Although I don’t teach very much Y8 (I share classes which means I see them once a fortnight) I am planning and creating resources for both history teachers and non-specialists. Though I don’t expect the history teachers to use the resources exactly as produced – though I am perhaps coming round to that idea – I do, of course, want the enquiry question (this cycle’s is ‘How far was WWII inevitable?’) to be followed. For the non-specialists, however, I’ve planned a rather tight and pacey curriculum that they can pick up and run with.

This has inevitably meant that those teachers come to me and ask about the history: that’s fine, I expect that and want to help. Actually, I love to help – I get to talk about history and look all smart. But it’s also meant that when it comes to written assessments those same teachers are sometimes worried that perhaps they haven’t taught the content well enough, or that their students haven’t really got it. Again, that’s understandable, especially if they teach the same class a different subject: that difference in the perceived quality of either instruction or results becomes highlighted.

But I have to say that, from what I’ve read of non-specialists’ classes, the essays being produced are pretty good. I read summary essays of political, economic and social problems in post-WWI Europe last night and was mightily impressed, but the teacher – RE is her specialism – was concerned that her students hadn’t really got it. I suppose this makes clear the importance of domain-specific knowledge, but I was really pleased. In particular, I was impressed with students writing from a starting-point of ‘what if x hadn’t happened’ in order to better consider historical significance.

One phrase, though, keeps coming back to haunt me. It’s a phrase which is written whether students are taught by historians or geographers, one I see every week. It’s the phrase which turns history into a vague, citizenship-soup; a kind of passive, say-nothing PSHE circle-time comment; a provincial newspaper editorial in two words: ‘would have’. Ugh.

‘The peasants would have been angry because of the Statute of Labourers’.

‘Germans would have been upset at the Treaty of Versailles.’

‘Workers would have been sad at the way they were treated by Bryant and May.’

‘The communists would have been wary of US interference in West Berlin.’

Yuk. Which peasants? All of them? And which Germans? Right or left wing? Prussian Junkers and Bavarian farmers, or Berlinistas in their cafes? You mean the Match Girls were angry and sad? Which ones? Annie Besant? And all communists, or those from Moscow? Did Czechoslovakia’s Dubček and Svoboda feel the same way about capitalism in West Berlin as, say, Kádár in Hungary? And when?

It’s interesting, I think, that children are often so keen to avoid being definite (at least in history essays), as if desperately trying to sidestep offence. It’s even more interesting when they are also happy to write about despot leaders on first-name terms. Why the generality? Perhaps teachers use this language. I certainly don’t, and make a real effort to state the exact where I can. Of course, history is uncertain, but at KS3 students need to be specific and definite where they can. There are other words and phrases, banned in my classroom: they, back then, biased: instead, name the person or group, state the year or period and make clear the degree to which the statement is unbalanced or subjective.

I think, also, that perhaps this is something that younger teachers do more often. I certainly did and PGCE students are, in my experience, often guilty of allowing this genericism. But by doing so we acknowledge and accept casual, History Channel exposition when we should be pushing for depth. As an old colleague use to say, detail is retail.

Rightly, when it comes to evaluating I want my students to be a little hesitant, but that hesitancy is in the very nature of evaluation. Where I want specificity is in the history itself: what do we know? How best can we show off our knowledge? If you haven’t used a fact from your notes, why not? How might you use it? Get it in! Be gone, genericism: away with you, would-haves!