This is a lengthy blog and I’m grateful, in advance, to those who persevere. In an attempt to break the cycle of throwing huge amounts at KS4 because of deficiencies in our KS3 curriculum I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how best to teach our younger students. This post goes after my shorter one, on why I don’t think it’s a good idea to begin Year 7 with the “What Is History?” unit.
Apologies for the somewhat bossy tone. If I sound like I’m being a know-it-all it’s only because I’m trying to be as clear as I can be with myself. I’m very open to robust critique. This post is supposed to be the beginning of my thoughts on this, not the end. I will, I know, have make mistakes and oversights and welcome comments and responses that point out where I’ve gone wrong.
I’ve deliberately left out dealing with how different interpretations of narrative should be taught as I’m working on a distinct post on this. Suffice to say that I am well aware of the dangers of teaching history as a narrative of accepted truths.
KS3 history courses should teach children chronologically. This makes it easier for students to see links and recurrent themes and is clearer. Curriculums that move between different time periods in a non-linear fashion can be confusing and can lead children into seeing Spitfires strafing William’s Knights in ‘The Mysterious Land of Long Ago’, which makes misunderstandings and anachronisms more likely.
So if KS3 is not to begin with “What is History?” then where should it start? The Palaeolithic? Celtic? Roman? Anglo-Saxon? Normans? Cases could be made for or against any of these, but with limited time decisions must be made. Some schools, especially those with close links to primary feeders, consult with KS2 teachers to develop one integrated curriculum that avoids repetition. While the ideal, in my experience, such close links are regrettably rare. Most secondary school students arrive at very different starting points. Some may have completed a project on Ancient Egypt, while others may have spent time learning about Victorian schools. Some may have done both and more. Where there is inconsistency in what children have studied at primary school, KS3 history shouldn’t be too informed by it, especially as even children who attend the same primary are likely to remember different amounts of what they studied. That said, good departments should create and maintain links with primaries to avoid unnecessary repetition.
Where schools choose to start will vary according to the amount of time available. Schools in which KS3 is two years will usually want to start later than those in which there are three years to play with. Schools teaching a three year KS3 course many want to begin with Roman Britain but those changing to a two year KS3, as a response to the more content heavy new GCSEs, may decide to start with the Norman Invasion with an overview lesson before it to set the topic in its historical context.
Once a department has decided where the course should begin, they should decide where it should end. That this differs between schools is not bad thing so long as some careful thought has gone into why the course finishes where it does. At my school, KS3 finishes with a thematic study of terrorism as we feel this to be a defining feature of the modern world.
These two bookends, the beginning and the end, provide a frame within which to plan the rest of the curriculum. It may be helpful to keep the questions “how did we get from there to here?” in mind while planning, as this can help with threading a coherent narrative through the course.
Next, those responsible for planning KS3 history should decide which events in history are significant enough to warrant a place on the curriculum. This is a big responsibility, especially given that for some children, KS3 will be the only time in which they meaningfully learn history. Anything they don’t know at the end, they may never know, and not knowing aspects of our shared heritage excludes people from important aspects of our culture.
Allowing just one person to decide what will be studied is usually ill judged. Doing so runs the risk of creating an unbalanced curriculum. For example, should the Head of Department be fascinated by military history, their personal bias could mean that battles and wars are over-emphasised. It is far healthier is to allow all members of the department a voice. This is more likely to result in a well balanced course that reflects pluralistic perspectives. An added benefit is that teachers who’ve had a hand in designing curriculum are more likely to teach it well because of their greater investment in it. All those responsible for deciding what will be studied should be aware of the dangers of being too partisan, contrary or overly idiosyncratic. Teachers may be experts in fields not considered mainstream and feel passionately that these areas deserve great attention. While this passion is of course not in itself a bad thing it is important to recognise that including more left-field topics has an opportunity cost and if this results in children failing to know things considered culturally significant by wider society, they may well be disadvantaged by their teacher’s personal peccadilloes.
Those planning KS3 curriculums should be sensitive to the needs of their student demographic. If, for example, the school has a large proportion of children from an East Asian background it would make sense to teach the East India Company, the Raj and the Indian Independence Movement. This approach allows children from diverse backgrounds to see how their own stories fit into England and make it the country it is today. If a school has a large number of students with a Caribbean heritage and less with an Indian one, it would probably be more sensible to teach some lessons, at the appropriate chronological time, on post World War Two immigration from Empire countries. There are many similarities in this approach to how local history should be included in a KS3 curriculum which means, ironically, for some schools local studies could also be international ones.
Once a department has decided the events to be studied it should then decide which stories it wishes to tell, and which themes and factors will be emphasised. Stories are important. They give meaning to events that appear otherwise unconnected and make history easier to remember.
These stories and themes should be influenced by those in the KS4 course but shouldn’t be dictated by them. For example, if students are to learn the Anglo-Saxon and Norman Invasion topic at GCSE, it might make sense to tell the story of how political power and control has changed in KS3. This could be done by looking at the way in which England was controlled changed under its kings and queens and then how monarchical power declined during and after the Stuart period. However, KS3 curriculums should not slavishly follow the themes in the GCSE course. Doing this is likely to mean distorting events to artificially meet narratives that don’t really fit and will confuse students. Such an approach can also lead to important stories specific to events in KS3 not being told. For example, changes in the level of influence of religion in England might not be particularly relevant to GCSE but is fundamentally important to understanding England between 1066 and the features of the present day Church of England. Not teaching this story would be a mistake.
The stories and themes that a department decides to tell and emphasise at KS3 should be explicitly communicated and regularly revisited. It should be clear to children that the events they learn about fit into overall narratives and link together, building a sense of causality and preventing children seeing past events as islands unconnected to anything else. Deciding on the stories and themes also makes deciding on the amount of time to spend on each topic easier.
While KS3 history should be taught in a predominantly chronologically it’s a good idea to also teach a thematic study before the GCSE years. This is desirable, firstly because it gives students a more nuanced understanding of what history as a discipline is. Historians do not just write on specific, defined eras. For example, Roy Porter’s tremendously enjoyable work on medicine is thematic and to not give children an opportunity to understand approaches like this one is to limit their understanding of the subject itself. Not doing so also runs the risk of teaching narratives that imply history is the story of an upward march from the depths of depravity to the sunny uplands of modern civilization. Departments eyeing good exam grades may also teach a thematic study in KS3 so that students choosing GCSE history have experience of working this way before embarking on the development study component of the new KS4 courses.
How much history is enough?
History teachers are generally more comfortable with the idea of depth studies than they are examining events in less detail over a longer period of time. This is understandable. Historians have produced lengthy books on every imaginable topic appearing on the KS3 curriculum and this makes teachers uneasy with what could appear to be skimming over hugely significant events and eras. GCSE courses which, quite rightly, drive much of the way in which KS3 is planned compound this issue by focussing in more detail on comparatively shorter periods of times. Of course, some courses contain elements that deal with very long time periods (e. g the wonderful Medicine Through Time course) but these thematic studies are, unfortunately, less commonly taught to KS3.
While there is apparent security in teaching a limited number of topics in depth such approaches come at a price. If more time is spent on less, less time can be spent on more. Very significant events can be left out altogether and the events that are included assume significance in the eyes of students that they might not always warrant. This can create the impression history began with the Norman Invasion, and then moved to the Tudors, who turned into the Victorians who fought the world wars. A reason for this can be seen in the way World War Two is taught in many schools. Such units are often huge, including some or often all of the following as individual lessons; Appeasement, The Phony War, Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, The Blitz, the Home Front, The Eastern Front, VE Day, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effect on Empire and the origins of Remembrance Sunday. This is not to say that World War Two is insignificant, but it is worth having a look at the long list of important topics which usually aren’t taught at KS3 and considering whether such a focus on one, admittedly extremely important, event is justified in a wider context.
I’ve recently come across what seems a very helpful approach to balancing breadth with depth in Jim Carroll’s work. Teaching a broad ‘framework’ of history and then studying carefully chosen events in detail within this seems to me a fundamentally sensible strategy and will be one I’m going to be thinking hard about as we continue to revise our own KS3 curriculum.
While certain carefully selected topics should be taught in depth, history teachers should not be scared of covering more in less detail. Breadth should not be a dirty word. A lot can be learned in two or three years and if we see history as “drinking an ocean but peeing a cupful” as Gustave Flaubert did, it makes sense to me that we show our children how wide the ocean is before descending into its depths