I’ve been reading Lincoln Paine’s ridiculously comprehensive The Sea and Civilization. In doing so I’ve been picking up all sorts of new knowledge whilst making links with other discrete tidbits about the history of seafaring. One thing I’ve learned is that the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut’s (1400 BCE) barges – which later carried the 720-ton Colossi of Memnon – were neither particularly spectacular in size nor particularly abnormal at the time. In fact, renderings on Ancient Egyptian monuments, the Pyramid Texts and discoveries of wooden hulls suggest that both large pleasure boats and funeral barges, such as the Khufu ship of c.2500 BCE, were, alongside huge transportation rafts, abundant. And whilst earlier transportation craft were constructed of bundles of papyrus, later ships were often built from cedar imported from Lebanon. Okay, so what? 

Well, knowing that means that I now look at the building of Ancient Egyptian monuments in a new way. I’m able to see that it’s entirely possible that stone used in the pyramids could well have been transported from hundreds of miles away with relative ease, despite our, understandable, contemporary awe. But without this knowledge I’m left guessing. I might, given the fact that there’s a bloody great river running through Egypt, have guessed correctly that stone was transported this way, but again I would have to have some kind of knowledge in the first place. 

But we know that, Toby – everyone knows about the importance of the Nile! Well, yeah: we know about the importance of the Nile because we know about the Nile.

Let’s try something else. I’m in Y8 and I’m looking at the main illustration of Henry VIII’s 1539 translation of the bible into English. I’ve been taught how to analyse a source and my teacher has asked me that classic exam-style question, What can you learn from the source about… the significance of the publication of the Great Bible in 1539? Well, I know how to spot provenance; I know to look for both people I recognise and any words I can read; I know that I should make inferences about the purpose and that I might also consider how all these things will help me guess as to the source’s reliability or usefulness for a particular purpose. But without knowledge of the context in which this bible was produced the most I can probably say is that religion was important, Henry VIII took great pride in being seen as the some kind of Church leader and that this might, if I’m particularly bright, be an exercise in state propaganda. 

I know how I might approach analysis of piece of history, but without that knowledge of the period my analysis lacks any substance. I can give it a go, but I can’t really expect to produce anything worthwhile. If I have some kind of basic knowledge about the role of religion in mediaeval England, or even the development of the Church in early Europe, then I might be able to make some half-decent guesses, but asking me to evaluate a source’s significance when I lack specific, substantive knowledge would be ridiculous. And yet that is what history exams have been asking GCSE students to do for far too long.

Now I reckon I’m a reasonably intelligent and well-read guy, and so I think I could have a good go at analysing all sorts, but I’d find it rather unfair if I was asked to make sense of a day’s FTSE numbers – even if I knew how – without having first read that morning’s relevant papers. Knowing how won’t help me until I know what.

Now, perhaps in your subject it’s different. I don’t know – I don’t teach your subject. I know neither how nor what, and even if I did I lack the practice. I know how to hit a free kick over a wall and into the top corner of the net, but I don’t do it regularly enough to be able to prove that right away; I know how to play the all the solos in Sweet Child O’ Mine and I know what the notes are, but I’d need a moment to practice because I haven’t played it in a while; I know how to bake a carrot cake, but I’m damned if I can ever remember the exact ingredients, though I might if I made it more often.

Doing something well is more than knowing how to do it: performance is contextual. And the more I teach the more I realise that it’s the what that counts. There’s this huge focus on the how, especially from groups like PiXL who – and I don’t blame them or any schools who play this game, by the way – claim to have found magic formulas (that, quite frankly, most of us had worked out anyway) as to how exams work and what children should write in exams. Perhaps that does make a difference. Many, especially in English departments I reckon, would say that it does, at least to results. 

But what if we focussed instead on the what a little more? And what if exam boards were able – though this is more difficult if we want reliability (and Heather Fearn has written about this here) – to mark for validity? OCR’s History B course has tried to do this, though at the time of writing it is still not accredited. Hmm.

Well, I just wonder if the what would prove to be a greater friend than we’ve imagined.