What might have been? Improving chronological knowledge and understanding
There’s a huge amount to complain about in the draft NC but the trouble with simply listing the problems is that it can appear to be a defence of the status quo when what’s really needed is constructive discussion in order to improve on the current situation. It seems highly unlikely that Mr Gove will change tack and start taking part in constructive and rigorous discussion but that shouldn’t stop us advancing some ideas. So here are some first thoughts in one area only though the one at the heart of Mr Gove’s curriculum – chronological knowledge and understanding. This is the area he believes he alone has got right but this is where his ideas are most fundamentally flawed.
Firstly, let’s begin with the bullet points which provide absolutely no help to teachers in that there are no clues as to what an appropriate level of knowledge about each bullet might be. Seeking out my own junior school book from 1958-1961 (bought second-hand a few years ago – I didn’t walk off with it!) I discovered the great R.J. Unstead telling me that:
King John was a bad king who quarrelled with the barons and the clergy. The Pope said that he must be turned off the throne but John made his peace and continued to do as he pleased. In 1215 the barons forced him to put his seal to Magna Carta, a charter or list of their rights. His promise to rule well was soon broken.
13 pages later we’re told John died. Magna Carta does not reappear although its life after 1215 was far more important than its role in that year. Now here’s what I read aged about 9 about the Glorious Revolution:
James II was the next king. He did not rule wisely, and when he tried to make England a Catholic country, he became very unpopular. After only three years, he was driven into exile by the “Glorious Revolution” and his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband, William of Orange, became king and queen.
These extracts sum up the paradox of ‘simple coverage’. The text looks very simple (‘bad king’, ‘very unpopular’) and my first thought was “Is that all that Mr Gove wants children to know? It doesn’t seem very ‘rigorous’ to use his favourite word.” But look again at the number of tricky concepts that need explaining to young children – barons, clergy, pope, Catholic, Orange, revolution. What does James II ‘did not rule wisely’ really mean?
This kind of coverage is an alarming mix of the deeply superficial and really tough ideas that we know can be hard to explain at KS3. To take another example – it’s easy enough to demonstrate the idea behind the Heptarchy (7 lego men on a map or 7 children with crowns and tabards labelled ‘Wessex’ etc swapping precedence) but what value is it to them to take part in such story-telling aged 7 or 8? Which other parts of history can they relate it to? What part does the Heptarchy play in the story of the long-term development of a national monarchy? Will they remember this when, several years later, they encounter the development of the UK, union with Scotland, Irish independence and union? At that age what can it really mean to them?
Which leads me to another central question – where is the evidence that KS2 children will be able to remember the details of any of these individual events, let alone their significance, when they reach secondary school, let alone at university or later in life? We know that effective learning is a product of revisiting material (unless you’re one of those rare creatures who have the much-fabled photographic memory but even then do mentally-photographed paragraphs such as those above have any real value?) If you don’t revisit and re-use knowledge then most of it fades away from our minds. We all know that from personal experience. Even writing a book about a topic is no guarantee that details stick beyond a relatively short period. When I wrote an A level book on the Tudors in the early 1990s I ran workshops for students for the next three years but then stopped because I no longer had the necessary recall that comes from teaching a topic year in, year out. So if I couldn’t remember such details what chance do the majority of KS2 children have to retain for years ahead the details of all those events scheduled to be taught to them at KS2? Of course we are much better today at teaching in ways that make the material more memorable but even that very considerable advance won’t make this material memorable beyond a short time-span for the vast majority of pupils.
Thirdly, the massively yawning hole at the heart of this bullet point list is any suggestion or encouragement to make links across time (one of strengths of 2008 NC), to revisit periods, to create ‘big pictures’ across the past which is really the only way to help students understand the long-term significance of individual events. As I observed in my previous blog, this is the historical equivalent of teaching children the letters of the alphabet individually but never teaching them to read.
Enough criticism. What could and should have been discussed and proffered as part of a genuine attempt at discussion in a draft NC? What could be taught at KS2, KS3 and GCSE to enhance students’ chronological knowledge and understanding?
What follows are only starting points – there are many issues to be discussed, details developed and corrections to be made (especially as I have limited experience of KS2) but here’s a series of questions and hypotheses that would lead to stronger levels of chronological knowledge and understanding than Mr Gove’s NC will produce. This is necessarily very brief but might have offered a stronger way forward even if detail is lacking.
KS2 – children need to begin with their own experiences, start to learn the simple vocabularies of time, build up ideas about generations, centuries and other terminology. This takes much time and reinforcement. In addition their chronological sense would benefit from studying a wider range of periods spread right across time, several more than they do currently, mostly from British history but also representing other civilisations beyond the classical west. These period studies would have an emphasis on social history and the major aim would be to develop children’s sense of period – being able to identify similarities and differences between periods and to do lots of work on images and objects so their visual sense of chronology develops strongly. Such period studies need to be reinforced frequently, visually and kinaesthetically with timeline work – lots of hats, pictures etc so they always know where a period fits in time. All this means being introduced to periods from the whole sweep of history. Without that, starting to build a sense of chronology will fail. This does not preclude coverage of political events but these are, for the most part, better left to KS3.
On top of that there has to be the opportunity to engage with new discoveries through archaeology, with the types of evidence from each period and the basic processes of the discipline of history including the ability to ask good historical questions.
GCSE – a leap ahead but what’s studied at GCSE inevitably has a back-wash at KS3. The most important point is that some part of a GCSE course should require students to revisit the broad sweep of history, as some currently do through a Development Study. This has the effect of reinforcing their sense of chronology – sequence and duration of periods, terminology etc. Such a Development Study within a GCSE course need not take up more than 25% or 30% of time, leaving the majority of time for a period study or period studies of the type Mr Gove seems likely to favour but the absence of that revisiting of the broad chronological overview means that the sense of overview hopefully developed at a younger age begins to erode and may disintegrate. I do wonder whether Mr Gove would have been so anti-SHP if the ‘Power and Democracy through time’ was studied rather than ‘Medicine through time’. Sadly he doesn’t seem to realise that ‘medicine’ covers every major development in western civilization from Greek philosophy to the impact of the welfare state and the technological revolution and makes a strong case for the beneficial impact of government intervention [though that may be where it goes wrong!]
KS3 – the hard bit. Approaching KS3 requires a strong dose of realism, of sitting down with a planning framework with the amount of teaching time available and looking deeply into what can be taught – and more importantly, learned – effectively in the available time.
The core issue here is what kinds of understandings we want students to have by the time they leave compulsory history at KS3. Mr Gove’s approach suggests that he wants students to have knowledge of people and events as a series of separate items, an educational version of ‘we’ll take each match as it comes, Brian.’ Beginning in 1700, with no encouragement to revisit earlier periods, there is little chance of relating developments and events post-1700 to events and patterns in the Middle Ages or early modern period. The alternative, more realistic and worthwhile, approach in my view is to aim to help students develop a sense of the ‘big pictures’ of the past e.g. a sense of the broad pattern of living standards or royal power across time. Yes, there is a danger of a Whiggish, ‘it’s bound to get better approach over time’ in this but not if we’re aware of it and can plan with that in mind. Another very important argument in favour of creating space for overviews (which must be seen whole in a single lesson to be effective) is that they help to make the individual events and people memorable by explaining their significance. Of course, such outlines would not be the sole element in a curriculum, in fact they would take a minority of time amidst depth studies, but they bind everything together into a coherent whole. And everything would still be in chronological order!!
What’s very much needed is for a much bigger effort to be made to work out how to teach the overviews effectively, enabling students to make links across time. It can provide a powerful alternative to the ‘bullet-point’ history of Mr Gove’s NC, enabling students to continue to study the really major events and people (from whatever chosen start date would be to the present) but knowing that the overviews stop these events simply being stand-alone stories.
At the same time we need to discuss whether it really matters if students leave history at 14 never having heard of the Wars of the Roses or other topics which Mr Gove believes must be learned as ‘cultural capital’ but wouldn’t come high enough up a list of really significant events to merit inclusion in a scheme of work from whenever-to-now in a future KS3. [If you don’t know me this isn’t anti-medieval bias – the 15thC was my research area at university, I taught it at degree level for many years and I still get much joy from studying it but faced with choices, it doesn’t make the cut in my view.] Is it really worth trying to teach every event to the kind of shallow coverage indicated above if the result is that students are unable to see the broad patterns of the past – and do not develop the much-wanted chronological understanding because the picture of the past is far too spread out from Y3 to Y9? If you want a good overview and to help students see the chronological sweep you have to do it quickly. Spreading it over seven or eight years is doomed to failure.
And there are many other areas that should have been debated with teachers about current approaches to KS3. For example, do we give enough time to modern history? Everybody studies 1066 and the Black Death – but do they get too much time at the expense of 19thC political reform or the development of the welfare state? I suspect that often the earlier periods (whatever some academics may think) do get too much time, leaving later material, which we are less used to teaching at this level, squeezed out. Which topics are really more significant for students to understand? And there’s the question of the balance of British and non-British history. One of the defining experiences of my life was working as a VSO teacher in Aswan, Egypt, my first prolonged encounter with another people – except they weren’t ‘another people’, they were just like people back in Liverpool, varied in their characters but overwhelmingly welcoming and generous. The histories of other peoples are very much worth studying to discover their achievements, their humanity, their triumphs. Focussing on British achievements alone will create a very warped view of human history.
That’s enough – a very hasty set of issues hurled together when I really ought to be editing an A level book. I’m not sure this has turned out as coherent as I would have liked and I don’t expect anyone in power to take any notice but I wanted to say this. I suppose the major difference is that teachers realise the fundamental importance of thinking about a curriculum from two directions at once – what you want children to learn and how they go about learning it. Mr Gove is one-dimensional – he seemingly knows nothing about how children learn and focusses solely on what is to be poured into their brains. This one-dimensional approach is doomed to failure.
To end with one of my inevitable sporting analogies – Mr Gove is tackling the development of children’s chronological knowledge and understanding with all the subtlety and grace of a club third eleven 20-20 cricketer. Many teachers and history educators have been tackling these topics at Test Match level, not always with success but with an increasing understanding of what it takes to move forward and succeed at this level.
He really ought to give the good players a chance to show what they can do in thinking ahead and planning for a better curriculum – it might just be inspirational.