Subject knowledge and ITT

The relationship between subject knowledge and initial teacher training is currently up for consideration once again. In the spirit of sharing, Christine Counsell – who leads the team (including around 30 mentors) who run the Cambridge History PGCE – suggested that I might share the pre-course reading requirements for the course. You can download the pdf by clicking on this link.

Cambridge University Pre-Course Readings

This is the compulsory material that new trainees have to do before they can begin the PGCE in September. I remember this package landing in my pigeon hole the day I finished my undergraduate degree, and feeling rather overwhelmed at what I was expected to do. The message on this course, however, is high demand and high support, and once I had read through the materials carefully, I felt it was manageable over the summer, and I got through it all.

The pre-course reading is divided into four sections:

  1. reading novels
  2. reading about history as a discipline
  3. reading about history education
  4. building new historical knowledge

If you do not have time to read the document, this is a very brief summary.

(1) Reading novels

 Good history teachers are well read. Before beginning the course, we expect trainees to pick ten novels from list to read over the summer, ranging from weighty classics (Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy) to quick reads for children (Sutcliffe, Morpurgo).

(2) Reading about history as a discipline

 History teachers need to know about how their subject works; a great deal of the debates in history education actually revolve around what history is. All trainees are given basic introductory texts (e.g. Evans, Carr) and there’s advanced readings for those who have already read these texts as undergraduates.

(3) Readings about history education

 Practising history teachers have written an awful lot in the last twenty years about teaching history, and we expect trainees to be part of that dialogue. Trainees have to read around 13 articles written by history teachers. They also have to read Dan Willingham’s Why don’t children like school?

(4) Building new historical knowledge

History teachers need to be specialists in breadth, and it takes time to build up subject knowledge. In order to get trainees started in the summer, we expect them to read up on four new periods of history. They can choose which four, with the following proviso.

If trainees are clueless about any of the following three periods, then they have to include these in their four:

  • The Wars of the Roses
  • The ‘Glorious Revolution’
  • The French Revolution

‘Clueless’ is defined thus:

Only include those three topics in your four if you really are clueless on them. What is ‘clueless’? Well, if you saw the words: Elizabeth Woodville, Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III, the Paston letters, the Battle of Towton, the Princes in the Tower, Margaret Beaufort, the Houses of York and Lancaster and you didn’t even recognize one or two or couldn’t weave a handful of facts about each into a simple narrative, and if you honestly don’t have any idea how Henry Tudor came to the throne (other than some chap yelling for a horse who is now buried under a car park), and if you couldn’t really do much with any dates in the period 1455 to 1485, then we think you qualify as ‘clueless’. No shame in that. But you therefore need to work on this topic at some point and we are asking you to prioritise this particular one, right now. But if you do have those outline narratives, then please consider yourself adequately knowledgeable for now and take the opportunity to make good your gaps in some other areas.

So the idea here is that all trainees arrive with knowledge of those three periods (all of which are the basis of activities on the course, with some knowledge needed as a prerequisite). If they happen to have studied all three already, then they have more freedom to choose, following the guidelines included.

That’s it – the pre-reading for the Cambridge History PGCE.


15 Comments on Subject knowledge and ITT

  1. Paul Hargreaves // 25 July 2014 at 12:00 // Reply

    I trained at Trinity and All Saints in 2000/2001. I genuinely cannot remember being given ANY reading list at all….

    It was during my first week that we did a knowledge audit and once we’d identified areas of weakness we were simply told to read up on our weak points.

    As for Christine’s reading list- I think I’m going to be going over several parts of it myself in the coming months….some interesting looking stuff on there.

  2. Warren Valentine // 25 July 2014 at 21:45 // Reply

    Whilst very supportive of the principle here, I do find that list excessively challenging. I would be very interested to hear how supportive Cambridge History PGCE students are of this and how much they genuinely complete the task expected of them.

    I cannot agree that this list is “manageable” within a summer holiday break. One must also remember that many of the course’s clientele are not sat around for the holiday break, but are in fact saving money to fund their year having taken the commendable decision to enter the profession. Presumably to have successfully joined the course, applicants must have a degree of historical knowledge, an understanding of what history actually is, and something going on between their ears.

    I completely agree that reading Richard Evans is an important prerequisite of the course. But buttressed with a minimum of ten novel & other important works for reading, family commitments and that thing I’ve forgotten the name of… oh yes, having a life, means that course participants are unlikely to absorb this text in the required depth & reflect upon it in the appropriate manner.

    In this age where teachers are hideously overworked, such demanding expectations of PGCE students is somewhat unfair and sends out the wrong message. I have seen many PGCE students work themselves into the ground & sacrifice sleep. This is not a position any trainee, or full time teacher in fact, should put themselves in. Nor should they ever feel that this is the expectation of them. ITT providers have a duty of care to their students, and this extends to the period of time when such pre-course expectations are made of them and I worry about how this document is received.

    The document can also be taken as a symptom of a broader disconnect between history ITE and the reality on the ground. In fact, history teachers do not get to teach everything they want. In fact, they often teach beyond the subject, rendering much of this subject knowledge development at this early stage irrelevant, whilst the time could be used much more productively.

    On that note, how did I spend my summer before joining my PGCE? I spent it as follows:

    – Reading a plethora of historical novels. I did not count them. Nor did I follow any prescription as to which novels or indeed academic tomes that I should read. Instead, I gave time to explore my passion for my subject and did broaden my horizons substantially. If trainees are expected to be professionals, trust them to use their time wisely.

    – Considering “what is history?” and “what is good history?”, taking Richard Evans and the views of others into account.

    – Reading blogs on twitter and developing my understanding of schools and pedagogical practice beyond the subject of history. My experience of ITE seems to assume that history departments exist in some sort of vacuum.

    – Trying to earn as much money as possible to live on for the forthcoming year.

    – Relaxing and ensuring that friendships were in a good place, before truly testing that support network by going ‘off the grid’ for extended periods of time during the PGCE itself.

    I’m all in favour of good quality subject knowledge. It is an absolute must and is the foundation of good history teaching But I most protest that this is a truly monstrous and overly-prescriptive demand of new PGCE students that just is not necessary.

    • Christine Counsell // 26 July 2014 at 18:13 // Reply

      Fascinating comment Warren. I’ve never known the trainees evaluate it other than extremely positively. Making sure trainees don’t get exhausted (I agree, a huge issue throughout their course), is a huge priority. This is also why we’re very clear about the need to relax and have a good rest in the summer, and why we go for novels, too, because they double up as relaxation. The trainees are clear that they should just try to do as much as they can, prioritising their weaknesses, making their own personalised programme from the various options. And what history teacher wouldn’t enjoy a glorious few weeks to read, and to broaden their knowledge into exciting new areas, especially with clear advice, and lots of ideas on how to do it as enjoyably as possible? Bliss!

      Also, they are ready for this culture from when they come to interview (always held in schools, and led by mentors), so it isn’t a shock. We (i.e. the mentor team) know we are selecting the kind of trainee who will be inspired by this. Daunted, yes, but inspired.

      The most important thing to note, however, is that the course is ‘school-led at the subject level’. The mentors are the team that share ownership of it, shape it and discuss the readings that the trainees will look at. The trainees will soon be studying these readings in schools with their mentors. There is no such thing as separate university and school courses here. It is 100% ‘on the ground’. I share course coordination with a seconded mentor and we have a mentor panel who share responsibility for strengthening the training that is carried out by the history mentor team. Now, one of the mentor panel’s major innovations in 2007, was the creation of a “joint-mentor-trainee-historical-scholarship reading initiative”, where mentor and trainee read works of historical scholarship together. They do this to build subject knowledge, yes; to deepen a sense of the rigour/shape of the discipline, yes; to strengthen their planning, yes. But actually, the root reason behind the initiative was the strong view of the mentor team that on the ground in schools there is nowhere near enough encouragement from senior leaders to be constantly reading new historical scholarship, to be keeping in touch with the discipline, to be staying in love with subject that first inspired us. So it’s useful reading yes, but also reading for the hell of it, because loving history is right at the heart of doing this well.

      So, precisely because it’s tough – really really tough (I found it incredibly hard as a head of history) to make time for scholarship reading when being a history teacher in school; precisely because it’s very hard to build a departmental culture where scholarship is discussed all the time (few of us can match what one of our former mentors, Giles Fullard, former Head of History at HInchingbrooke School achieved in his inspirational culture of departmental scholarship reading in his history dept), precisely because this kind of subject-passionate, scholarly way of being a teacher is frankly under threat from all manner of frustrating distractions (as a result of wider school factors and pressures), this group of ten history mentors (i.e. ten heads of history in comps) in 2007 said, “Let’s make it an entitlement for trainees. Let’s build it in the course.” They then worked to build the entitlement and we review it every year with them, even doing systematic research through in-depth interviews with several mentors, and doing a very thorough evaluation with all trainees. It is very, very popular. I agree, good PGCEs should be responsive to the ‘ground’, not cut off from it. Absolutely. So this is why we did what we did.

      This brings me back to the summer pack. The elements of historical scholarship in the summer reading “preparation pack” emerged, in part, as a result of that 2007 project and its many developments and offshoots since. It starts to get the trainees ready for that culture; it starts to get them excited.

      It also plays its part in ensuring that they have less stress during the course because they have a few core areas of historical knowledge nailed!! This is a massive de-stressing effect when they arrive: it means we can be kind to them, by rooting some of the most stretching of training activities that they do with their mentors (and its preparation/follow-up in the university) in some agreed areas that everyone has a handle on. In many history PGCE courses, because trainees always arrive with wildly divergent degree backgrounds, it’s tough to do really high-level stuff with everyone at once (e.g. how DO we get low-attaining Year 8 to compare 18th century Britain and France, and so transform their enjoyment of the study of the French Revolution? Not easy to tackle that practical work if half the trainees are still stuck on who Robespierre is).

      Besides, it’s all fairly broad and loose so they can choose to do it in ways that suit their personal styles, paces and prior knowledge.

      But it is gold standard stuff, I agree. It is aspirational. This is about a community of history teachers trying to make better history teachers still, for the future, and trying to stretch themselves, at the same time. It’s not about now, it’s about the future. We make no apology for that. That is how the history mentors want it to be. It is a massive privilege to work with them. They stretch me and kick me out of my comfort zone all the time. Thank goodness.

      • Warren Valentine // 26 July 2014 at 22:12 //

        Thank you very much indeed for that passionate and in depth riposte. It has certainly made me rethink my original position.

        It was very interesting to hear how the pre-course pack had originally come together. I completely support the idea that routine historical scholarship should be a core part of a teacher’s continuous professional development, something that in my experience, it is not. Is there somewhere where I could perhaps read more about Giles Fullard’s work?

        I have no issues of principle against what you say. In fact it very much matches up with how I tried to prepare for my PGCE course and with how I see myself as a teacher, continuously developing. I suspect that my original comment was heavily grounded in the fears & concerns that I had as an undergraduate preparing for the PGCE course ahead. As a younger teacher, from a less well off background, I was absolutely terrified of starting the course. Furthermore, responsibilities that I held at that time and broader issues relating to circumstances meant that I spent that summer beforehand working hard at earning the money I needed to be able to ‘rest easy’ during the course itself without financial distractions. Such high expectations would have left me feeling like I was always falling short, which is not good, in a profession which relies heavily on a professional’s inner-confidence. This is not to say that I did not engage in a wide body of historical research ‘off my own back’ and being aware of the state of one’s subject knowledge and steadily improving it over time is just as important as working through a prescribed list. However one cannot argue with the overwhelmingly positive reviews you have received, and I agree that the certainty and clear benchmark that this document provides can in some ways be seen as a good thing and settling to many.

    • Michael Fordham // 26 July 2014 at 22:08 // Reply

      Warren – thanks for commenting. I would agree with every word written by Christine in response to you here, but I would reiterate further the point about this being led by schools. The course is very heavily led by the mentor team (of which I was part for five years) and they’re the people who suggest these things. It was a mentor in an on-the-ground department that wanted more reading of scholarship on the course. It was a mentor on the ground (in another school) who suggested the idea of ‘fortnightly reading themes’ in order to keep up the reading when the trainees are in school full-time (particularly after Christmas). This is what Christine means by the course being ‘school led at the subject level’ – partnership for us does not just mean the university working with schools. It means the Heads of Departments and other mentors making choices about the structure and content of the course, the readings that are on it, the work the trainees do – the whole thing. Although the team invariably changes a bit from year to year, it’s a team of about 30-40 mentors who make these kinds of choices.

      As for support – you are of course correct – the support needs to be high. We select only historians who we think can cope with the course. The level of demand is exceptionally high, but so too is the level of the support. Our drop-out rate is pretty much zero, and our employment rate is exceptionally high. Having worked in two comprehensive schools and talked to history teachers in many, many others, I would be hard pressed to think of a better preparation for the world of work as a history teacher than this course.

      But then I would say that!

      • Warren Valentine // 26 July 2014 at 22:16 //

        “I would be hard pressed to think of a better preparation for the world of work as a history teacher than this course.”

        I completely agree. Well, at least I believe that every history teacher should have this ethic, and have this body of knowledge under their belt. See my further comment above, my main concerns relate to how challenging this could appear, and perhaps even impractical, to a trainee who comes from a more challenging background. This would, I am sure, heap enormous pressure on them. Speaking as someone who believes in the value of knowledge far more than many others, and continously works hard to develop subject knowledge, this initial set-up would have terrified me. As I suggested to Christine though, I can’t argue with the responses that come back through your course evaluations! Keep up the good work! Warren.

      • Michael Fordham // 26 July 2014 at 22:18 //

        Thanks Warren – I’ll find something to send you by Giles Fullard! He was my first Head of Department (and it shows…) He does quite a bit now (I think) with the PTI.

  3. Can’t help thinking that it would be even better if you could set a test on this stuff in the first week and kick off anyone that hadn’t done what was required.

    Actually, while I can see practical problems with that, could there be entrance exams for PGCE courses?

    • Warren Valentine // 26 July 2014 at 15:16 // Reply


      I thought that was called a CV, personal statement and an interview, unless I am mistaken.

    • Michael Fordham // 26 July 2014 at 21:44 // Reply

      We set pretty tough entry requirements (see Christine’s comment) which involves, amongst other things, a strong first degree, perfect grammar and style in application and an interview day involving a written test, reading-aloud exercise, presentation and a requirement to speak in-depth about a particular area of historical scholarship. I personally don’t have anything against an entrance-test per se, but given that we set pretty tight entrance requirements already, I wonder if this might be superfluous. But it would certainly be possible and up to the course provider (as I understand it).

      I can, however, very much see some value in having a set of exams (broadly conceived) further down the line (rather like GP exams) where, two or three years after training, teachers sit a set of exams, write some essays, produce a portfolio etc. in order to fully ‘qualify’ – fellowship exams for a Royal College, for example. The problem with this (as you’ve pointed out before) is it becomes a case of who says what counts as the expected knowledge base on which those exams would be set? I think we’d be comfortable setting an assessment for history teachers – but would others agree?

      At the very least, I would expect all history teachers to be able to answer fairly in-depth questions on periods of history drawn from the National Curriculum. Maybe a medieval, early-modern and modern paper, with two or three essays on each? Make it sufficiently difficult so that around 75% pass first time, with retakes allowed every year? I think that’s similar to the medical model.

  4. I like it, and think my maths PGCE course would benefit from something similar.

  5. I think this is great and would be a very good addition to any PGCE course.
    However, I think the ‘new ITT model’ that currently is being lauded, with more school-based SD ITT, means subject knowledge is even more under pressure. Firstly because I think that when your ‘base’ essentially is the school where you are with only a few days at uni means you just don’t create the culture that is so nicely described by Christine in the 4th paragraph. Secondly, because with subject shortages there is a real chance that schools will make do with lower entry requirements (ironically uni’s still have to work with those schools, under the risk of not getting any funds whatsoever). Thirdly because, basically, many departments just close down because the budgets that schools allocate are a fraction of what it was. I’m actually very much FOR more school-based training . However, each its own. For subject knowledge and scholarly debate the current model seems devastating.

  6. I have to say, if a history graduate is genuinely clueless about those topics, all of them pretty mainstream, then I wold seriously question the value of their degree. Of the three, ALL Anglia Ruskin history students would have done both the Glorious Revolution and the French Revolution before the end of their first year. We don’t have a medievalist in our department, otherwise the Wars of the Roses would have been covered too. It’s not difficult to do some reading on all three over the summer – a standard history of Britain, anything from GM Trevelyan to Norman Davies or Simon Schama, would cover the two British ones perfectly adequately for the purpose (hey, you could even just watch a DVD of Simon’s History of Britain), and there is no shortage of reading available on the French Revolution – again, the relevant chapters in a standard history of Europe (Norman Davies stand forward again) would do, if you can’t bring yourself to face anything going into greater detail. Teachers HAVE to get used to mastering unfamiliar history topics and doing so quickly – typically over the summer holiday; the alternative is that the curriculum ossifies and never changes or, worse, you have schools choosing to repeat topics over and over again in each year group, as was the case with the Nazis until very recently (and no doubt often still is) – simply because the teachers say they are too busy (or whatever) to read up on anything new. Without wanting to bring the words “In my day” into this, in my day (!) I had to read up on the history of medicine for the old Schools Council course (and that really was new territory for me), the industrial revolution, local history (also for the SC course), the American West (ditto) AND try to get my head round Sociology, a subject I had never studied but was going to be teaching to O level-as-was – and all that in the summer before I started my first teaching job. So you must forgive me if I;’m not terribly impressed with complaints about how much historical knowledge Christine is asking for. It has been my invariable experience that pupils and students are ALWAYS impressed by a teachers’ subject knowledge – indeed, it is an important part of the respect that teacher must command – and are equally invariably unimpressed with any hint of a lack of subject knowledge and expertise.

  7. Warren Valentine // 27 July 2014 at 10:10 // Reply

    That would be very good of you, thanks Michael!

  8. I’m interested in reading the four articles referenced in this reading list before I embark on my own course of study:

    You will find with this mailing short articles by Sean Lang, Tony McAleavy, Jamie Byrom and Kate Hammond. Each of these was written some years ago and is a classic in the history education community.

    Would you be able to provide further details as to these articles and where they were first published?

    Many thanks

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