The History Teachers We Don’t Hear FromJuly 2, 2013
During the debate over the new National Curriculum and again during the “Mr Men” controversy, those of us on Twitter were treated to a pretty continual series of assertions that history teachers are fully signed up to the “skills” agenda of the current curriculum. At times it felt as if Matthew Hunter was the only dissenting voice. However, in schools I have found it fairly easy to find history teachers who believed the curriculum lacked a solid requirement for knowledge. Two history teachers have been having a conversation in the comments on a post I reblogged recently that (if you haven’t read it already) really deserves a look.
Some people questioning whether there is a strong emphasis on skills at the expense of knowledge in British education seem like the sort of naughty child that used to run rings around me when I was a new teacher. They know perfectly well they did something wrong, know that I know, but think part of the game is to make me prove it to their satisfaction. Other people are more genuine and so below are some my experiences of the way in which skills are often considered as separate, rather than being drawn from an essential base of knowledge in the British education system. Sorry this is so long.
In schools’ history the separation of skills from knowledge is quite old. I finished training as a history teacher 19 years ago at the Institute of Education. Our course emphasised that the role of history was to develop skills such as critical analysis and I left fired up with a Jesuitical zeal to save the education of children through teaching skills in History (I’m not joking.) My training was progressive for the time and my tutor had developed the first skills only (no knowledge required) GCSE History document paper. That tutor is now in a top position, examining History with the Edexcel exam board. Because in History there is no core knowledge that the discipline is built upon, knowledge was largely portrayed as a means to a skills based end. I remember being very excited to teach the skill of essay writing to year 7’s using scaffolding but I could not understand why I seemed to need to ensure the children knew a lot to make the exercise worthwhile and yet this was not advocated. I would almost guiltily gloss over the fact I had got the old detailed textbooks out to help prepare the kids.
History textbooks have over the years become increasingly content light (not really debatable). They ask big questions (to develop analytical skills) but expect children to answer them with very little context. Textbook writers could only believe this exercise was meaningful if they don’t see that the amount of context a child is able to bring to bear on an issue is the real measure of their success in answering the question. Answers to these sorts of questions are judged using national curriculum levels which, for example, list an apparently increasingly sophisticated understanding of ‘causation’ when in fact it is the material the student studies and the depth they study the material in that creates the difficulty. Of course our current history curriculum contains knowledge – the issue is that it is written with the assumption that skills can be taught directly and the content is little more than a vehicle to teach the skill, hence limited content to answer challenging questions.
The last changes to exam mark schemes are one of the most concrete ways to demonstrate the conscious decision of the last government to view skills as separate from, rather than arising out of, a grasp of the content, by splitting the assessment of skills from that of knowledge. I teach Political Ideologies to A2 students. While I was on my last rather long maternity leave A Level specifications changed to emphasise acquisition of skills. I prepare students to answer essay questions such as,
‘Socialism is defined by its opposition to capitalism, discuss.’
The weaker students would answer by giving descriptions of the different sorts of socialism and then they would say in passing how each strand of socialism viewed capitalism. My aim as a teacher was to try and improve their understanding so they could get beyond this. Able students would be able to really actively compare types of socialism and explain why they had different approaches. I have done years of external examining and was used to marking essays using a set of level descriptors that had some flexibility but were built on the assumption that meaningful analysis comes from a foundation of secure knowledge and by definition is not frequently evident in ‘C’ grade answers.
Anyway, I returned from maternity leave to find the essay titles were the same but mark schemes had become skills based, one set of levels for content and 3 other sets of levels for various types of analytical skills shown by the student. Three quarters of the marks are now for a discrete ‘analysing skill’ that actually has no separate existence. A typical ‘C’ grade student still cannot do lots of meaningful analysis because it requires fluent grasp of the detail to analyse it but now, to score their C grade, they must show ‘C’ grade analytical skills, separately from their ‘C’ grade knowledge. Teachers and textbooks routinely provide students with lists of arguments they can make in essays to help them do this. It is a delusion to believe that these students are now genuinely analysing rather than describing, they are parroting arguments they could not have developed themselves and often barely understand (despite my best efforts.) A level history has the same problems, and I have no time to begin to tackle the assumptions behind source work assessment. Suffice to say that the OCR chief examiner told us on a course that a good analytical Physics student should be able to score as much as a C on the AS sources paper using their generic analysis skills. My impression is that many A Level papers have moved too close to becoming themed critical thinking papers. At GCSE teachers also spend hours drilling in exam technique but don’t necessarily realise how much of this torture is because of skills based mark schemes. The irony of these mark schemes is that they actually promote the rote responses they are actually against and university admissions tutors bewail and they also often lead to unpredictable marking.
I must ‘share’ this headlining quote by NUT leader Anne Swift, commenting at Easter on the proposed new curriculum. She asserted that action was needed to protect children from the “grad-grind of a pub quiz curriculum”, saying children could use Google to access facts. “I fear this proposed curriculum will mean teaching children to learn facts by rote, with inspectors turning up to test the children’s knowledge of the continents, chronological order in history and the times tables.”
Heather, you write so well and describe the situation so accurately. I am also a History teacher and I agree with everything you have said here and on other comments section on this blog.
I started to write a response to Tim Taylor’s comment on the website but didn’t post it in the end because something else came up! But you have said everything for me. The move away from content and knowledge is visible in my 12 years of teaching. A levels courses have moved from 6 to 3 units and GCSEs from 6 to, in the case of an Edexcel exam I did, 3 topics. The sources paper could have been an English exam. At GCSE, as long as they pupils could comprehend the source and may be comment on how they differed, they could get a C grade and higher. The idea of historical context when analysing docs had gone out of the window. It was the same with the last year 12 source based paper, with pupils being given the information about the background of the author of the text etc. They didn;t have to know it, it was given to them. The source analysis does become learning by rote. You are right.
Don’t get me started on the textbooks either. The KS3 and GCSE books are an embarrassement (Was Henry VII a gansgster anyone?) although the books used for A level are still pretty good.
When I was still teaching in the UK I really felt that History stood out as the last subject with at least some content left despite the dumbing down I have described but I found the pupils were becoming increasingly resistant to revising and having to ‘know’ stuff for an exam because it wasn;t really happening in other parts of the school.
The situation is quite different here in France!
Thank you Misty. I agree entirely about source work. I think a reason exams in many subjects have become so technique driven is that when you set out to assess generic skills through a subject rather than subject competence, you are forced to specify how those skills might be displayed in the markscheme so those markschemes become very prescriptive. So for AQA GCSE the either/or question on paper 1 is designed to assess the ability to describe, explain, assess and compare. However, the students need to be drilled to understand what those terms mean for AQA. Every exam board I have taught also has a different understanding of what it means to discuss the usefulness and reliability of a source. Whatever a student’s actual grasp of the detail and ability to describe, explain, assess and compare they won’t conform to the markscheme expectations, and get the marks, unless they are drilled. That is why teachers pay to go to exam board training as technique is crucial. From my experience examining I can see that showing students the framework through which they should demonstrate their competence in the exam is necessary but the more specific your assessment goals the more unreasonable the drilling must be.
I also agree that in some ways History stands out as a content rich subject compared with many. My students certainly complain they have much more to revise for GCSE than for most of their other subjects (apparently Biology is the other main subject that has lots of content). In fact the amount of content for the AQA GCSE course meant that we could never really ensure good understanding and retention and added to my feeling that a detailed grasp of the content was not valued by the examiners.