How much do you really use your knowledge of history in teaching?”

I’d studied alongside my friend; now he doubted a thoughtful question from an eleven year-old really tested my understanding of the medieval church.

Why would you need so many books?  The history doesn’t change.”

Another friend (a medic), on the use of the university library.

It doesn’t matter if your knowledge of a topic isn’t great: sometimes being closer to the students’ level helps you explain it.”

A history teacher, as I worried about the limits of my knowledge before entering teaching.

Specialisation at university allowed me to graduate with what now seems a narrow grasp of history’s scope.  I don’t blame universities (myself, perhaps); I enjoyed the intense study such focus permits.  But as a graduate my ignorance went beyond a few medieval monarchs I’d avoided, embracing vast realms and periods: the Byzantine Empire, the Renaissance, Anglo-Saxon England.

Why does pedagogical content knowledge matter? 

PCK file
(via Dylan Wiliam)

This table (and supporting arguments) convinced me to focus on improving my formative assessment.  But the question mark suggests it’s worth considering teacher content knowledge too.*  It affects student achievement: “Goldhaber and Brewer (1996) found that the presence of teachers with at least a major in their subject area was the most reliable predictor of student achievement scores in math and science,” a finding with social justice implications: “students in high-poverty secondary schools were 77 percent more likely to be taught by teachers without degrees in the subject they were teaching than were their affluent counterparts” (both quotations from this helpful, dated, research review).  Similarly, finding that knowledge about teaching mathematical concepts “positively predicted student gains in mathematics achievement” is unsurprising; that the impact was discernible among First Graders underscores the power of teachers’ knowledge.

How can I improve my historical ‘content knowledge?’

Reading.  As a rule, each year I read a book about every scheme of work; I exceed that in good years and for schemes I’m new to.  The London Review of Books keeps me up-to-date with a broader range of periods and events.  I keep reading more broadly: a while back, I got so hooked reading about Convivencia Spain that I couldn’t resist progressing to Elliott’s Imperial Spain.

Visiting.  Seeing exhibitions in London, going to museums and historical sites outside the city, learning the history of countries I visit.  A recent trip to the Netherlands led me to read Simon Schama’s An Embarrassment of Riches and visit ‘Our Lord in the Attic‘ – a hidden Catholic church.  Cycling the back roads of England, I’ve stopped at dozens of parish churches, sheltering from the rain, trying to decode architecture and inscriptions.

Ironing.  Washing up, cooking, tidying: they’re not just satisfying in their own right, I spend this ‘dead’ time listening and learning.  I’ve ‘studied’ 39 courses over the last few years from The Teaching Company – an American outfit getting ‘top college professors’  to record courses pitched at ‘lifelong learners.’  These have introduced me to the Horns of Hattin, Icelandic Sagas and the spread of Buddhism, and characters ranging from Thales to Maimonedes, via Xin Shi Huang.

Staying humble.  If listing what I’ve learned seems arrogant, I should emphasise how small this drop in the ocean seems and how vast my ignorance is.

What makes content knowledge ‘pedagogical?’

Fresh learning means quotations, events and anecdotes bringing history to life spring to mind in plans and lessons.  Teaching the Vietnam War a second time, I realised every twist of the war (and syllabus) was illustrated in Patriots, an impressive oral history I’d just read; so we spent much of the course reading first person accounts of key events.  Likewise, students, fascinated by the lives of black Germans under the Nazis, are better satisfied by Richard Evans’ answers than the paragraph offered by the textbook.

Planning.  The Voices of Morebath, a micro-history which tells the Reformation through the life of one village provided the structure for a unit.  Books like The Ornament of the World (for Convivencia Spain) and Bloody Foreigners (for a history of migration) have also offered much of the content overlooked by most textbooks.

Understanding history.  Broader reading fills gaps around topics I never chose (myths and oral history), wasn’t offered (Ancient Greece), or barely comprehended (Seventeenth Century Britain) to give me a sweeping appreciation of the past.  New enquiries like Christopher Clarke’s Sleepwalkers illustrate changes in historical practice.

A passion for history.  I got into teaching history for a reason.  Refreshing this; responding to a student ‘That’s a fascinating question, I was just reading about it the other day’ and continually reframing my understanding help me teach well.

"Soviet Poster 4" by Zelenskiy, Alexander Nikolaevich (1882—1942) - Book Through the Russian Revolution (free pdf from by Williams, Albert Rhys (1883-1962); Published by Boni and Liveright, NY, 1921. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“To have more, we must produce more. To produce more, we must know more,” AN Zelenskiy

How can we improve teacher content knowledge?

1) Demand it of ourselves.  A recent Teaching History article, on an interesting scheme of work about Somali migration, suggested such projects are “an enormous undertaking for teachers: to take up the challenge of developing innovative and less conventional histories, with no folders of university notes to rummage through for knowledge and no textbooks to inspire thinking, let alone to furnish entire schemes of work.”  But every new scheme of work takes effort and energy, and such reading seems both a reasonable demand and a pleasure – as Michael Fordham puts it, “history is leisure and we’re lucky enough to teach what we love.”

2) Respect it in schools.  Many are strong advocates of teacher knowledge; many more argue that a ‘good teacher can teach anything,’ a claim I’d question.  Although the pages of Teaching History show how extensive many teachers’  knowledge is, I’ve heard little discussion, online or off, of schools focusing upon it.  (Michael Fordham has offered some practical suggestions how they could).  Perhaps, as my head suggested, we need more teachers publishing on their subject, as well as on teaching.

Should teachers be expected to continually develop their content knowledge?  Should schools be supporting them to do so?  I think it’s time teachers discussed these questions more: all of this post can be recast around any subject area.  In the mean time, back to the ironing.

* I should emphasise that Dylan Wiliam argues against this on the grounds of the limited effect of attempts to change teacher content knowledge.

A suitably extensive further reading list:

David Didau and John Tomsett diverge on whether a good teacher can teach anything.  The CUREE report John Tomsett refers to which suggests that a focus on subject knowledge is a characteristic of exceptional schools is here.

Michael Fordham shares demanding Cambridge History PGCE pre-reading recommendations, a reading list on the Middle Ages and imaginative ways to use department meetings.

Recent examples
Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn, ‘Unpacking the suitcase and finding history: doing justice to the teaching of diverse histories in the classroom’

Claire Holliss, ‘Waking up to complexity: using Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers to challenge over-determined causal explanations.’

(Both in Teaching History 154)

Five books I’ve enjoyed using to help shape courses
Christian G Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War remembered from all sides
Eamonn Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village
Richard Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power
Maria Rosa Menoca, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
Marcus du Sautoy, The Music of the Primes: Why an unsolved problem in mathematics matters

Five books I’ve loved and would like to turn into a course one day
John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II
Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory
WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman, 1066 And All That
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War