Have you taught it? The problem of the list curriculum

One of the problems of the various iterations of the National Curriculum is that the statements they included were very broad and open to interpretation. This is true of the current (2014) National Curriculum, but was even more true of the 2008 curriculum which included statements such as that pupils should learn

‘the development of political power from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, including changes in the relationship between the rulers and ruled over time, the changing relationship between the crown and parliament and the development of democracy.’

Now on my interpretation to teach this one would need to cover

  • The legal system in Anglo-Saxon England, including Alfred and his domboc, the growing concern with law and order under tenth-century kings such as Athelstan and Edgar and the impact of Danish settlement
  • The Norman Conquest, its effect on the aristocracy and the extent to which it had an impact on lower groups in society
  • The reign of Stephen and the ‘anarchy’
  • Henry II and the relationship of church and state
  • Magna Carta, John and his relationship with the barons
  • Henry III, Simon de Montfort and Parliament
  • Richard II and the Peasants’ Revolt
  • The Wars of the Roses
  • Henry VII and his relationship with the barons
  • The creation of the Church of England
  • The English Civil Wars and Cromwell’s Protectorate
  • The restoration, ‘glorious revolution’ and the Bill of Rights
  • The origins of the Tories and the Whigs
  • Walpole and the idea of a prime minister and cabinet responsibility
  • The development of taxation and public debt in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • Popular protest in the 19th century, including Pentrich, Peterloo and the Chartist movement
  • The role played by Peel, Disraeli and Gladstone in the formation of the Conservative and Liberal parties
  • Changing suffrage in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the reform acts and the women’s suffrage movement
  • The growth of the Labour Party and trade unionism
  • The Liberal reforms and the Welfare State
  • Thatcher and the unions

I could probably have gone into quite a lot more detail, but I would see covering all of these bullet points over the three years of Key Stage 3 as a minimum in order to meet the requirements set out in the curriculum. But your interpretation of the curriculum might well be different. In fact, there are probably many things you might include that are not on my list, and you might well decide to leave some of those things I chose to include.

A list (such as the one I just produced) might now look a lot more specific, but is it in practice? Let’s take another famous list, which is that included at the back of ED Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy. I have selected a few that would be familiar to UK history teachers.

  • King, Martin Luther, Jr.
  • King James Version (Bible)
  • Khruschev, Nikita
  • Kennedy, John F
  • Kant, Immanuel
  • Korean War
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Lenin, Vladimir

Take, for example, the King James Version. I would suggest that to teach the King James Version I would probably need to teach children about the English Reformation, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, the Stuart succession, the group of churchmen brought together to produce the bible, the sources they went to in producing their translation and the deliberate use of archaic language. I would want to teach about the influence of Puritanism. I would probably want to teach examples of some common English sayings that come from the King James Version. Or what about Lenin? When I have taught pupils about Lenin I have tended to focus on the last years of his life, taking in his return from Germany in 1917 up to his death in 1924. One could however focus on his earlier life, including his radicalisation, his exile and his involvement in the Second International. We could argue over the extent to which it is necessary to teach about the details of his interpretation of Marxism.

None of this is I think particularly controversial: a curriculum always needs interpreting, and different people will interpret it in different ways to give it coherence, shape and direction through the time it is taught. A list of things to be taught can appear highly specific but requires a great deal of elaboration before it becomes workable in practice. This does however create significant problems in terms of how we talk about curriculum. For one, it becomes extremely difficult to compare curricula between schools. As was the case with the 2008 National Curriculum, two schools could both with some legitimacy claim to be teaching the same curriculum, yet in practice be very different indeed. When teachers sit down together at conferences to discuss their curricula, it is tricky to work out what exactly someone else is doing: you cannot assume that, because you both teach Kennedy, you necessarily teach the same thing about him. At GCSE and A-Level the exam specification essentially becomes the curriculum and past exam papers and indicative mark schemes become the main guide as to what pupils ought to know, but for younger students (including at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3) there is not even this.

One way out of this is to provide a gloss for each statement, indicating the sorts of examples one might need to teach and perhaps offering some pointers as to the relative breadth and depth of what is expected. These glosses themselves suffer from the same problem, but it is probably possible to establish a fairly good professional understanding of what the expected level of detail is. If we insist on having a list of content, then this might be the best way forward.

Alternatively, we might decide to turn the resources we use into the curriculum. A good example of this is treating your textbooks as the curriculum. This already happens extensively at GCSE and A-Level, where exam-board-endorsed textbooks have become the norm. I do not buy the argument that this encourages children to think that there is only ‘one narrative’ of the past, not least because it is not difficult to write a textbook that shows pupils that different plausible interpretations of the past can be constructed. It does nevertheless require incredibly careful thought in terms of resource design and a different attitude to textbooks.

Another approach is to specify the questions we want pupils to be able to answer rather than the content we want them to learn.  This is not quite the same as the ‘key question’ approach that some exam boards use: I rather mean setting out a list of essay-style questions (perhaps 100 for Key Stage 3) that we might expect pupils to be able to answer after their three years of studying history. I think this territory is not as well explored as it might be, but it would seem a particularly interesting solution if combined with example essays for each question and a comparative marking approach to assessment. The list of questions would need to be sufficiently large to avoid obvious gaming short-cuts, but it would allow history departments to take their own approach to each question.

Maybe what we need is a mixed economy, in which we have curricular headings that look rather like the ones in the current (2014) National Curriculum, and that under each heading we provide a set of questions (say 20-25) that pupils need to be able to answer. We then write our resources in such a way that they provide enough content to answer those questions, and lots of examples of what those answers ought to look like. If this sounds like a lot of work, then it’s because it is: an integrated history curriculum of this sort does not currently exist at any level in England. There is work for us to do.

3 Comments on Have you taught it? The problem of the list curriculum

  1. Interesting post. But, assuming the list you state at the start of the post is a minimum for that one point of the History National Curriculum (there are many others as I’m sure you know), how on earth can you teach all of that in the three years of KS3 (not even considering the additional pressure now to start GCSE at some point in year nine)?

    Surely this is a case of breadth versus depth and getting the right balance between medium to long-term historical developments and short-term depth studies?

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