Types of knowledge in a history curriculum

In my previous post I focused on ability statements (which take the form “pupils can x”) and argued that it is problematical to incorporate these into progression models where the ability statement is left at a general level. A statement such as “pupils can construct causal arguments” is not a meaningful addition to a progression model as one’s ability to construct causal arguments (or deploy evidence or critique interpretations) is context-specific. It is clear to me, however, that we can specify certain kinds of knowledge that can contribute towards a pupil’s ability in history and on which we might focus our teaching efforts.

At this point we need to unpack a few distinctions. Within philosophy of mind, there is an interesting question concerning the difference between ‘know-that’ and ‘know-how’. Know-that concerns declarative propositions: knowing that something is the case. Know-how concerns procedural knowledge: knowing how to do something. Know-how is not the same as ability (knowing how to do something does not necessarily mean it can be done) but it is, according to one side in the debate, a distinct form of knowledge from know-that. This position is called the ‘anti-intellectualist’ argument. Other philosophers, who advance the ‘intellectualist’ argument, have argued that know-how is in fact a form of know-that. The debate on this question remains wide open.

The next distinction is between substantive and disciplinary knowledge. Substantive knowledge refers to knowledge of the past: people, events, ideas, and so on. Disciplinary knowledge refers to knowledge of history as a discipline: the methods of historians, their epistemological assumptions, their conceptual frameworks, and so on. It is not difficult to see that there are significant grey areas: is a revolution a substantive event that historians study, or is it a conceptual framework applied to events? It probably does not serve us to be too dogmatic about this, for it might well be legitimately understood as both depending on the context. It does nevertheless help to think in terms of ‘substantive’ and ‘disciplinary’ knowledge as a way of thinking about the curriculum and progression in history.

I want next to clear up a significant confusion. When it comes to history curriculum theory, the tendency has been to equate substantive knowledge with propositional knowledge and disciplinary knowledge with procedural knowledge. This distinction implies that the past is something we learn facts about, while the discipline is something we learn to do. The water is muddied further in that learning about history as a discipline has been laden with a wide range of not fully congruent labels, including ‘historical skills’, ‘historical thinking’, ‘conceptual understanding’ and so on. Whatever label is used, it is questionable whether substantive = propositional and disciplinary = procedural. Consider the following four examples:

  • I know that medieval manuscripts were written on vellum.
  • I know how to prepare vellum.
  • I know that handwriting can be used to determine who wrote a manuscript.
  • I know how to trace the transmission of a text by comparing manuscripts.

These four examples nicely capture the significant grey areas between propositional and procedural knowledge, and substantive and disciplinary knowledge. No one disputes that we can have substantive propositional knowledge of the past. More controversial is the idea that we can have procedural knowledge of the past, though I reckon a fair number of those doing historical reconstructions would argue that this is exactly what they have. Expert historians have bags and bags of substantive knowledge, and I shall come in my next post to elaborate on this further, but suffice it to say for now that getting better at history involves learning more substantive knowledge. It is a major flaw of most existing progression models that they do not include this substantive dimension.

Although the disciplinary dimension is often couched in terms of ability (and again see my previous post on the problems this entails), it nevertheless is the case that there is a great deal of propositional and procedural knowledge that I can learn about the discipline. Here, for example, are some of the things of which I can have propositional knowledge:

  • physical objects from the past (e.g. personal possessions, buildings, middens) and what needs to be known about the context of these objects in order to use them as evidence
  • the purposes for which such illustrations and paintings were created
  • the idea of ‘God’s hand in history’
  • the kinds of questions that can and cannot be addressed by using speeches, diaries, letters and other written sources
  • the ‘Whig’ interpretation of history and the idea of a ‘grand narrative’ of the past
  • the situations in which photographs and films were created and the kinds of claims that might be supported by such sources.
  • the ‘Marxist’ interpretation of history and the idea that societies develop in particular stages.
  • the purpose of satirical cartoons, the kinds of metaphors and imagery they entail
  • the different kinds of quantitative data used by historians (e.g. population estimates, trade figures) and the kinds of claim about the past that such sources might support.
  • the ‘romantic’ approach to history in the nineteenth century

All of these are examples of disciplinary knowledge, and all are, in this form, matters of propositional knowledge. An experienced historian is likely to know quite a lot about a number of these bullet points, and it would follow that, if pupils are to get better at history, then they should know more about these things.

The last piece of the jigsaw here is disciplinary know-how. It is vital to avoid slipping back into discussions about historical ability. Frustratingly, much of the know-how that historians have is quite period-specific, but there are nevertheless clearly some things that we as historians know how to do that seem to transcend across contexts. We do, for example, all know that

  • events in the past have long-term and short-term causes
  • historians categorise causes as (e.g.) political, economic and social
  • causes interact with one another in complex ways and historians tease out those interactions
  • in a causal argument it is normally necessary to establish whether some causes were more important than others
  • some events happen due to a specific ‘trigger’ whereas others emerge more gradually
  • historians often want to know why an event happened when it did and not sooner or later
  • the different ways in which a causal question can be worded
  • different paragraph structures that can be used to construct a causal argument in an essay
  • the role played by an essay introduction in setting out a causal argument
  • commonly-used vocabulary, phrases and metaphors for expressing causal argument

These are all things that I know and, in the form I have written them, they are matters of propositional knowledge (e.g. I know that events in the past have long- and short-term causes). One could, however, construe these points as know-how: because I know that events have long- and short-term causes, I know how to define causes as long- and short-term. Again, it probably does not serve us well to be too dogmatic about this: in philosophy of mind, the intellectualists might argue that this is know-that, and the anti-intellectualists might argue that this is know-how, but we, as history teachers, can probably just accept that these bits of knowledge need to be taught, whatever their philosophical categorisation.

The challenge here is not to slip back into a discussion of ability. Although I know that events have long- and short-term causes, this does not give me the ability to construct a causal argument about the collapse of the Tang Dynasty for, as argued in my last post, statements about ability need to be context-specific and incorporate both a substantive and disciplinary dimension. It also is clearly the case that knowing how one ought to act is not the same as being able to do something, for this takes modelling, practice, and feedback.  This is where so many progression models go wrong: they take something that can be known about how history works as a discipline, and then attempt to convert this knowledge into general levels of competence or sophistication. It is vital to maintain the distinction between specific statements about what someone can do and the propositional and procedural knowledge one can learn that allow one to become more able.

This has been quite a complex post, so I thought I would conclude with some of my key ‘take-away’ messages.

  1. Avoid conflating knowledge with ability – these are distinct curricular components and the former cannot be converted into the latter as a progression model.
  2. Getting better at history involves learning substantive and disciplinary knowledge, and any account of progression in the subject needs to incorporate both dimensions.
  3. Do not assume that substantive knowledge = propositional knowledge or that disciplinary knowledge = procedural knowledge: it is more complex than this.
  4. It is possible to distinguish between propositional and procedural knowledge, but it’s probably not worth losing sleep over the distinction.




1 Comment on Types of knowledge in a history curriculum

  1. I think the focus on disciplinary knowledge has often failed because ‘knowing an event has multiple causes’ because my teacher told me so is not quite the same as appreciating this is the case. The latter comes from the multiple specific instances of causation I have learned that give meaning to the observation.

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