To summarise: I have to create a two-year KS3 that can be taught with the minimum of fuss by non-specialists, in part for a year group that have not previously studied history.
But what should go into this curriculum?
1. The limiting factors.
When deciding on GCSE and A level topics we all tend to pick subjects where at least one of the team has some expertise. Sometimes we might go for something new at GCSE, just to keep it fresh, and at A level students need to pick a topic that both they’re interested in and that, again, one of us has a bit of a clue about. To this end my department head is teaching Nazi Germany at A level whilst I’m teaching Tudors: neither of us have the subject knowledge or PCK (yet!) to effectively teach Mao’s China, for example.
At KS3 teachers don’t perhaps need the same depth of knowledge, although they will – hopefully – know more than the average History Channel fan. As with biologists who teach chemistry at KS3, history teachers should have a basic grounding on which to build their understanding of this level of history. Before I trained I hadn’t really studied Norman conquest since I was 11 years old – at university I briefly looked at Normans in Sicily but no more. However, my knowledge of Tudor society helped me bring together what might otherwise have appeared to be discrete historical nuggets and turn them into a coherent narrative.
A non-specialist cannot do that. A non-specialist might, potentially, know a lot more than me about the Glorious Revolution – something which is eminently possible! – but are they able to place this into that big story? Do they have the PCK in order to effectively convey sometimes complex topics? There are classic activities, video clips and resources which almost all history teachers use and are aware of. I can’t expect non-specialists to know these: they can have a go, but I’d rather not pile on the pressure.
Now, as much as I may deride geographers I actually quite like the subject: all that colouring in and standing in the rain at Lyme Regis is okay with me. I’ve taught geography. It was ok, if a little depressing with all the Rachel Carson stuff, but we managed to get through – they could definitely tell the difference between a river and a mountain by the summer. But here’s the thing: I don’t have any of that pedagogical content knowledge. I don’t have the know-how, no matter how much I might know. I also, at the time, did not have any kind of scheme of learning or even textbooks. There was a room full of paper on the floor (yes, seriously – paper all over the floor, like the empty cabinets had vomited them out in disgust) but nothing more, and so I didn’t rally have any idea if I was doing it right.
So being a non-specialist following someone like me, all knowledge, knowledge, knowledge, talk, talk, talk and let’s write 2,000 words, come on – keep up at the back!, is potentially very confusing.
~ Time: two years
Our Y8 did not study history in Y7, but will be picking their GCSE options very soon. It’s unlikely they’ll be in an informed position to make that decision and I expect many to change their options come September when they realise what that subject really entails. Thus it’s up to me to make sure they have as good a foundation in the subject as possible: I want, and need, them to know a lot.
It’s an inescapable truth, however, that they will not know enough. They will not have the time to properly investigate the past or the work of an historian. We will have some time at the beginning of Y9 to cover (or recover) some basics of the lead up to Nazi Germany – our first GCSE topic – but at that point we’ll already be working on the exam: if the point of a three-year GCSE is to have more time then we need to use it wisely.
We could sacrifice some time in Y9 in order to develop our writing, or source interpretations, or whatever, but this would do our non-historians a disservice. So, both in terms of knowledge acquisition and the procedural knowledge required to improve historical writing – whether arguments or historical accounts, for example – I am limited in what I can do.
One of the problems of the SOL I discussed here was that it was too ambitious. I would rather teach less, better. The notions of parsimony (thanks, Michael Fordham) and that a lesson is the wrong unit of time (thanks, Bodil) are pretty key in how I want to approach curriculum planning. But Y7 only have two years: Y8 only have one. And the new GCSEs, as much an improvement as they are, require the breadth of knowledge that a standard three-year key stage provides. And they also need time to develop their writing – that procedural knowledge that knocks into touch any silly idea about skills – alongside the content.
So I want to be ambitious because the history should be great, but I need to marry that with the fact that I have non-specialists teaching the subject in very little time.
Also, as Y8 are studying history for the first time they need some kind of grounding in mediaeval history: do they study the same as Y7 but at a quicker pace – as they might have to if studying a new language for the first time in Y7 – or do they have some kind of homework project which will allow them to access mediaeval history alongside the more standard Y8/9 content of Tudors, Industrial Revolution, suffrage, world wars and civil rights? Actually, is it worth doing anything extra at all if it won’t be done well?
2. An overview
~ The general scheme
After much consideration I’ve come up with this. Again, it isn’t perfect but it’s a start.
One of the main problems is that I wasn’t asked to come up with this until the first cycle was about to end, and thus would probably swap some things around. For example, teaching history chronologically makes sense, so really I want to begin with how Christianity spread. This will then help to inform a more nuanced study of Church and State when looking at mediaeval power. That will have to wait for next year.
The schemes for each topic are deliberately not very detailed. Listed are the lesson-by-lesson enquiry questions, potential outcomes and key words. However, I have only done this to help the non-specialists. Indeed, I’ve made clear that if a lesson takes 90 minutes then it takes 90 minutes: again, a lesson is the wrong unit of time; the enquiry questions take as long to answer as they take to answer.
I’ve actually put most my efforts into the resourcing, which I’ll discuss in the next blog.
I’ve chosen to produce rolling homework projects for both years for two reasons: consistency of approach and ease for all teachers, not least non-specialists. The first project, one which both Years 7 and 8 will undertake, is focused on medicine and health through time, here from the Egyptians to the Middle Ages. Again I’ve gone down the medicine route (as mentioned in the previous blog) because the topic clearly shows change and continuity and, especially for Y7, allows students to discover other aspects of their class studies.
For Y8 the ties between WWI and mediaeval health are not at all obvious. My rationale, however, is that their next project will be on medicine and health of the C19. As they studied, briefly, the C19 cholera epidemic in Britain during their first cycle this will be an opportunity to revisit a prior topic. We’ll see how far cholera and Dr Snow stuck.
The projects themselves are very simple. Each week students are given some reading followed by comprehension tasks. The tasks vary slightly but require a thorough understanding of the reading. Teachers can then simply give them a mark for how many tasks were completed correctly. This then allows teachers to check whether students have done the work and whether they’ve understood it.
It is a bit of a blunt tool, but given the constraints I think this will (and so far it is) work well. I’ve put in seven pieces of reading which allows teachers two extra weeks to set anything else necessary.
3. The leftovers
But, wait! What about the American West? Toby, that’s your favourite! And where has the French Revolution gone? There’s a great opportunity to compare that with Russia in 1917, thereby continuing the theme of changing power structures over time.
And are you really going to have enough time to consider the rise of fascism and communism in early C20 Europe, especially as you haven’t included the Interregnum in Britain?
And, hang on – and excuse me for the impertinence – but there isn’t a huge amount of world history.
Well, yep. Like I said, this has been tough, and I’m sure it will change before next year. For any really keen subject specialist there will never be enough time to cover everything. However, if there’s one thing this task has given me it’s a real focus on making the most of what we have available.
What I’ve come up with won’t please everyone, but given the limitations I think it isn’t all that bad.
The next blog in the series will focus on the resourcing.