How much is ‘enough’?

Perhaps you, like me, have read accusations levelled at The Empire* of a focus on knowledge and drill being solely designed to ensure children pass exams, and thus promoting and pushing a reductive agenda which fails to take into account, let alone develop, the whole child©. Barry Smith, at the launch of a certain school’s book, was jumped upon for saying that said school would be an ‘exam-factory’, which apparently proved the fear-mongers’ fears of a Tekken future correct. This, of course, is bullshit, because any school in which children are taught well will likely have excellent exam results. And in any case, which teacher doesn’t wish their pupils to achieve the best exam results they can? There may be all sorts of problems with examinations, but to accuse teachers of – Shock! Horror! – helping pupils pass exams is absurd. Imagine criticising a hospital for being a ‘health-factory’: ‘All those robots want to do is fix people’s broken-bits, but what about mindfulness and nuclear war, eh? When will doctors talk about nuclear war?’

The answer, if I ever get chance to refute such nonsense claims, is that ‘I didn’t mean that, and you know it.’ Well, then what do you mean? That school should be something more than preparing for exams? That children should be afforded the chance to develop their cultural capital through trips to places they might otherwise never visit?; to learn instruments other than girl-band?; to recognise that dance is an art-form, not star-jumping around the gym to an Ed Sheeran remix? Absolutely. Totally with you, just not sure why you didn’t say that in the first place.

Schools can’t teach everything, of course. There’s only so much time, teachers and money, as Mark Lehain argued here. So how much is ‘enough’? At what point do we say, ‘Our pupils now know enough?’ Do we say this? And enough for what? Enough to pass the exam, or enough to face the grizzly world?

This typically excellent tweet from James Theobald reminded me of a passage from a typically excellent Michael Fordham blog:

On the one hand, we know we need to make decisions about what to teach, and yet, on the other, there is not much rational basis on which to say ‘x is more important to teach than y’.

Part of the answer to this must be that we, as curriculum designers, accept arbitrariness as a fundamental feature of curriculum design. On some level, in some way, what we choose to teach in the arts and humanities is always going to be open to the accusation of arbitrariness. I do not think we can ultimately escape this critique, and our response to it should most probably be a challenge to our critics to outline a curriculum theory where specified content is not on some level arbitrary.

In exposing pupils to as much history, English literature or colouring-in geography as possible we’re obviously betting on this helping them pass their exams well, but we’re also doing so because we believe these subjects and topics to be interesting in and of themselves. We should try to aim, I think, for some kind of narrative across a year, or key stage, but not solely in preparation for KS4, even though this narrative might do exactly that. When I learned to recite every English monarch in order, I did so because I believed this might make me a more interesting and impressive person, at least to the sort of people who find the recitation of English monarchs either interesting, impressive, or a combination of both. Furthermore, I suppose I also realised that should Lord Krang of the Zvartox System threaten Earthly vaporisation unless one person could quickly recite all English monarchs in chronological order then I’d be able to step up and save humanity. ‘Oh, how reductive!’, they cry. ‘That isn’t why I did it!’, I reply, ‘but your ability to moan about it is, I suppose, down to my acumen, so you can thank me by buggering off.’

The point is there is never enough. I, like you (not you, though), always want to know more. And the more I know the more confident I am in expressing the stretch of history, in my case, to my pupils. Knowledge is sticky. There are probably better, or worse, starting points, and for this we need to consider that issue of arbitrariness, but let’s neither assume there’s an end-amount of useful knowledge, nor that information is only oil to an examination conveyer belt.

*#TeamTrad™

Learning by rote doesn’t mean not understanding

Does anyone actually teach decontextualised facts? I’ve made this argument previously, but it seems to be popping up again, with Heather Leatt’s response to an article in the T*S prompting yet more immature thinking on the matter.

The argument seems to go something like this: I can teach children to remember twenty quotes from Romeo and Juliet, but that doesn’t mean they understand the play. Well of course not, but who actually does this? Who’s advocating it? Seriously!

Even the most Gradgrindian, paid-up member of #TeamTrad™ doesn’t force thirty, doe-eyed eleven year-olds to repeat random facts for hours on bloody-end. This isn’t reality. It isn’t even parody. No-one does this.

When I quiz Y7 on the key people in this unit on mediaeval power, I don’t do so with no explanation because a) I wouldn’t be doing my job and b) that would be mental. It would be a literally, [insert dubious Einsteinian attribution here] insane thing to do. It would also be pointless.

Having learned something by rote, or by heart if you prefer the more romantic phrase, allows any person to better deal with the matters at hand: knowing the various monarchs, in chronological order, who reigned during the Hundred Years’ War will aid understanding of the Hundred Years’ War. That’s the whole, actual, entire point. Learning by rote does not mean not understanding. It’s just a very effective way to help us understand more quickly.

Quality First Teaching

The most important reason as to why ‘Quality First Teaching’ is integral (which all teachers and leaders must recognise, of course) in ensuring all classrooms are succcessful learning environments, is due to its direct opposition to quality second teaching: in QFT, quality comes first, as opposed to second. 

But what is QFT? Putting quality first requires quality teaching to be placed above – and beyond – poor quality teaching. It necessitates quality teaching, and so could be argued to be the next step from quality second teaching. This, I would argue, is a misunderstanding of the hierarchical complexities of quality teaching, being, as they are, subsumed within quality teaching itself. Thus the idiosyncrasies of QFT are both inimical to, and conjoined with, the practice of putting quality first as opposed to second, rather than building on quality second teaching, in which quality teaching necessarily comes second to poor, or poorer, quality teaching.

The question which arises next is this: by which matrices do we recognise and judge QFT? If we take as an establishment of quality its very nature we can easily remove anything which obstructs the visibility of QFT. Stories are created, presented and evidenced through quality’s position both at the forefront, and as the driver of, teaching. Thus QFT becomes fully observable through its very practice.

Finally, how can school leaders best support their staff body to teach with quality at the heart of, rather than as an addendum to, teaching? School leaders would do best to promote quality first teaching through the promotion of quality practices, such as planning, teaching and assessing effectively. In this way teachers are free to put quality first, rather than second. Planning poor quality lessons, for example, might well be a bad idea. On the other hand, planning quality lessons will most likely be more effective over time.

What would you do differently next time?

You gave pupils, in pairs, envelopes with four pieces of paper in each. 

Yes, I wanted them to develop their team working skills.

Ok. How did that help?

They … well, they had to take out the piece of paper, and, er …

That helped to develop team working skills?

Yeah. Yes. That was the idea. 

Right, and how long did that take them? Was there discussion about who would open the envelopes first? Did they have to come up with a plan?

No, not really. I guess they just opened, um, …

Opened the envelopes?

Yeah.

Yeah. And on a scale of 1-10, 10 being brilliant, how well did that work?

Well, not well, I guess, but you’ve atomised it a bit. The way you’ve framed them opening the envelopes, rather than the whole task, well it makes it sound silly.

Opening envelopes to develop teamwork sounds silly.

Yes.

Yeah, you’re right. I can see that. So tell me what happened next. I don’t want to atomise the task, so tell me what happened. Let’s look at the big picture.

Ok, well then they had the four pieces of paper and then they had to arrange them into the correct order.

Right. And how challenging a task was that, do you think?

Well, they, they hadn’t seen the image before.

And what was the image?

The whole thing? All four made up an image of a plate celebrating the British Empire.

Did it matter that they hadn’t previously seen this image? 

It might have, yes.

It might have how?

I mean, maybe if there were, erm …

More than four pieces of paper to put together?

Yes. I guess I should have chopped them up a bit more. But it took ages!

How long did it take each pair?

Maybe a minute?

That long?

Maybe. I’m not sure. Again, I should have chopped the image into smaller pieces.

And this was to develop teamwork?

Yeah.

What do you think now?

It seems a bit of a waste of time, but I like the activity. I just need to rethink it. Maybe spend some more time on it.

How did the activity develop their understanding of history?

Um. Well, er, they all got to see a plate.

They all got to see a plate.

Yeah.

Different plates?

No.

Right. Ok, so if you were teaching that again …

How would I make it better? How would I make it more successful? What would I change?

Exactly! Yes! What would you do?

Well, I like the activity so I think I’d definitely chop up more pieces …

Effort

It is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man, that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps – Martin Luther King.

I have a problem with the notion that effort, or hard work, will always pay off. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the romanticism of the American Dream, and have absolutely worked hard myself, at least in some respects. But I really don’t think it’s necessarily true, or necessarily fair, to suggest that effort is the determining factor in a person’s success. It might be, but not always and possibly not often.

What we, as successful people, often fail to notice is the role luck has played in our journeys. We like to over-emphasise our own hard-work because, well, we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. If we’re told that luck was a significant factor in our success, maybe what we actually hear is “You don’t deserve your success.” This is an example of a kind of situational amnesia, a blindness to the forces – whatever they might have been – which helped us to reach a certain destination. This doesn’t mean that we haven’t worked hard, but that effort might not be the key factor in our journey.

In 2009, the British Fox News host, Stuart Varney, interviewed Professor Robert Frank about a recent article Frank had written for the New York Times, in which he had argued that “Contrary to what many parents tell their children, talent and hard work are neither necessary nor sufficient for economic success.” The interview went like this:

Varney: Am I lucky or not, being who I am and where I am .. I’m lucky?

Frank: Yes. You are.

Varney: Okay. Lucky?

Frank: And so am I.

Varney: That’s outrageous. That is outrageous. What about the risk I took? Do you know what risk is involved in coming to America with absolutely nothing? Do you know what risk is involved in trying to work for a major American network with a British accent, a total foreigner? Do you know what risk is implied for this level of success?

Frank: I do.

Varney: Is it luck that you hold a tenured position?

Frank: Yes.

Varney: That’s nonsense. I am insulted by what you said.

Frank: Well ..

Varney: You are going against the American Dream.

Frank: I’m not.

Varney: Look, if you come to America with nothing, and you play by the rules, you work hard, you get discipline inside yourself, you marry and have children in that order; okay? You do all of those things, you play by the rules, you will make it in America, and luck has nothing to do with it.

Frank: That’s not true, sir.

Frank later said this of the interview:

He said he’d come to the USA with nothing: he had a degree from the London School of Economics. That’s coming to the US with nothing? He had somehow overcome the handicap of working in America with a British accent. Americans love British accents! He said he took risks. What’s a risk? I looked it up. Merrriam-Webster: “Risk is the possibility that something bad or unpleasant, such as an injury or loss, may happen.” He took risks and he succeeded. Well, that means by definition that he was lucky. Full stop. 

Frank pointed out that when we feel gratitude, when we’re reminded of luck’s importance, we’re more likely to plough some of own good fortune back into the common good. However, we can recall our own struggles far better than we can the obscure role of chance and luck, and thus we underplay its significance. Furthermore, the idea that we are the recipients of luck might corrode our faith in free will. We are often too deeply invested in our own autobiographies to recognise the role which external factors might play.

And so, it’s all very well telling children they need to work hard, but they also need to join the conversation, and that really is hard. It requires knowledge of social conventions, often very alien to one’s own, in order to even be in the same room as those we need to impress. One of the things which I took from my visit to Michaela last year was the focus on knowing how to be successful. The message, during the lunchtime discussion, was that getting the top grades is not enough: A*s, or 9s, or whatevers, will be against A* and 9s from other schools full of children whose families are already part of the conversation, and that therefore we must learn the conventions of that conversation in order to stand a chance against those who might wear the right coloured shoes. Laura McInerney’s excellent recent article in Schools Week suggests a couple of solutions, neither to do with effort.

It’s very easy, then, for the middle-class, which I suppose I am now joining, to speak of hard-work paying off. But we must recognise the role of luck, too. I did not work hard as a teenager, really, at anything bar music. Despite growing up in a caravan, with my parents split-up and a sometimes severe lack of money, I had a loving family who supported me, pushing me to read Bryson at 11, Adams at 12 and Orwell at 13. I was lucky. I worked very hard to teach myself music theory, yes, but I grew up around guitars and amplifiers: I received an Elvis tape for my fifth birthday, and was brought up on a diet of soul, rhythm n’ blues and funk. I was lucky, and find it slightly embarrassing when family-members tell me how hard I’ve worked, because I didn’t have to, at least not academically. I worked hard to support myself financially, yes, but this was mostly through playing music, so what does that tell you?

And it’s no good saying we should all learn from our mistakes, and that failure is somehow always a great thing. It sort of depends on how badly you fail, and what the safety net is when you do, if it even exists: if the son of a millionaire fails in his bid to set up a moustache-waxing salon, then it matters not if he’s lost £200,000. There are varying degrees of failure, and those sit on a sliding scale of social position.

I don’t have a problem with making pupils work hard, but we have to give them tools to make that effort count. Even that won’t necessarily lead to success, but it’s what we can do. We don’t need lots more interview practice, but we do need to insist on high standards, and model those ourselves: the language we use, the clothes we wear, the expectations we have. Maybe we have to give children the bootstraps as well as the boots.

Utopian thinking: keep teachers in charge of schools

A reply to this nonsense.

We are living in interesting times, and that shows no sign of changing. We are ready for new solutions. What you so often hear from all sides of an argument is that they are “doing this for our children’s future”. Yet that future is one of the biggest unknowns. Are today’s children going to be doing jobs of which we can’t yet conceive? Will the world still exist in the way we know it, given the looming danger of alien invasion?

One thing we can be sure of is that it will be the next generation that will face the challenges and carry the responsibility of navigating us through it. That is why it is with education that we need to start our thinking. What is it that children need to experience to be equipped to tackle the challenges of the future?

There are a few things which go on in schools that will be redundant. First, football. The aliens we encounter may not have the correctly shaped feet to fit into a pair of Nike 90s, let alone the conceptual understanding of feet, balls, or even football, despite its otherwise universal adoration. Second, getting in trouble. Children who get in trouble because they don’t follow instructions will likely be vaporised by high-grade laser weapons in an alien-human space war. And, finally, children must not be involved in any serious decision making regarding what they find engaging: instead, they absolutely need to be subordinates on the bottom rung of an authority structure that prepares them to obey – they need to be regarded as the novices that they are, or they’ll possibly be squished by the alien rocket landing-pads.

So what does an education system that caters for alien invasion look like? What does it take to get to the point where children are entering the alien world with the wisdom and intuition required to navigate the abundance of information and ride the waves of unexpected new lifeforms?

The answer: keep experienced, intelligent adults in charge of schools. Allow them to decide when, where, what, how and with whom children learn. Autocratic education is needed. A system where a child’s right to have a say on matters that affect them (as stated in article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) is completely at odds with the preservation of the human race.

Such a system (I call this ‘teaching’) would be supported by two pillars. The first is top-down decision-making, with children fully participating in belonging to the school community as fostered by the adults.

The second is “teacher-directed didacticism”, with children following what their teachers teach them. Young people are curious, they want to make sense of the world, that’s why they ask questions: “why, why, why … ” A good education system intervenes, focussing them on paths to that which they might otherwise ignore, asking them to stop being this way and telling them what to learn. It puts the trust in the adult, thus increasing their ability to survive a neutron-attack.

While teaching at a democratic school, Freie Schule Leipzig, a 10-year-old girl came to me. “I haven’t come to any HAL 9000 lessons all year, because I’ve been busy doing other things I was more interested in. Now I want to learn HAL 9000, but I don’t want to come to classes because I don’t know anything about it yet.”

“OK, do you think there are other children who feel like this?” I asked. Yes, she said. “Do you want to find them and decide what kind of HAL 9000 teaching you want?” Within a week, she had mobilised a full group of students who felt ready – now is my time to take on the HAL 9000, because I want to! We organised an intensive HAL 9000 week; through interactive storytelling we were able to cover a term’s worth of curriculum in five days. Unfortunately, HAL decided to disconnect the life-support systems and then lock all the children outside in the rain. “I’m sorry, little girl. I’m afraid I can’t let you in because you truanted the basic training”, HAL kept repeating.

This democratic approach failed because firm foundations of mutual respect, equality, dignity, trust and shared responsibility are the compass that navigates daily school life, not a do-whatever-the-hell-you-fancy kind of anarchy.

You may think, “If we had been given that much freedom I would have just done nothing all day … We would have created mayhem.”

Yes, you would have. Always remember, Kang and Kodos are watching, and they’re very hungry.

Note: Martin Robinson has written an actual reply here.

 

 

How to get through a lot of content

But these new exams have so much content, I just don’t know how we’re going to get through it all.

This is something I haven’t moaned about in years, and it’s largely down to what I value and thus how I teach. When we’re not wasting time with gimmicks and generic, but funky, formative assessment frameworks, we can hopefully focus on the subject itself, but even then, due to our accumulated years of “Oh, but I already have a lesson on that”, we don’t always get to the heart of the issue. I wonder if that is partly the result of our sometimes poor subject knowledge (it has been for me in the past), as well as a lack of confidence in just talking to children. There’s also, often, a discomfort with the notion of repetition, as if that will be boring and, weirdly, repetitive; that keeping children engaged in the hour, those actual-sixty-minutes, rather than the subject is easier in the long run; that we must be ‘active‘.

For these reasons I wrote about how I was teaching both Y11 and Y9, with the focus on the benefits of simplicity: read, question, practice, quiz, repeat. Without getting into the current (valuable) debates regarding substantive and disciplinary knowledge in history teaching, what follows is a short summary of how I am teaching part of the Norman conquest of England to Y10.


  1. The spoiler.

As Anthony Radice rightly pointed out, spoilers are essential. And so, with that in mind, it’s essential to let pupils know what is coming up. My Y10s are currently looking at how William dealt with rebellions in the first few years of his reign. Therefore, rather than take each rebellion in turn, leaving pupils to guess at the outcome, I explicitly tell them, “William had enemies – we know this. Of course he did, we know who they were. And those enemies tried to kick the invading Normans out. None of this should be a surprise. And we also know he was successful, that he prevailed. Our question, therefore, is not ‘How successful was William?’, but ‘How did William approach the issue of rebellion?'” I then give them the spoilers with an overview which I have written. In this way Y10 know what is coming up, at least in skeletal form. They then are able to come up with tentative answers to the overarching question, but all the while knowing that these will likely change as they delve deeper into the history, considering various interpretations, contemporary or otherwise, along the way.

2. The reading.

There’s a worry, I think, or perhaps a lack of confidence, in reading aloud to the class among non-English teachers. This bemuses me a little, I confess, as our job is to talk to children, but it’s a hugely important part of what we do. I wrote here about reading to our tutor groups, but this works for any class and most pieces of text.

Once Y10 know the overview they are able to dive in. We read both the textbook and historians’ views, largely from Marc Morris’s The Norman Conquest. I pause every few lines to check and develop understanding, or to make a point about a particular event: “So Orderic Vitalis tells us William was ‘trembling head to foot’ – can we just pause there? He’s sat in Westminster Abbey being crowned, but most of the onlookers have fled, maybe he can see the lights of the flames from outside, perhaps he can hear the commotion – shouting, screaming, different languages. What might Vitalis be trying to tell us?”

3. The questions.

I then give simple comprehension questions. In my experience this has become rather unfashionable, as if actually understanding what you’ve just read is something to be scoffed at. Certainly, I had lesson observations when I was younger where that sort of thing – yes, comprehension – was frowned upon. Essentially, we read it through once, together, then read it again, but the next time looking for specific things: How might the coronation be described? What was Orderic Vitalis’s argument? How did William work to ‘calm the country and establish his authority’?

4. The quizzing.

After checking answers, by reading over pupils’ shoulders, whole-class questioning and correcting misconceptions, I quiz them. As we move through the content the quizzes become cumulative, so we’re both recapping last week as well as the past forty-minutes.


We do this pretty much every lesson, with the odd moment to focus on three different interpretations of the same event here, a bit of extended, timed writing there, and a pause to debate every now and then. But no more. In this way we’re not wasting time, but nor are we distracted from the story: there’s a routine which is both understood and cumulative. I don’t worry about covering more content because the simplicity of the structure allows us to cover a lot without either losing focus or forgetting the history.

 

Simplicity: writing the story yourself

A couple of years ago I wrote this on Staffrm about rewriting the story.

I rewrite texts myself for particular classes. From introductions to topics to in-depth analyses of data, I rewrite in a way that is both academic but also my-student-friendly. After all, I know my students. I know what they can and can’t yet do and so need to push them at a pace that is appropriate. Textbooks so often have their own theme or even plot that gets in the way of the actual history. That’s what I’ve found, anyway.

When rewriting I follow a few simple rules.

  1. Push new terminology, explain and repeat often.
  2. Be consistent when deploying dates and names.
  3. Write maximum two A4 pages in a consistent style and format.
  4. Have a set of questions, open and closed, to ask afterwards. This sounds obvious, but it’s not to just check understanding. I also need to know if I’ve written clearly enough.

The main advantage for me is that I sometimes have to think quite hard about how to phrase my explanations. I often find that whilst I need to add something I had previously thought superfluous I can also get rid of other redundant information, especially if we’re looking at a new topic.

This is actually an extremely powerful tool for self-reflection, despite it being the production of a resource before the lesson has even happened.

I guess that it does take a bit of time, but in terms of helping me to better my explanations the time is well worth spent. 

The advantage for the students is that they get a piece of text tailored for their needs. They can keep this, glue it in and refer to it as we learn more. There are emboldened key words for their glossaries. They can annotate. Perhaps most powerfully they get to see how I might write and then analyse that, considering the tone as well as the deployment and weighting ratio of details to explanation.

Anyway, it doesn’t sound particularly exciting but it is really worthwhile.

I now do this for all of KS3 history at my school. After many tweaks and typos I’m ready to roll out the first booklets for Y7 in the summer term. Everything is linked back to the curriculum map and their knowledge organisers (which are also their homework revision). This is particularly helpful for non-specialists as not only do they have everything they need on one double-sided page, but I can ensure that all KS3, whether taught by a history specialist or not, get the same deal in terms of historical explanation.

It’s a lot of work, and I have a lot more to write for Y8, but this is such a worthwhile task. I’ve found myself questioning my own explanations, the level of challenge and the pace at which it’s introduced, and even my own historical knowledge. As I’ve found better ways to explain the past I’ve reassessed what pupils need to know, and that’s led to more detail, ‘hook’ phrases and a better understanding of how best to push the domain without going too far. The elegance is in its simplicity.

I make PowerPoint slides for non-specialists which I don’t really use aside from key images. On these are the key steps for each question, but I also place questions at the end of each piece of text. Ideally we wouldn’t need slides, but it’s helpful for others and I’m happy to oblige.

 

We don’t make lions sit at desks, so why do we ask children to?

Here’s a thought experiment for you: we don’t make lions sit at desks, yet they – like us – have legs and brains and toes. With this being the undeniable case, why do we, then, ask children to? This little thunk has got me thinking!

Here’s a second: lions come in all shapes and sizes, like us, yet they are allowed – nay, encouraged! – to freely hunt the baked veldt for wildebeest. At what point do we allow children to hunt for learning?

Taking on advice from other practitioners, I’ve decided to leave my comfort zone and allow these hunts to take place in my classroom. As part of my reconstructed classroom, which I’ve decided to call ‘Africa’, children can visit one of five ‘feeding zones’: The Veldt, Okavango Delta, Circle of Life, Elephant’s Graveyard or the Savannah Section. Each is purpose built to allow children the choice of how they ‘feed’ in my classroom to best prepare them for C21 learning.

IMG_6596

#Vygotsky #Desertification #RiskTaker #ZPD #UmBongo

These zones were the foundation for my new classroom with the whole principle being encompassed by pupil choice. Yes, they may be children, but really they’re little animals who need to be set free. They know how they work best. Giving them this sense of responsibility for their own learning unleashes a new, animalistic mindset for them.

Hey, what’s the worst that can happen? After all, they drink it in the jungle!

Challenging knowledge

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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.