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I’ve written previously about the great issue of challenge in our classrooms, arguing there are many ways to increase challenge but that just making the work more difficult is not enough. Indeed, it’s potentially confusing. Liminality might be something we wish to encourage, but doing so without grounding in a subject, whether its substantive or disciplinary knowledge, might limit thinking, if not overload the thirty brains sat before us. I said previously that challenge is situational and contextual, and that it’s being faced with something that requires great effort in order to be successful. I gave some practical tips as to how we might go about this, as just telling a teacher to make the work more challenging is like telling a pupil to just write better. In this post I want to outline how I’m attempting to make the topic of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt more challenging for Y7.

The enquiry question which I have used for a while is a simple, jokey number, probably stolen from another blogger: Why were the peasants revolting? There are probably better questions, but I’m going to stick with this one for the moment to illustrate a point. The question sits within a larger enquiry which asks pupils to consider the nature of power’s manifestation in the Middle Ages, largely – though not exclusively – by considering the nature of the relationship between the Church and state. Pupils look at Norman control (including the brick-and-mortar changes to churches), Becket and Henry II, John and Magna Carta, the Hundred Years’ War (which I’ve managed, not at all successfully, to condense into under a thousand words), the short-term effects of the Black Death, the effects of the printing press and the end of the Wars of the Roses. It is necessarily (as I have explained here) a whirlwind. Along the way pupils encounter Domesday, the Crusades, Lollardy and Wycliffe and The Canterbury Tales, among other events, ideas and actions.

Studying the causes of the Peasants’ Revolt, then, sits within a framework which should enable pupils to build a particular schema of the Middle Ages, albeit one which I have focussed, unashamedly, on the changing nature of power.

In the past I have chosen to take a not-uncommon narrative approach to the story. This was partly due to its presentation in school history textbooks. This tends to follow a familiar pattern, summarised below:

  • Black Death causes chaos in mid-C14.
  • Peasants (loose term, I know) find themselves with more socio-economic freedoms.
  • Lords demand protections, and so Statute of Labourers is enacted in 1351.
  • Thirty years later a new tax in 1380 to pay for war causes rioting, with tax collectors attacked.
  • Peasants, led by Tyler and Ball, rampage through London, executing an Archbishop and destroying the king’s uncle’s palace.
  • Young King Richard meets the peasants and gives in to demands for traitorous behaviour of tax officials.
  • The next day Tyler is killed, Richard tells the peasants to go home.
  • Richard and the government almost immediately exact retribution, and the peasants, now leaderless, lose any small gains they might have made.

There are lots of potential themes and questions to pick through here, such as considering what ‘freedoms’ meant to C14 villeinage, discussing the importance of strong leadership and the rebels’ lack of coherence once Richard pacified them, for instance. Pupils thus answer the question by making a not-totally convincing connection between two events almost thirty years apart. Okay, there’s a link, but it’s a temporal stretch to be so certain about causal links with such a gap.

Furthermore, with this approach the challenge often comes from the teacher’s ability to set open-ended questions using the potentially limited content of a straightforward narrative. We don’t want to fry their working memories, and so take a well-trodden path of a simple story. This is, actually, why I worry about the fetishisation of questioning, because the teacher ends up doing all the difficult thinking in terms of pedagogy instead of, in this example, the history. Pupils, in effect, jump through the hoops placed neatly by the teacher.

In my experience teachers often play games with content, stretching and distorting the domain until it’s completely out of shape. We do this instead of just knowing more about our subject. I certainly did.

So instead of thinking about how to teach the same, limited content, why not take all those mad skills and put them to some good use by expanding the domain itself? This year, rather than teaching a straightforward story (not that I have much against that, by the way) and tearing it into chewable pieces, I’m taking what I think is a much more challenging approach for Y7, namely by giving them three different historians’ interpretations of the causes and both allying and contrasting these with the schema they’ve already built.

But how?

I’ll still tell the story, but only after considering the context of England’s peasantry by looking at what historians have said about conditions in the late C14. In effect, I’ll say “In 1381 peasants gathered in London to demand the rule of law be enforced fairly. But why? Here is what three historians have said about England at this time.” Only then will we look at the story, whereupon pupils can make those links based on their own prior knowledge as well as the historians’ interpretations. I am, in effect, building the scaffolding into the enquiry by choosing interpretations which remark on previously studied themes, thus creating a coherent curriculum in which history is causal, but in broad terms: it is something which can be understood as more than one damn thing after another, but makes some kind of jigsaw-sense.

I won’t make the link to the Black Death or the Statute of Labourers (or, indeed, any of the short-term effects of plague which they’ve already studied) prior to telling them the story. In this way, I’m allowing historians’ interpretations, as well all the disciplinary stuff which will come along with that in my teaching, to expand the domain, rather than creating a narrative which might reasonably be criticised as teleological. I’m also making sure that the curriculum itself is the model by which I can judge a pupil’s progression, rather than through a vague notion of second-order conceptual development, as Michael Fordham has been arguing recently.

The challenge in this second model, then, is greater than the first because it rests upon not just remembering the story, but on building that story into the existing schema by explicitly using historians’ interpretations. It’s more work, yes, but it’s not impossible; it requires some great questions from the teacher, yes, but not the entire suite; most importantly, it also demands thought and attention, focussed on an achievable outcome. I won’t necessarily do this with every topic, because challenge is, again, situational and contextual. The central idea, however, of allowing the domain itself to create the challenge, rather than the teacher’s box of tricks, is vital.