The weekend before last, I spoke at the West London Free School History Conference. The event was a superb gathering of history teachers and it was a real privilege to be able to share some of our Michaela insights. I thought it would be a nice idea for me to summarise the content of my workshop here, for the benefit of those who could not make it, or for those that are interested in our approach to teaching history. At the conference I spent some time explaining the core principles of the school, as a whole. This has been summarised far better elsewhere, so for this post I will give a brief overview of our approach to history specifically, as I outlined at the conference. I hope this goes some way into providing a concise guide into the underlying philosophy that underpins our thinking in the Humanities Department and how we get the pupils thinking hard about the discipline and writing great history.
History at Michaela
We believe that our pupils deserve to be taught the very best of what has been thought and said across the humanities. We think that if the right systems and teaching is in place, then the subject content should engage our pupils. We therefore do not plan for engagement, but for rigour. This does not mean we don’t think carefully about how we chunk knowledge so that pupils remain focused on what’s important. It does not mean either that we don’t think about how we can make our explicit instruction capture the imagination of our charges. We do not teach topics just because they are relevant, but because we think our pupils need to know them. We do not select topics based on narrow pupil demographics. We believe firmly in teaching our children their rightful inheritance of western philosophy, history and culture. This does not mean we do not teach history through a global lens, nor does it mean that we don’t focus on aspects of history that have been unfairly side-lined in the past. A choice to teach one thing in history is a choice not to teach a thousand others. Decisions need to be expedient and it would be irresponsible if we did not give our pupils the necessary amount of British and European History which would enable them to anchor themselves in the country and continent that is highly likely to be their home for the rest of their lives. It would also be irresponsible to exclude them from the great conversations of western culture that the wealthy and powerful are able to navigate with such deftness and ease.
Our philosophy as a school is that academic knowledge should and needs to be taught explicitly from the front, so that our pupils can creatively flex that knowledge and bring it to bear on conceptually focused questions. In history, we think this is especially clear. I’ll use the example of the First World War. A pupil cannot answer a question on the causes of the First World War unless he/she knows the following:
- the chronology of 1870-1914
- the main events and their consequences
- people and personalities
- procedural knowledge of cause and effect which enables pupils to discern the relative impact of certain events
All of the above can and should be taught explicitly. Only then will a pupil be close to answering a question which can be objectively agreed on as a ‘sound’ historical argument.
3. How we teach
Contrary to popular opinion, a change is not always as good as a rest. We believe that it is the content that should vary, not the task or the activity. Why?
a) The level of complexity and variety for a pupil in a school day is already extremely high. Imagine a pupil who has six lessons each day for five days of the week.
b) By reducing the number of tasks or activities for a pupil, teachers do not have to spend time instructing how to do the task. They can spend all of their time addressing misconceptions of the what rather than the how.
c) Consistency – By limiting the number of tasks in a lesson, the variety between teachers and subjects is limited. This avoids ‘the race to the bottom’ for ‘fun’ or ‘engaging’ activities.
Tasks at Michaela therefore are limited to written and oral re-caps, quizzes, whole-class reading and instruction, co-construction, pair work and independent practice.
Knowledge Organisers can be important in history, as well as other subjects. The difference lies in how we use them in our department. We still organise key dates, people and events but we also consider the procedural knowledge needed for pupils to make sense of a particular question or period. We would use Christine Counsell’s phrasing and call this distinction ‘residue’ knowledge and ‘finger-tip’ knowledge. Residue knowledge is the sense of period that they will leave with at the end of the unit and will remember. This might be a broad sense of the events or chronology, or an understanding of important historical concepts, either substantive, procedural or both. We interpret ‘finger-tip’ knowledge as the knowledge that pupils need in the short-term to answer a specific historical question. Our aim is for pupils to remember what they have learnt and so we need to be careful about what we include on organisers and how we use them in lessons to ensure that the knowledge sticks with the pupils. They are useful for codifying the most important knowledge for the unit, however it is vital that they are used as a tool and not an all-encompassing panacea. There is a temptation to view glib one-sided organisers as the solution to the problem of the pupils not really knowing an awful lot and failing to retain knowledge beyond the unit. In reality, they are used at Michaela as a small part of the big picture of history curriculum design, teaching and retrieval. If you think that learning the knowledge organiser is the main aim of the game, then you have missed the point entirely. The most important resource in the room is the teacher’s specialism and subject knowledge. Knowledge organisers must be used in conjunction with excellent teaching and formative assessment, otherwise they can lead to the substantive knowledge becoming acutely inflexible.
4. How we get history to ‘stick’.
We believe that schools can underplay the importance of memory in the curriculum. We say that if you haven’t remembered it, you haven’t learnt it. How do we get pupils to remember the history they have done, not just last lesson, but all the way back to Year 7?
a) Sequenced and distributed re-cap: we give the pupils a third of lesson time to re-visit and retrieve knowledge from previous units and previous years.
b) Overlearning: we keep pupils learning after they know the material to prevent forgetting: ‘a good rule of thumb is to put in another 20 percent of the time it took to master the material’. This is why we spend so much lesson time on recap.
c) Testing frequently: testing students frequently helps them remember material. This another reason we spend so much lesson time on recap.
All historical topics should have a focus. The work of Michael Riley et al. is instructive in clarifying the importance of rigorous and challenging questions in secondary history classrooms. The answering of historical questions is at the heart of what we do. The origin of the word history, as most of us know means ‘enquiry’. However, an enquiry question is not the same as enquiry-based learning. We think that sometimes, a slavish focus on the enquiry question can lead to enquiry-induced blindness, whereby other fascinating and important parts of a historical topic are side-lined. Moreover, enquiries can often be created for engagement, rather than rigour. It is not to say that engagement and rigour are mutually exclusive, far from it. In fact, it is the intrinsic rigour of the subject, when mastered, that makes history engaging. We think that the best questions are rooted in historical scholarship. It is another aspect to our practice that we think is worth thinking about to ensure our questions reflect real historical debates and enable the pupils to get a broad sense of period. We try and craft enquiries that enable the pupils to bring as much wider knowledge to bear on a specific question.
6. Substantive & Procedural knowledge
There have been necessary and positive developments in history teaching in recent decades, notably the understanding that in order to ‘do history’; you need to be clear about the analytical framework in which you are flexing your substantive knowledge. However, we would still argue that this is still knowledge that can be taught explicitly and that a dogmatic focus on second order concepts such ‘change’ or ‘cause’ can actually inhibit us from mastering the critical substantive knowledge that will enable us to actually discern change, or ascertain a cause. Crucially, every analytical framework is firmly rooted in the specific domain of that topic – or the substantive knowledge of that period. For example, understanding the causes of the First World War requires a radically different conceptual and substantive toolkit than understanding the causes of the European Renaissance, despite the existence of clear similarities of second order concepts across time. This is not to say that second order concepts are not vital to discerning patterns in history, merely that we are careful to ensure that teaching second-order concepts is not at the cost of teaching the substantive knowledge which will enable them to understand and discern the second order concepts in the first place.
7. The Epistemology of History has become its Ontology
This is a phrase which I was told about by Michaela’s former Head of Humanities, Jonny Porter. He came across it in a blog by Michael Fordham a few years ago and I find it a particularly instructive phrase. ‘Epistemology’ in this case means the theory and methodology of history knowledge (the ‘doing’ history). ‘Ontology’ in this case refers to its very essence, or being. Although enquiry is at the heart of historical scholarship, clearly that enquiry is intended to discern truth in and of itself. We believe it is a mistake to make the ‘doing history’ the most important component of history itself, particularly at KS3. There are two problems with this view of the discipline for our secondary school pupils. It often manifests itself in the belief that as long as pupils are able to master certain skills, then that makes them able to tackle historical problems and by extension, the problems of the real world more effectively. This is often shown in the ‘death by sources’ fetish that seems to have dominated much history teaching in schools. We believe this is a mistake because the idea of ‘analysis’ has to be rooted in the topic, or period you are studying. The second problem with this view is that in order to ‘do history’, it requires prior knowledge in the first place. I think about some of the classic sources used in KS3 and KS4 History. One example might be Joseph Goebbel’s Sportpalast Speech calling for ‘total war’. In order to fully understand this source, you need reams of knowledge. You need to know who Joseph Goebbels was. You need to know that he was the Nazi Minister of Propaganda. You need to know who the Nazis were. You need to know what propaganda is. You even need to know what a minister is. Finally, you need to know what was going on in Germany in 1943, and that the Red Army had just defeated the German Army at Stalingrad and that the Americans and British were starting to see the fruits of some early success. This prior knowledge needs to have been taught somewhere along the line, otherwise ‘doing history’ becomes an esoteric fumble which punishes those pupils who do not have the benefit of a culture of wider reading or a knowledge rich curriculum. These pupils, are of course, incidentally often the poorest.
‘Analysis’ is an opaque term to describe what is ostensibly the essence of historical scholarship. Analysis is the ability to bring relevant domain specific knowledge to bear on a question, or debate. It is also true that the main points have clash within the main historical eras we teach have generally been discerned, for the purposes of an 11 year old. It is therefore incumbent on us to also provide the pupils with the main lines of analysis in our teaching so that can understand the variety of ways they could answer a particular question. This is not to say that we do not expose them to differences in interpretation, or that we do not allow pupils to develop their own ways of expressing historical claims, only that we think it is often the case that we prematurely rush to complex history without the pupils having a bedrock of knowledge beforehand. It would be irresponsible to not teach pupils that claims about the past are contested. Naturally, as time progresses, these scaffolds and lines of analysis will be reduced, much in line with the pupils’ understanding that history is not just a clear cut narrative but also contains a myriad of different interpretations and viewpoints. The aim of KS3 history at Michaela is to give the pupils enough substantive knowledge to ensure they are ready to enter the intellectually volatile world of the professional historian.