The Knowledge

To be licensed as a London black cab driver, applicants must complete an in-depth study of the cities street routes and places of interest.  To pass the rigorous examinations they must not use either satellite navigation or rely on a radio controller.  Acquiring The Knowledge and being granted a license takes the average driver nearly three years.  During training candidates, known as Knowledge boys or girls, follow routes around London on a scooter learning a set number of routes each day.  The process is painstakingly incremental but those that succeed have become experts in their domain.

But, of course, London black cab drivers are only experts in London.  Should the driver swap their black cab for a yellow one, expecting them to be able to apply their knowledge of London to New York would be a nonsense.  Gaining a firm knowledge of New York would require them to get back on their scooters and start all over again.

I think this analogy is a helpful one when considering the role of knowledge in the history curriculum and also helps to explain why the subject poses significant challenges to generic planning, teaching and assessment policies.  Before going any further I would like to acknowledge that much of my thinking here has been formed by Michael Fordham’s work and, especially, the talk he gave at the recent West London Free School conference.

History is the school subject in which the domain is largest.  While the amount of maths in a curriculum might be increased or decreased it remains a largely accepted body of content.  A simultaneous equation in France is a simultaneous equation in Lithuania, Ethiopia or England.  In physical geography, the processes that form rivers don’t vary according to where it is in the world.  Erosion and deposition are universal; a student that understands these processes in the Nile River can apply this understanding to a study of the Amazon or the Thames.  History is different and more akin to The Knowledge learned by black cab drivers in that it far less replicable or applicable in different contexts.  Although both subjects are concerned with religion, a child who knows reasons for the English Reformation would not be able use this knowledge to explain the development of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  The History Of The World is, for all practical purposes, infinite and expecting a anyone to achieve mastery of it would be absurd.

History teachers, curriculum planners and the exam boards that create GCSE courses know this.  We don’t expect children to learn The History Of The World.  We choose from it to create domains in which we think it is beneficial, for different reasons, that children achieve some degree of mastery.

This is a considerable challenge for schools trying to use generic models to assess and track learning in history.  History curriculums are typically chronological at Key Stage 3 and most of the content studied in the lower years is not included in the domain taught and examined at GCSE.  This means that data tracking of KS3 groups can be extremely misleading, especially if this information is intended to generate a grade that equates to GCSE examination performance.  The only way to do this with any degree of accuracy would be to teach only KS4 content to KS3 using the chosen exam boards heuristics.  While this may make the data from assessments a more accurate indicator of eventual KS4 results it is, of course, unethical and arguably immoral.

Some schools have tried to resolve this by identifying what are often referred to as historical skills.  The thinking behind this, if I’ve got it right, seems to be that there are certain generic competencies, often thought to be hierarchical, which drive the acquisition of substantive knowledge.  For example, it is assumed that ‘description’ is a lower-order skill which students should acquire first.  Once students know how to ‘describe’ they can then move onto ‘explaining’, which is supposed to be trickier.  In these systems a child getting better at history is one who is mastering more and more difficult skills and it is assumed that once they have these skills they can confidently apply them to new content.  This model is understandably attractive to non-subject specialists and generic inspection regimes because it allows those without substantive or disciplinary knowledge to make a judgement on progress by looking at the acquisition of skills, which is a process they feel they understand.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say there is absolutely no value in this approach.  To return to my black cab analogy I would suggest that these ‘skills’ can be likened to the actual driving of the car.  The driver must know how to operate the clutch and accelerator.  They must also know how to indicate and they know how to switch on headlamps when it gets dark.  If a driver can’t do these things they, of course, must learn.  I’d liken these mechanical functions to knowing how to read and write in increasingly sophisticated and complex sentences.  Although these skills are necessary it is instructive to remember that a person can be taught to drive in an intensive course over a week, while learning The Knowledge takes years, that it is this cabbies spend most of their time doing, and it is on this their expertise is judged.  Overplaying the importance of generic skills is dangerous in that it results in an imbalanced focus; a non-subject specialist advising a disciplinary expert on how to improve based on a generic skills based approach is the equivalent of a driving instructor sitting next to an expert London black cab driver and suggesting things like “indicate earlier” or “remember Mirror Signal Manoeuvre.”  This might lead to some minor improvements but clearly completely misses the point and can create a very unhelpful conception over what real progress is.

So if ‘skills’ outside discrete domains are not good indicators of improvement in history what is?  Michael Fordham has argued very convincingly about the importance of substantive knowledge and I agree with him.  What generally makes one person better at history than another is that they know more about the subject they’re dealing with.    As history teachers, regardless of how we were trained, I think most of us know this instinctively.  This is why even departments that spend a great deal of time on ‘skills’ in KS3 teach more didactically and give out content led revision guides and knowledge organisers when Y11 exams loom.  This is not to say that disciplinary knowledge, which isn’t generic, is of any less significance but simply an acknowledgement that it sits within substantive knowledge and doesn’t exist if separated from it.

The primacy of substantive and disciplinary knowledge in improving learning in history lessons has unavoidable implications for the accurate assessment of teaching quality.  Accepting that generic ‘skills’ are an inappropriate measure of progress in history means accepting that those without relevant knowledge will struggle to form accurate judgements of the learning they observe.  For example, if a teacher is delivering a lesson on the role of the Reichstag Fire in Hitler’s rise to power, but the observer doesn’t know themselves, it is not possible for them to make a judgement on the degree to which the lesson has been successful.  The same issues arise in book scrutiny and other forms of quality assurance. This problem is far from being a hypothetical one and it worries me a great deal that many, if not most, history teachers in England are trying to improve their teaching of history based on generic success criteria developed by those who’ve only ever studied it as novices.

The importance of knowledge to student success is certainly borne out by my own experience.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, looking over the past exam scripts of my students proves that problems in student achievement were not down to, aside from the very high end, issues with understanding how to answer questions or the second order concepts that underpin them.  Typically, students who ended up with say, ‘Cs’ instead of ‘Bs’, did so because their answers in some areas were much stronger than in others; inconsistency in knowledge was the most limiting factor in their success, not a lack of any generic skill.

This all suggests to me that secondary history departments should be aiming, primarily, to build strong substantive and disciplinary knowledge right from Year 7 with the minimum of fuss and distraction.  Assessments should test the ability of students to remember what they’ve learned over a long period of time and that, as Fordham has more eloquently explained, the progression model should be the curriculum.  Trying to track improvement by assessing improvements to generic skills is a dangerous red herring, akin to trying to assess the expertise of a London cab driver by giving him or her a driving test.  It also implies to students that there are shortcuts that can be taken and fails to address the elephant in the room; you simply cannot answer a question on something you don’t know about.

I’d like to conclude by suggesting something I can’t prove.  I’d argue that should a certified London cab driver be required to gain the same level of expertise over another city they’d do so in less time than it took them to learn London’s streets, but this would not be because of generic driving competency or because anything they know is directly applicable.  It would be because by achieving mastery in one domain they’d have improved their ability to efficiently move information from short to long term memory, and the methods used to do this would be useful even in an unfamiliar city.  This is another important reason why teaching and assessing substantive knowledge, even that outside the domain assessed at Y11, is both useful and worthwhile; if students become good at remembering a lot in KS3, they will be better able to do the same at KS4.

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5 thoughts on “The Knowledge

  1. My experience, in getting scripts back after pupils have done worse than they’d hoped or expected, is the same as yours: answers which haven’t been highly rewarded are mainly deficient in facts, not in technique.

    This is partly, I suspect, because the modern teacher spends quite a lot of time on exam technique in lessons, and marking from the beginning of a GCSE or A Level course is focussed on the extent to which the offering meets the published criteria.

    Because I’m an unutterable cynic, I think that pupils, their parents, and sometimes school leaders, would prefer to think that ‘exam technique’ is more important than it really is. Why? Because then it’s our fault for not teaching those box-ticking ‘skills’ well enough, rather than the pupil’s fault for not revising the facts assiduously enough.

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  2. A word about this:
    “Typically, students who ended up with say, ‘Cs’ instead of ‘Bs’, did so because their answers in some areas were much stronger than in others; inconsistency in knowledge was the most limiting factor in their success, not a lack of any generic skill.”

    After 17 series of examining, the bulk of the evidence forces me to disagree. The most common problem* is knowing plenty but not correctly applying it. The finer points of the Four Humours; the excruciating details of Trial by Ordeal – all regurgitated faithfully, but, heart-breakingly too often, not directed at the question.

    This could be a simple matter of exam technique, but that is relatively easy to fix; so it more likely points to a chronic lack of understanding. This is why Knowledge girls/boys go out and run the routes: because if they just learned it off a map, they’d never have a good understanding of how this street gets clogged at rush hour and that street has a traffic light. Understanding takes application, practice and time. It cannot be rote learned: it’s what has to happen after that.

    * for the sake of fairness, knowing naff all is also a very common problem.

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    • Thanks, Sally. A really thought provoking post. It’s interesting that our experiences are so different. I don’t have your wealth of experience as an examiner and, while I do recognise the problems you describe, they aren’t for me anywhere near the most significant limiting factor in student achievement. I wonder if this might be because I have always worked in schools with significant social disadvantage? Is it possible, I wonder, that low social capital and cultures in which revision is quite alien makes a lack of a strong substantive knowledge base more of an issue than in other areas?

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      • A big part of me says that SK is less of an issue where the teacher has an excellent grasp of the content and can weave appropriate knowledge in throughout. Where teachers are only 2 pages ahead of students, SK for these kids will never be good enough. http://www.andallthat.co.uk/blog/on-being-two-pages-ahead The biggest issue with SK for me therefore is that teachers know enough, not that students absorb more and more.

        Once teachers are confident with SK and the big themes which hold it together, they are more able to deliver it effectively to students at the right depth. The next issue (as Sally points ou) is helping them to marshal this effectively.

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  3. A great thought-provoking post. While I agree that a strong base of substantive knowledge is necessary and indeed the foundation of engaging in history as a discipline, I think your argument pushes the pendulum too far the other way. I feel that the association of mechanical skills is an oversimplification of the ability of historians and history students to engage in increasingly complex historical skills like significance or other procedural concepts. Now I am coming in from a different assessment system and context but I would like to think this applies to what most western systems of history are trying to achieve.

    I have recently experienced an example of this myself after moving regions and my colleague has an exceptional body of knowledge of local history. Now I do know a lot of stuff but I am playing catch up when it comes to topic knowledge in local history. However, I do have a doctorate in history and strong disciplinary procedural skills that enables me to offer insights into material as an historian that others might not be able to make. In short, for me both substantive knowledge and procedural skills (not generic) together is what makes history as a discipline and what we want students to engage with.

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