I am an Aston Villa fan and, for the last few years, it has not been much fun. Since the departure of Martin O’Neill in 2010, the team has undergone a gradual but inexorable decline which, after a few desperate years in the lower reaches of the Premiership, resulted in relegation in 2015. In a strange way, that I am sure only those familiar with this sort of thing will understand, it came as something of a relief.
Since O’Neill’s departure and the appointment of Steve Bruce who is in charge now, we have had six managers. Each brought hope, some more so than other, but all failed to halt the slide. The most fascinating aspect of this whole grim story has been tracking the multitude of different players, of all positions and styles, who have been signed in this strange, chaotic period. I still waste time on Wikipedia looking them up, interested in what happened to them, the more obscure the player, the more strangely satisfying it is seeing where they have ended up. Some hung on at the club for years after I thought they had left; skirting the squad, in the reserves, out on loan or simply sort of missing, officially a member of the team but forgotten and unmentioned, embarrassing reminders of past mistakes.
Many history curriculums, especially in struggling schools, look like Villa’s squad. A desperate, understandable desire for instant improvement too often leads to high turnover of ideas, teachers and subject leaders. Each new person, keen to show that they know what needs to be fixed, feels the pressure to make changes quickly. Often, these changes are made thoughtlessly, with new staff keen to bring in what they know, convinced that this will bring better outcomes, or at least enough breathing space to survive Apprentice style review meetings. Old units are thrown out and new ones brought in, the result is often a Frankenstein’s monster.
Year 7 begins with “What is History?”, then it does not, then it does again. The Romans invade but then bow to the Vikings, before regaining supremacy two years later. The Industrial Revolution takes two lessons one year, a full term the next, before being folded into a homework unit.
Where there is stability it is often not based on what is most historically significant or how it fits into an overall narrative. Instead it is based around what is in the stock cupboard or in the textbook store, or what teachers are familiar with teaching.
The result of all this is incoherence; curriculums that are nothing more than a hotchpotch of topics selected by many different people which add up to precisely nothing. Just like the Aston Villa squad Steve Bruce inherited in 2016.
In the recent past the extent of this problem could be hidden by using the armour of ‘skills’. A belief, for whatever reason, developed that the point of history in schools was to develop transferrable competencies and that these could be formed through learning almost anything. This armour has turned out to be made of tin. Skills, if they exist at all, are nothing without a solid, coherent knowledge base. This has been increasingly understood and has resulted in the ‘knowledge based curriculums’ moving into vogue.
This, of course, is a welcome development. We now know what had been forgotten; to be good at history, children must know a lot. Departments all over the country are slaving away at Knowledge Organisers and are becoming increasingly effective at finding ways to help their students remember many, many facts.
As great as this is, it is no panacea and I think there is a new threat. For all the schools that give a great deal of thought to what should be learned, there are many that are not, and are simply producing lists of random facts based on existing, flawed curriculums. We, as a profession, may be in danger of fetishising the simple memorisation of content as a virtue in itself. The quality of a child’s history education is dependent not only on knowing lots of stuff, but also knowing stuff that connects together to form meaningful schemas. Failing to do this could result in history in schools becoming nothing more than revision for a pub quiz that will never happen.
Now that we understand the fundamental importance of knowledge to history it is important we think harder than ever about what should be taught and learned. We need to take time to plan curriculums that join together and tell important stories. Of course, we will not all agree about what should be covered in such a short space of time (two years in many schools now), but it this is this we should be debating. Not how, but what and why.
Should we fail to develop coherent, powerful curriculums I feel there is a very real risk that the knowledge bubble will burst. Knowing lots and lots of random stuff will not lead to better history or better outcomes. If this is all we teach, then SLTs will dismiss ‘knowledge based curriculums’ as just another failed fad and we will have squandered a glorious opportunity.
Conceptually ‘what’ has beaten ‘how’. We must now turn our attention to just what ‘What’ should be.