“Use all the sources and your own knowledge”: is it time to move on?

I have written a few times now that I think we need a radical change in how we set source-based questions in exams. Some relevant earlier posts are

I think it is vital that pupils learn about the history as a discipline, and this means that they learn how historians use sources as evidence to construct their interpretations. What is clear to me, however, is that current source-based questions at GCSE and A-Level do not reflect in any meaningful way how sources are used in the discipline. This has led me to three central conclusions:

(A) I think we should specify in curricula (and exam specifications) which precise sources we want pupils to have studied. This is so that pupils can go to an exam with in-depth knowledge of particular sources, rather than relying on ridiculously limited contextual information written in italics under the source.

(B) Rather than ask pupils to replicate the historical method in exam conditions, we should instead ask pupils explicit questions about the historical method, to assess the extent to which they understand how historians use sources.

(C) We should move on from teaching ‘generic’ source analysis techniques, such as asking about the utility or provenance of a source. This is not to say that I think these things are unimportant (the contrary is true), but rather that I do not think these things can be taught or applied by pupils in a generic way.

As a very nascent attempt at writing exam questions, take a look at the following, which should give an idea of how what I am proposing is radically different from the current orthodoxy. For this exam, the specification would set out that pupils would learn about the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, about how the source exists, what problems it presents to historians, and how historians have used it as evidence to reach conclusions. In this way it becomes a ‘case study’, and we assess pupil knowledge of how historians use sources by assessing their knowledge of this specific case.

Example Exam

(1) How do historians deal with the problem that there are multiple versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

(2) Read the following extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

A.D. 449. This year Marcian and Valentinian assumed the empire, and reigned seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Wurtgern, king of the Britons to his assistance, landed in Britain in a place that is called Ipwinesfleet; first of all to support the Britons, but they afterwards fought against them. The king directed them to fight against the Picts; and they did so; and obtained the victory wheresoever they came. They then sent to the Angles, and desired them to send more assistance. They described the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land. They then sent them greater support. Then came the men from three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes.

Why should historians of the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain be cautious about using this entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as evidence of events?

(3) Why do historians think that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was first written in Wessex in the late ninth century?

(4) How do we know that the scribes who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle had read Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People?

(5) What view of the Norman Conquest of England is given by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

(6) What sources give contrasting views of the Norman Conquest to that of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

Picture: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126532.html






4 Comments on “Use all the sources and your own knowledge”: is it time to move on?

  1. Very interesting Michael. I have always been intrigued by your suggestions about ‘set texts’ in history, and I am even more sold on this idea of set sources, something which I suggest should be the case at KS3 and KS4. Indeed, this is an approach my department is working on in KS4 with the ‘historic environment’ element of the Edexcel Crime and Punishment course. Given the number of sources we want students to know about, sadly we are very brief, but we have a reader we give students of about 20 sources we want all students to know about, and how historians might make use of them. It’s a start. As you say, the system needs to change if we’re to take this even further in the direction you suggested.

    One wonders what would feature on a ‘ten sources all KS3 pupils should know about’. Or indeed, should such a list be longer?

    I presume, Michael, that you would still want exams to include ‘unseen’ sources as well as this approach you’ve suggested. I think the way students interpret and make sense of sources that they are unfamiliar with is just as important but you are right, we’ve gone too far in that direction to the exclusion of firm knowledge that we should be communicating and examining.

    • Thanks for commenting – my question with ‘unseen’ sources is ‘what is being assessed?’ If for example we set “The Paston Letters” as a body of sources to be studied, then I might be happy having an unseen Paston Letter, as they should know enough about the context to answer meaningful source questions. Otherwise, I’m less and less convinced of the value of this.

      • I think students really find it challenging to extract evidence from sources. I imagine a line of questioning that would examine this might slot into the framework you’ve suggested above, about the relationship between sources and how historians use them but you’d need an unseen source to judge students ability to examine meaning for themselves.

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