WLFS History Conference: Counsell

The odds are stacked against the poor. They have little chance of climbing into the corridors of power. And the odds are also stacked against peace. In many countries, history is about knowing a particular story and being able to shout that story loudest. This can lead to a lot of rock throwing. 

It is difficult to create a fixed, agreed story that keeps everybody happy – Christine talks about her experiences working with history teachers in Beirut, trying to organise a history curriculum change for the first time since 1968. They look to the British history community as a model of how to come up with a curriculum that acknowledges difference and disagreement, and encompasses it. 

Christine talks about changes in school history in the 20th century and the marginalisation of substantive knowledge. We need to unpack what sits under our own proficiency and fluency, if we are going to be able to prepare particularly the poorest children, to join the speech community at the very least, and then the educated community. 

The responsibility of the history community in this country is colossal – our students, our country, the world – and we must measure up. What locus of authority should we look to as our lead? We should look to academe, and SLT should support that. 

Arguments for knowledge. 

Christine shares a passage from Schama about 1066 (‘bones under the buttercups’). We have plenty of memory space and a fluency that enables us to understand it. This is coffee table history – most people should be able to leave school understanding it. Christine breaks the extract down into words we need substantive knowledge to understand and words related to the second order concept, pointing out that we need to understand the former to help us with the latter. This is a clear argument for specific teaching of knowledge. 

Christine references an article from TH157 by Kate Hammond, which points out a lack of discriminatory markschemes from exam boards. Always worth noting that those are written to go alongside examiner training. Anyway – this led to a masters project on the reasons why some good students collapse in the exam due to a lack of substantive knowledge. 

A critical mass of knowledge is vital to crafting a nuanced judgement; when I explain to parents how their children are doing I say that it’s like clay work. You need to know your clay really well to be able to shape it into the request of the examiner: children often acquire plenty of clay but then present it as a lump, rather than shaping it appropriately. This seems to fit what Christine is sharing (I think). 

Hirsch. Read ch2, says Christine, though the rest is optional. He’s a valuable starting point, because he explains beautifully the psychological structure of background knowledge. He reminds us that we can interpret a text because we can bring schemata to bear on a text within a microsecond. We don’t even know we are doing it. This I’d what we need to teach and foster as we teach. 

Implications? Fingertip knowledge and residual knowledge: consider how they are different, what they are for each lesson and how you can best teach both. 

It’s important to be clear on the fingertip and residual knowledge and what they are in each topic. This goes beyond knowledge organisers. 

Regular, varied, low-stakes assessment, ensuring steady and cumulative mastery of knowledge, in the context of disciplinary processes. 


Genericism – what works for one subject does not necessarily fit all.

Gaming the system.

Grumble, grouse and grievance – it’s hard, yes, but in the end it will make it easier. 

Christine finishes with a comment about the damaging view that the knowledge camp comprises neo-con restorationists. She states that she is not a lackey of the Tories, that the focus on knowledge is much broader than that. Understanding the canon helps us to critique it, so let’s teach it to them. 

What are our responsibilities? Be scholarly.  Model being scholarly. Make it possible for other teachers to be scholarly. Pass on moral courage to enable children to challenge that with which they disagree. Make the child want to be part of the conversation, and provide them with the ability to join it.

(Once again, just a flavour…too much good stuff to write it all down).

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