What does it mean to get better at history? One of the problems we have in answering this question is that history is an incredibly diverse discipline: there are thousands of possible things that one might legitimately study at school. In one school pupils might be learning 18th-century French history, but in the next town pupils might never study this, and instead learn about 15th-century Italy. In one school pupils might learn about analysing monastic records from the eleventh century, yet pupils in another school might never encounter this source material, and instead focus on analysing Cromwell’s speeches in Parliament in the 1650s. To get better at history, you have to have learnt a sufficient number of things, but very few of those things can be understood as strictly necessary in the sense that someone has to have studied them in order to be understood as making progress in the discipline.
This is further complicated by the fact that history, more than any other subject, is highly politicised. If you insist that all children should have learnt about Chartism and how most of its aims were ultimately successful, you get accused of left-wing indoctrination. If you insist that all children learn about Trafalgar and Waterloo, you get accused of right-wing indoctrination. You have taught pupils to critique the Whig Interpretation but not the Marxist Interpretation? Well you’re trying to breed mini-socialists. All of this encourages us to lean towards the generic yet, as I argued in the first post in this series, progression models based on generic descriptions of disciplinary practice fail to account for the fact that all experienced historians have mastered a wide range of substantive and disciplinary specifics.
One of the problems with this is that is results in a situation where the generic descriptions of progression we produce do not necessarily describe what it means to get better at history. Take the idea that pupils should learn that “change is driven by multiple causes” and that causes “vary in their influence”. This is a description of something that historians learn, but it is also a description of something natural scientists learn. Historians do learn that people’s actions in the past have “unintended consequences”, but this is also something central to a literature specialist’s study of tragedy. It’s all very well saying that we as history teachers are teaching children to select relevant information, deploy evidence and weigh-up the strength of different arguments, but these statements could be used to describe just about any academic discipline. By focusing on broad, generic statements about the nature of the discipline we find ourselves unable to say what is distinct about what we do. We might as well claim that you can define humanity as creatures who breathe air, drink water and live in groups. It’s all true, but we would struggle to say whether an organism is human simply by deploying these criteria, any more than we can say whether someone has got better at history by using criteria that can legitimately be used to define a range of disciplines.
It is this conclusion that has led me to the position where I would argue that we need to break the disassociation between the curriculum and the progression model. Getting better at history means mastering specifics, and if we do not set out those specifics, then we cannot meaningfully define progression. If you read this and conclude that I am arguing for a list of substantive facts to be learnt, then you have misunderstood the nature of my argument. As I argued in the first post in this series, disciplinary knowledge – the know-that and know-how that constitute the practice of the discipline – is crucial, and we need to be as specific with this knowledge as with substantive. If we want pupils to learn to critique the Marxist interpretation, then this is what we should teach them, and they have made progress if they have learnt to do this. If we want pupils to be able to criticise seventeenth-century parliamentary speeches, then we should teach them how to do this, and, if they are then able to produce such critiques, they have made progress. As with substantive knowledge, there is very little which can be understood to be ‘core content’ that every student of history has to learn, but they need to have mastered disciplinary knowledge in order to get better at history.
And this, finally, is why the curriculum is the progression model. If a student has learnt the curriculum, they have made progress.
In a curriculum, we set out what we think pupils ought to learn. If they learn what we have set out in the curriculum, then they have by definition got better at history. In this sense questions about progression are in fact curricular questions. Every time we write a curriculum, we are writing a progression model. Some of the greater problems in history education have come about because we have tried to separate these two things out resulting in the bizarre conclusion that a pupil might have learnt the curriculum but not got better at history. This disassociation is something we can no longer afford to sustain.
In my next blog post I am going to consider some of the assessment implications that stem from treating the curriculum as the progression model. I shall leave you at this stage, however, with one final thought. If we treat the curriculum as the progression model, then we are saying that there as many ways to model progression as there are ways to write a curriculum. This makes comparisons very difficult, particularly where there is great diversity in curriculum content. Now this need not in and of itself be a problem, but for those interested in accountability (e.g. the inspectorate) it does raise the thorny issue that, if you want to compare progression in history between different schools, then it is necessary to compare the curriculum being taught.