I recently wrote about why it makes sense for schools to think about their history curriculum in terms of a ‘five-year plan’ in which what is learned in Key Stage 3 contributes directly to what is studied at GCSE. I heard recently that someone is doing the rounds at the moment making the case that, in order to prepare children for GCSE, we simply need to drill them in question ‘types’ lower down the school: as long as pupils can recognise words such as ‘describe’, ‘explain’ and ‘evaluate’, then they will be well-set for GCSE.
I could not disagree with this more.
For one, I have absolutely no desire to spend Key Stage 3 drilling children in question types. For one it would be tedious and dull. Secondly, it’s very likely to produce the situation Daisy Christodoulou criticised when she said that she had seen history students who could not remember a single date, yet could parrot back the levels of an exam mark scheme. No, if we are genuinely committed to teaching children about the past, and not just how to take tests about the past, then we need a different emphasis. It is a mistake to think that Key Stage 3 is the time to prepare pupils in the skills of exams: instead, we should be giving them the knowledge they need.
What is this knowledge? If you take my example Key Stage 3 (which I wrote about in this post) then most of what pupils learn lower down the school is not directly useful in exam topics. Instead, we need to think about transferable knowledge which pupils can take from one period of history and apply to another. One powerful way of doing this is by using substantive concepts such as ‘peasant’, ‘Parliament’ and ‘revolution’. Christine Counsell wrote about this in 2001:
Consider most of the abstract nouns that trip off your tongue, and especially those historical terms that have a technical, period or shifting meaning. Each one gains meaning through a hundred stories or situations that have passed through your head and left some residue behind. This is where the word lives – in your head. Your comprehension or deployment of the word would not be so secure, it would not resonate so easily with your eye as your eye breathes it in from a text, if it had simply been looked up in a dictionary and noted in a vocabulary book. There must be a connection between the layers and patterns of the knowledge we hold, and our facility with language. (Counsell, 2001: 7).
Drawing on Christine’s work, I have just put the finishing touches to a book chapter on substantive historical concepts in which I exemplify her point with the example of the term ‘middle class’.
When I read words such as ‘middle class’ I think not of dictionary definitions, but rather of London coffee houses, Viennese concert halls and Parisian tennis courts. I call upon a lifetime of textual encounters in imagining the middle classes: Lucy Pevensie, Phileas Fogg and Marius Pontmercy are as much a part of this as Charles Darwin, Emmeline Pankhurst and George Mallory. These images furnish the words ‘middle class’ for me, endowing them with a lingering residue that I call on in subsequent encounters with the term. Language and knowledge in this way stand in mutual support of one another, and, as I build fluency in one, I gain mastery over the other. As a historian, concepts become meaningful knots in the fibrous substance of my knowledge. (Fordham, forthcoming)
In history, we use substantive concepts to help us make sense of the past. A concept such as ‘slavery’ means different things when applied to Spartan helots in comparison to black sugar farmers on the fields of South Carolina, yet there is sufficient commonality across time to make using the word meaningful. The French Revolution was quite different from the Industrial Revolution, yet historians find it useful to refer to both events using the same language. Importantly, learning a dictionary definition here will never suffice: indeed, most substantive concepts in history come with multiple definitions and the precise meaning of the term depends on the context in which it is used. These concepts become meaningful when we see how they are used to describe people, places and events in the past. The more knowledge we have of how the term is used in the study of history, the better we understand the concept.
So what is the implication of this for thinking about pupil progression? I would suggest that one of the most sensible things a department can do is to identify the key substantive concepts that pupils will encounter in a GCSE course. This list is likely to include terms such as ‘liberal’, ‘socialist’, ‘right-wing’, ‘middle-class’, ‘proletariat’, ‘aristocracy’, ‘nation’, ‘frontier’, ‘dictator’, ‘totalitarian’, ‘peasant’, ‘industrialisation’, ‘public’, ‘trade’, ‘treaty’, ‘king’, ‘revolution’ and ‘empire’. Imagine the difficulty that a pupil faces if they get to GCSE and they are not clear about what these words mean. Imagine their bewilderment when a teacher puts a ‘word mat’ in front of them with definitions of these terms, divorced from the complex ways in which these words get used in the study of history.
There is a better way. In our teaching at Key Stage 3, these concepts emerge naturally, and we should plan to emphasise them when they do emerge. This is one way in which we create links across a curriculum. “Right Year 9, do you remember we looked at what it meant to be a peasant in medieval England when you were in Year 7? We’re going to compare that now to what it meant to be a peasant in Russia in the 1890s.” If we make it our aim that pupils get to the end of Key Stage 3 with a strong grasp of substantive concepts such as those I have listed above, then our lives at GCSE become a lot easier. This is one way in which we can create ‘transferable knowledge’ across a curriculum.
Counsell, C. (2001) ‘Knowledge, writing and delighting; extending the historical thinking of 11 and 12-year-olds’, Welsh Historian, 31