The Knowledge

I’m coming clean now and admitting I thought the knowledge vs skills thing a false dichotomy (and an enormous distraction, but that’s for another time). This is a conclusion I came to after spending a great deal of time mystified as to how anybody can think history teachers don’t teach knowledge. I have always placed myself at the progressive end of the spectrum: I love a good card sort and have witnessed first-hand the effectiveness of a well-planned role play in tethering knowledge to a student’s brain. But then I see the sorts of things the other end of the spectrum favour – detailed fingertip knowledge, reading in depth, among other things – and I like and do those too. They’re not mutually exclusive in my classroom. Rich Kennett wrote about this a couple of weeks ago. I felt pedagogically confused.

The thing that was most confusing, though, was the whole knowledge issue. I could not understand the claims that an entire sector of the history teaching community didn’t teach it. I started to suspect that, in a number of discussions that masquerade as trad vs prog, it was what knowledge was being taught, rather than knowledge in general that fuelled the fire: the tired old stereotypes about the horror of children not knowing, for example, who Winston Churchill was. But what knowledge is a political beast. Nobody tells us what knowledge: that’s the whole point of the National Curriculum. Surely dictating what knowledge is just intellectual snobbery?

Well. Then I started working in a new school. My year 9s started to ask questions like, “Miss, when are we going to study Titanic?” I had to say it was not on the curriculum for this year. They looked disappointed. I looked at my one hour a week and knew it couldn’t be justified. But, I went to Twitter anyway, to see if there was something I was missing. I mean, I’d teach Vlad the Impaler as an interpretations study – there are no stones to be left unturned around this glass house.

Unfortunately, Twitter left me unconvinced. I don’t see how it can fill the twin requirements of providing a good second-order concept focus AND fit into the big picture of history that I want my students to have by the end of year 9. ‘Why did it sink?’ – causation? Maybe – but there are tonnes of causation studies that I think fit the bill better, and I’m recently of the opinion that we could all spend a lot less time on causation at KS3 anyway, because I think it has become the path of least resistance. Societal structure at the start of the 20th century? Mmm. I don’t teach it, but if I did I’d do it with the Liberal Reforms. It’s fun and engaging? ALL History is fun and engaging, isn’t it? That’s not a valid argument in my book.

This leaves me twitchy, though. It’s not up to me to dictate the content of everybody’s KS3 curriculum. I don’t see the rigour or benefit of teaching the Titanic, so I won’t teach it. Why isn’t it OK if other people do? Isn’t that intellectual snobbery? Isn’t that like when an outgoing HoD said to me during a job interview, “Medicine Through Time might work in state schools but our students need something that will prepare them for History at degree level”? (No, I was not offered that job. Would love to know what she thinks of the new GCSE.) That’s not ‘knowledge vs skills’. That’s ‘knowledge I value vs knowledge I don’t but you clearly do, for some reason’. And that’s not the same debate.

It is, however, up to me to decide on the KS3 curriculum for my school. That is my role as a HoD. That is the product of more than 13 years of teaching, averaging a teaching load of 41/fortnight. I’ve done my 10,000 hours, if you like that sort of theory. I am employed to make decisions about what is best. Here are some things I teach at KS3 that most people probably don’t:

  1. British Diet Through Time. It helps me cover some key events and themes in British history whilst practising change/continuity: society in 1000, the Crusades, the slave trade, the rise of the Empire. I’ve had a lot of flak for my obsession with the potato but it’s an important consequence of Tudor exploration and a herald of the Agricultural Revolution. It’s part of the big picture. And I am obsessed, and I’m not sorry about it.
  2. WW1 as a social study. My colleague has a politics background and is fresh from teaching the Modern World GCSE for several years; she taught a Y9 WW1 study that included the Schlieffen Plan, which I’d heard of, and the July Crisis, which I hadn’t. Mine was about soldier motivation, propaganda, conscription and conscientious objectors. I squeezed in some change over time. We read some Harry Patch, who’s a localish boy. Both of these are valid approaches: students need some understanding of WW1 to underpin future study, but the devil really isn’t in the detail here. If it was, we’d probably need to spend most of Y9 on it, sacrificing breadth for depth.
  3. Interpretations of Harold Godwinson’s death. This doubles as my favourite G&T History taster for primary students. We do Hastings in a more traditional sense as well, but I chuck in a comparison of the Bayeux Tapestry and the Carmen at the end. This was our A-level coursework for a short time before the 2009 revamp.#
  4. Impact of the British Empire on Britain. Surprisingly difficult to resource. I do miss the more traditional British Empire bits – the plate, the excursions of the East India Company, the scramble for Africa – but this study fits more neatly into our survey unit of what had changed Britain by 1900 and picks up the Slave Trade study from Y7 and the arrival of tea and sugar from the diet study.

I think it is also up to me – as it is to all of us – to be the critical friend here. I might be picking up students at GCSE and beyond that have followed a history curriculum elsewhere that has not adequately prepared them for further study, and it makes me ache when I hear about history departments staffed by non-specialists teaching good stories without any thought for the important concepts that should underpin them. Those are the tricky conversations we should all be having to check that our curriculum is the best it possibly can be for our students – and with each other, unless we have the benefit of subject-specific line management. This can be awkward because, as I’m fond of pointing out, teachers build their entire careers on being right all the time and that makes it all the more difficult to face up to making changes. But there’s fun in the rigour, the challenge and the high expectations, and this is the kind of fun that can’t be provided by Horrible Histories. So, this is the kind we need to step up to provide.

In short: I think we should be wary of people telling us what we should be teaching, but shouldn’t get complacent with it. There’s always room for improvement.

[This post sort of ran away with me. As always, writing about it has helped me to get it straight in my head. I was thinking about it so hard whilst walking home last night that I apparently ignored my husband, stuck in traffic and waving at me, and walked right past him, oblivious. I made Rich read it and give me feedback: super helpful as always, thank you.]

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