?  Few failings are more poignant than my own, given a free hand to design a new curriculum.

For various reasons, despite briefly embroiling myself in a handful of the curricular debates of the last year, I have not written up my history curriculum.  Last term, there was a flurry of fascinating suggestions regarding the English curriculum, notably from Joe Kirby, Alex Quigley and David Didau.  When David asked where my curriculum was however, I had to confess it remained unpublished.  I’ve posted about problems with the debate, what a superior National Curriculum might look like, how I thought we should approach chronology and relevance.  But no curriculum.

There are several reasons for this, some of them good.  The biggest is that it’s not finished – and in its unfinished state, subject to massive change.  In the second year of creating a new school, Year 8 isn’t as I envisaged it when I began and Year 7 is different to how it looked last year.  The competing influence of experience, the ideas of my colleagues, my changing understanding of education and the fascinating critique of Michael Fordham have brought any number of changes – a process which shows no sign of stopping.

I don’t even know how useful this is, without a discussion of equal depth of the assessments used and the influences this has had on students.  Nor, however, can I justify continuing to discuss the curriculum without laying my own open to criticism.  So, as it stands, here it is – with some reflections below:

Year Autumn 1 Autumn 2 Spring 1 Spring 2 Summer 1 Summer 2
7 7-1) How does history help us to answer [our philosophical question]?

How can we understand the reality of Private Peaceful?

7-3) If you were to go back in time – when would you go and live?

Trip: Woolwich & Heritage Centre: How has Greenwich changed? *

7-4) Who is the greatest mathematician ever? 7-5) Who is the greatest mathematician ever? 7-6) How can we learn about the lives of Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry? 7-7) Why did the lives of black Americans improve after1945?

Review: What philosophical questions have we answered this year?

8 8-1) How can history help us to understand [contemporary issue]? 8-2) When was Britain great?

Trip: National Maritime Museum – Empire and Slavery *

8-3) What was the most dramatic change in British political history? 8-4) Why do we disagree about the British Empire?8-5) Which empires are great now? 8-6)  Why do we disagree about migration? Review of the year: Britannia – the Jewel in the Crown?

Has Britain been a model and a force for good?

9 9-1) How can we cope with chaos?

9-2) How have interpretations of Caesar changed?

9-3) How has war changed history?

9-4) Why is propaganda used so much in war?

9-5) War: adventure, opportunity or tragedy? 9-6) How else [apart from war] can we seek change? 9-7) How can we find out what really happened in the Holocaust? 9-8) Review: How should we remember the Twentieth Century?*

I’ve been working towards the following choices at GCSE and A-level, although they are, by their nature, highly provisional:

GCSE: OCR A: A951, Study in Development – Crime and Punishment through time; Study in Depth – Germany 1919-1945; A952, Source Investigation – Crime and Punishment; A953, History Around Us or Modern World Study

 A-Level: OCR B F982, Explanation – French Revolution; F983, Sources – Tudor Rebellions; F986, Interpretations – The Holocaust; F987, Coursework – Student choice

Some thoughts

What’s the purpose of this curriculum?
The departmental vision states:

“Through studying History, students at GFS will:

  • Grow, through developing their understanding of the world around them and gaining deeper insight into human societies and actions and themselves
  • Become greater scholars, through gaining the skills to investigate, analyse and debate past and contemporary events
  • Gain an appreciation of the importance of studying the past, an understanding of the links between the past and their own lives, a love of the process of learning and a desire to continue it
  • Grow as members of GFS, through developing their learning habits and gaining deeper understanding of the links between History and other subjects.”

And how much of this purpose is being achieved?
I’m forced to question this.  Students do, I believe, see the connections between history and other subjects to unusual depth.  For example, when asked last year to describe a way history helped them understand other subjects, 84 of my 100 students were able to give examples, linking to maths, science and philosophy, among others.  I remain disappointed though, despite careful planning of schemes of work designed to demonstrate the importance of studying the past, that some students are resolute in not yet recognising this.

What is the underlying structure?
Such as it is…  the first unit in each year is designed to reinforce students’ understanding of the relevance of history.  The second is intended to help build chronological understanding – a big picture of history.  Were I to summarise the intentions of each year, Year 7 is to help students connect history in their minds with them and with other subjects; Year 8 gives them an understanding of British political, economic and demographic history, and the links between this and the world; Year 9 seeks to explain the modern world and the chaos and conflict it has brought.

Why so much cross-curricular learning?
Spending last year working with seven colleagues and a degree of freedom and willingness to experiment, encouraged us to pursue some exciting cross-curricular work.  A lot of stuff gets taught, not only out of chronological order, but in a place which is not necessarily logical at all from a purely historical point-of-view.  This makes sense overall, however, because teaching a unit on World War I while English are teaching Private Peaceful improves students’ understanding of both.  My feeling has been that the reinforcing power of learning about the same topic from two teachers simultaneously is more important than the detractions.  As the school has grown, however, I’m wondering whether this remains viable.  While I’m teaching the history of maths course again this year, for a number of reasons the maths department’s approach has less depth and consistency in doing so.  Cross-curricular learning is hard to do well – which is perhaps why it is done so rarely.

What about all the missing bits?
The realisation of how little I have taught my Year 8s as they reach the half-way point of their compulsory historical education at secondary school fills me with horror.  A post almost a year ago set out what I believed was the bare minimum that a Key Stage 3 course should achieve; Michael Tidd commented even my modest proposal was, in fact, pretty ambitious in the time available.  He was right.  I wrote at the time that there was no point in criticising all the missing bits, because as someone who loves history, it pains few people more than me already.  That pain has grown.

Perhaps there’s insufficient British history – a question I can’t decide conclusively.  I have already amended the Year 8 course to add significantly more British history than I had originally intended, in response to a growing understanding of the importance of giving students this background and cultural capital.  Equally, however, I believe that world and European history are hugely important, to understand both British history and the contemporary world.

Yet one head of history candidate recently noted that the curriculum could also be described as Eurocentric.  The impossibility of doing justice to history in the time available is increasingly apparent to me – and the centrality of the aim in impressing upon students the importance of the subject such that they will continue to study it, through school and their lives, increases.

Likewise, the cost of everything I choose, in time, becomes clear to me.  The time spent redrafting or seeking to help build students’ memory all cuts the time spent on learning more history (although both experiments hone students’ understanding of what they have learned).

The balance of overview and depth is another alarming aspect for me – I wonder if there are enough depth studies, in particular, to make the periods we study come alive for my students.

How coherent is the end result?
Part of me suspects that this is something which will only become clear as I see students conclude Key Stage 3.  I have added review units to each year, which may help.  But it’s not yet clear to me how well students will be able to tell and deconstruct a history of Britain and the world.

How much change is too much?
The curriculum is still changing.  Year 7 has undergone substantial changes – not to the fundamentals, but to the way its aims are achieved.  Yet I wonder how helpful all this change has been.  Almost all of the resources I’ve used have been written or adapted by me.  I have begun to wonder whether a conventional curriculum, on which I’d spent more time on resources and lessons, would have brought more useful dividends.

How well does the curriculum prepare students for GCSEs and A-Levels?
For many reasons, I have taught this with only a vague set of exams in mind.  As a school, we toyed with pursuing the IB route, although we decided against it.  The ongoing changes made making firm plans appear mistaken.  I have also always believed Key Stage 3 should represent more than a preparation for exams, it is our only chance to give students a primer in the history of the world.  However, I need to audit and prepare for next year and the historical demands of GCSE and A-level.

Conclusion
What can I conclude, save that I’m excited to welcome a new head of history next year who will no doubt give the whole thing a rigorous rereading, rinsing down and rethink and put in some changes, which will be as painful as they are necessary.