The problem with general ability statements in history education


Progression models are frequently constructed from ‘ability’ statements. Put simply, if you have an ability, it means you can do something. It is therefore quite common to see progression models in history education containing statements saying “pupils can construct causal arguments” or “pupils can critique interpretations of the past”. The rationale behind this is not hard to see. As a history teacher, I want my pupils to become more able in the discipline. Expert historians spend their time constructing causal arguments and critiquing interpretations, and it would therefore seem to follow that a progression model for history education ought to contain ability statements about these disciplinary practices.

But there is a problem with this. I have been studying and teaching history for years, and I would like to think that I can say “I have the ability to write a causal argument”. Yet if you were to ask me now to write an essay on the causes of the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, then you would find me not able to write the essay, for I know next to nothing about the Tang Dynasty. Despite being an ‘able’ historian, I would not in this context actually be able to construct a causal argument. Similarly, I might make a claim such as “as a historian I can critique interpretations of the past”. Yet I am not currently able to critique Timothy Wong’s interpretation of Tang-dynasty love tales. The fact that I can construct causal arguments and critique interpretations in one context does not mean I can do this in another.

This is one of the reasons why generic progression models in history fail. It certainly is true that I probably have a significant head-start over someone who has never studied any history at all, and Sam Wineburg’s work on this would suggest that some of the disciplinary ideas I have learnt put me at an advantage in an attempt to make sense of the Tang Dynasty. Were I to put in the time to learn lots about the Tang dynasty and love tales, I probably would find that my knowledge of forms of causal argument and critical frameworks would help me gain these abilities in a new context more quickly. But it does not follow from this that I have a generic ability as a historian to ‘construct causal arguments’ or ‘critique interpretations’: the range of contexts in which I can do this are actually quite limited.*

The implications for curriculum design are significant. If you want to include ability statements in a curriculum design (e.g. “Pupils will be able to…”) then these cannot meaningfully be left at the generic level. The following, for example, do not work as ability statements in any progression model or curriculum.

  • Pupils can construct causal arguments
  • Pupils can critique interpretations of the past
  • Pupils can describe the extent of change over time
  • Pupils can deploy sources as evidence in support of a conclusion

Statements such as these will be familiar to any history teacher, and a great deal of ink has been spilt in trying to break these generic statements of historical ability down into different levels of competence. But such models have never worked in practice, and one reason for this is the point I have made in this post. For these statements to have any curricular meaning, they would need to be specific to something pupils have studied. So I would be happy with the following:

  • Pupils can construct an argument concerning the causes of the First World War
  • Pupils can critique Marxist interpretations of the structure of medieval society
  • Pupils can describe the extent to which religious practice in England changed during the reformation
  • Pupils can use birth and death rates as evidence of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on English society

All of these work as descriptions of progression: a pupil probably starts a scheme of work unable to do a specific bullet point, and by the end he or she is now able to do it. I could give you a list of a number of causal arguments my Year 9 pupils have learnt to construct over the last three years, but this is not the same as making the claim that they ‘can construct causal arguments’. They are no more able to construct arguments about the causes of the collapse of the Tang Dynasty than I am.

In practice, what this line of reasoning does is tightly integrate the disciplinary with the substantive. This is problematical in history education, as the substantive varies significantly from place to place, which is one reason why theorists have tended to focus on generic disciplinary competence: surely if a pupil in one schools learns to construct causal arguments about the First World War and in another school they learn to construct causal arguments about the Cold War, we can take the idea of ‘constructing causal arguments’ and turn this in to a generic ability statement in a progression model? For the reasons I have outlined in this post, I think this is not a tenable position. It is why there are as many progression models in history education as there are curricula: the curriculum is the progression model.


* A short philosophical diversion

This is a more general problem in arguments about ‘ability’ that have cropped up in the philosophy of mind. One way of resolving this is a ‘possible worlds’ argument. For example, no one would question Mo Farah’s ability to run a marathon, yet, if he is in London, it would be impossible for him at that moment to run a marathon in Sydney. He would not be able to do it. But it is clear that he could run a marathon in Sydney were it not for a limiting factor (his geographic location). You could use a similar line of reasoning to critique my argument here: I probably could write a critique of Timothy Wong’s interpretation of Tang-dynasty love tales, if I spent the time to learn about the Tang dynasty and Wong’s argument. I think, however, that for any educational question, saying “you could do x if you learnt y” is cheating, for it is the very act of learning something that gives you the ability to do something. It would be the equivalent of saying “I could run a marathon if I trained hard enough”. Most would not accept this statement as being in keeping with the statement “I can run a marathon”. Furthermore, the argument could be turned on its head to support the argument “all Michael has to do is learn lists of facts about the Tang Dynasty. He will then have the ability to critique Wong’s interpretation, if he brushes up on his disciplinary practice”. In short, I am arguing that both substantive and disciplinary knowledge are essential properties of historical ability, which is why focusing on one in a progression model and not the other is prima facie doomed to failure.


4 Comments on The problem with general ability statements in history education

  1. Expert historians spend their time constructing causal arguments and critiquing interpretations, and it would therefore seem to follow that a progression model for history education ought to contain ability statements about these disciplinary practices.

    • Michael Fordham // 27 July 2017 at 09:22 // Reply

      I’m not suggesting these things aren’t important – the problem comes when you try to break ‘causal argument’ down into a ladder-like hierarchy. I would say work out what you want them to know about causal arguments, and then teach that to them. If they can do what you wanted, they have made progress.

      (As an aside, I would be cautious in your use of terms here – expert physicists *also* spending their time arguing for causal relations and critiquing interpretations).

  2. As ever, the parallels in music might be illuminating

    This statement would not be very helpful if used in a progression model:

    I can play a sonata.

    Slightly more useful might be:
    I can play a Beethoven sonata
    or perhaps
    I can play a Beethoven sonata on the piano, accurately and with appropriate attention to dynamics
    In the sonata form, I can play a wide repertoire of early Romantic music, displaying accuracy and expertise in varied interpretation

    The first refines by substantive content and is also a ‘difficulty’ marker (Beethoven being harder than X), the second refines further by quality, the third refines by considerable additional content (difficulty assumed but not specified) and by quality.

    But even if this were the progression model, the CURRICULUM which would make ascent through this progression possible would involve becoming competent in wider content, drilling in numerous small (often hidden) skills, wider knowledge by exposure (listening etc), and much more… all of which would manifest themselves indirectly eventual success in the performance of those summative statements.

    By contrast, we end up in double trouble if generic ‘I can’ statements are not only treated as progression model but someone imagines that working through them and ticking them off can be substituted for a curriculum and lead to the full summative outcome.

    It is quite staggering that this having been proven a disaster at least twice in history in the last 25 years, we have people apparently ignorant of that who still re-invent this kind of square wheel:

    Another context where this has happened is English Language GCSE. Students are dragged through exam-derived lesson objectives leading to them practising such things as ‘I can use convincing and compelling language’. It’s no wonder that those around the 2-3 and 3-4 borderlines make such sluggish progress because the generic descriptor is not describing the hidden, speciific, detailed knowledge and thorough practice in matters that would (if only schools had the courage and confidence to veer away from the direct use of these descriptors) actually enable these weaker students finally to acquire that very competence.

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