Schools sometimes feel dominated by the intense monitoring of narrow, questionably valid measures of student success. Focus on these limiting assessments can distract teachers from the underlying learning they wish for their students. When I presented some of the shortfalls in history assessment to Dylan Wiliam some years ago, his reasonable solution was ‘tests worth teaching to.’
At present, I don’t believe the tests are worth teaching to. The prescribed content is narrow; expecting linear progress through sub-divided National Curriculum levels is intellectually dishonest; aspects of Key Stage 3 level descriptors are more challenging than GCSEs. These complaints are not original however, and in general and over time, test performance correlates with increased knowledge and proficiency in history. My real objection is more fundamental: I teach the subject because I believe it offers a unique, powerful way of understanding the world and ourselves, one I invite students to share. Our current measures offer high grades without recognising or expecting students to adopt this altered view of the world; I’m not sure this can be described as success.
In designing assessments, alongside ‘conventional’ questions, I’ve sought to identify changes in students’ appreciations of history. Alongside termly reflections, end of year exams over the last two years have included additional questions: these seek to identify how students’ perceptions of the discipline, themselves and the world have changed. In part, this is push-polling: by asking, I hope to induce reflection and reinforce the idea that these developments matter. More importantly however, I want to see what deeper understanding students have gained from the year. I’ve collected some interesting examples. I present them unvarnished: they show students’ attempts to make sense of history and the world with limited prompting.
I asked Year 7…
Choose any topic we have studied this year. How has understanding this topic helped you to understand something outside history better? You could discuss a modern event or a topic or book you have studied in a different subject.
Choose any historical skill we have developed this year. How has this skill been useful to you outside history?*
At the start of the year, we thought of life questions, like ‘What is success? How can we be happy? How can we influence other people? What happens after death?’ Which philosophical questions of yours has history helped you to answer?*
(These may be tricky to read on a phone or tablet. Sorry).
I asked Year 8…
Choose any topic we have studied this year. How has understanding the topic helped you understand something outside history (another subject, the news, something else) better?
What have you learned about yourself, Britain and the world through studying history this year?
(I also asked: How likely is it you will study history at GCSE? Why/why not?)
When students learn, they reshape their understanding of the world around them, and, sometimes themselves. These students make this clear in their writing: they have rethought motherhood, Game of Thrones, essay writing, how change happens and how Britain interacts with the world. At every level of attainment, every student who made it this far into the paper (90% or so) was able to write intelligently and interestingly about the ways in which history is changing their lives and understanding of the world. I don’t agree with everything they’ve written, but I’m delighted at the introspection they are demonstrating. I’m not arguing that such reflections alone are sufficient evidence of success: these comparisons rely on a strong knowledge of the past; stronger answers explicitly draw on this. Nor do I claim any great achievement: I believe any student taught history well over a year will develop similarly.
If I wished, I could turn this into a quantitative measure. (My own mark book records the links students have made and summarises each answer they have given). But I’d suggest such measurements are at the very limits of what it is necessary or desirable. I’m sufficiently unhappy about the toxic influence much of our measuring and judgement has on teachers and teaching that I don’t want to propose anything of the sort. I merely offer this as an example of how we might continue to measure what we value, not just rely on valuing what we measure.