For the first time in my career I am planning a whole five year history curriculum from scratch. This is something of an embarrassing confession to make but I don’t think my experience is that unusual. As I wrote about here a while back, there are lots of reasons this isn’t typical; a lot of the time, for better or worse, what we teach is based on the textbooks we have and what’s on the shared area on our school network. Often incoming Heads of Department inherit schemes of work and staff used to doing things in a certain way, sometimes for good reason and sometimes just because it is what’s always been done. In the face of high workloads and understandable concerns about rocking the boat too much it is very tempting not to reinvent the wheel, especially when we are so well-meaningly and earnestly told we should avoid doing so.
This causes significant issues. Gradual evolution of curriculum and schemes of work seems sensible but can very easily lead to curricular confusion and incoherence. A lesson on Thomas Becket comes to be taught every year simply because it is taught every year with the original purpose and wider meaning of the lesson, if indeed thought was ever given to this, lost years back in the swirling mists of changing strategy and fashion.
The cult of high-stakes, graded one off lesson observations made this worse, with emphasis placed on the quality of what happened in each hour without reference to how this tied into any bigger picture.
For a time I didn’t think this that much of a problem. Lazy thinking on my part, aided by poor training and CPD, had led me to believe that the purpose of history was in the transferrable ‘historical skills’ it taught. The content, be it the feudal system, or Doom paintings, or the agricultural revolution, was only a vehicle used to develop description, explanation, evaluation or inference in my pupils, which meant a patchy, haphazard curriculum wasn’t anything to worry very much about. Why spend time painstakingly curating the knowledge pupils would learn if it wasn’t the point of my subject anyway? Better to produce one off whizbangy lessons that shoved pupils through boring low order recall, past description and explanation and then rocketed them right up to evaluating all within sixty minutes.
Of course, I know now this is nonsense. It is now pretty well accepted in the history community that getting better at history means knowing more of it and that a curriculum pupils do not remember is really no curriculum at all.
So what should go in my curriculum? It is here that I, tentatively, first use the phrase “knowledge rich”. I use this phrase cautiously because I see the danger it may turn into just another jargony buzzterm teachers laugh about in the pub. Indeed, some teachers are laughing already. “Knowledge rich! We’ve always taught knowledge! What do you think we’ve been doing for X years?”
I get it, I do. Not very long ago at all I would have laughed too. Of course I was teaching knowledge! I taught children about Thomas Becket! I taught them about Doom Paintings! I taught them about enclosure!
All knowledge, right?
Well, a bit yes but mainly no. In the earlier years of my career I was teaching my pupils knowledge but to be honest, not much of it and what I did teach was mostly forgotten. How could it not be? We rarely returned to it and because any links to anything else were more accidental than intentional it wasn’t memorable. Pupils forgot most of what I taught them and so, even if it could be argued the curriculum was knowledge rich (which it wasn’t), they ended up knowledge poor. Effectively, my pupils were comets blazing through unknown galaxies with ever diminishing trails behind them.
So with the curriculum I’m planning I’ve been determined not to make this mistake. To be truly knowledge rich we must ensure what is taught sticks and is built upon. If the features of the medieval Church are taught in Year 7 then they must remember them so pupils can understand why John Wycliff criticised it. Pupils then need to remember Wycliff’s criticisms so Martin Luther’s complaints don’t seem to arrive from nowhere. Pupils then have to remember Luther to understand Henry VIII’s justifications for the Reformation. To make sense of what has happened in the past pupils must be able to make connections and cannot be comets. Planning a curriculum that makes it possible for pupils to do this means going down to very, very granular detail and knowing not just what pupils are learning but why, and how this will be built upon later. It means scrolling back and forth between years 7 and 8 deciding when exactly is the right point to introduce them to the concept of ‘revolution’ or ‘franchise’. It means moving topics around so that the sequence is just right.
At this point I find myself backtracking somewhat. In the past, and I still stand by it to a certain extent, I’ve said that we should spend more time thinking and discussing what pupils should learn rather than how. While this is true, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the knowledge curriculum in history has no overlap with delivery methods. For children to learn enough of the past to make any kind of sense then there just isn’t much space for very involved activities that take up a lot of time. Time spent on making castles, posters or organising a mock medieval fair is time that could have been spent more directly teaching pupils more knowledge. More knowledge is important because it is easier to connect the dots when there are lots of them.
For a knowledge curriculum to work properly time must also be spent going back over what has been learned before to make sure that the dots are clearly defined even if they were taught years before. It does, of course, take time but since adopting an unashamedly didactic approach and deliberately reducing my tolerance for disruption it has amazed me just how much more I and my pupils get through.
Of course, no matter how rich a curriculum in history is, decisions have to be made about what to teach. it just isn’t possible for them to learn everything. This is where the importance of topics, framed around areas of genuine historical debate, lies. These overarching questions, which can last a term or more, provide the framework in which the knowledge can sit and, more importantly, assume the meaning which makes it memorable. Failing to have these can result in lots of facts that add up to nothing, demeaning history by making it little more than a glorified pub quiz.
I have enjoyed the work, I really have, more than anything I have done in ages. It feels important. I am proud of myself for doing it.