The History Teachers We Don’t Hear From

July 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.


From Heather F:

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.”

Enough said…


The response from misty1515:

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!


Heather F.’s Reply:

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.




  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. The problem is, history is too often taken as a proxy for “all subjects”. Some subjects in the NC 2007 curriculum were quite specific (or at least as specific as in the new draft curric). History wasn’t. A shame that all had to be chucked under the bus because of one.

  3. Reblogged this on "How many divisions does he have?" and commented:
    Interesting comments on History exam requirements here.

  4. Wow, I’m genuinely chuffed my comments have been blogged. My teaching career has reached new heights!
    I actually had wanted to add to my second comment but had to rush off. My dept moved from AQA to Edexcel IGCSE and there is much less hoop jumping. I haven’t looked at the underlying assessment objectives for IGCSE questions but it is noticable that questions ask straightforwardly historical questions that can be answered without thinking about any other assessment agenda. Therefore, despite the students having to know the content in more detail it is easier to teach. The history isn’t easier but the lack of technique drill makes it all simpler.

  5. Hi Oldandrew. Thanks for blogging my comment. I really think all of HeatherF’s comments are worth reblogging.
    I made an error on my post though. The A level topics went down from 6 to 4 units, not 3 over the two years and the GCSE went from 6 to 4 too. I write this same comment on various newspapers when the the topic of the history curriculum and facts come up so I’m not sure why I got my number mixed up. However, my point about the reduction of content still stands. My last GCSE exam only had two topics in the final exam with the other two being c/w units.

    HeatherF – I hope that IGCSE proves a success and I think if I had remained in England I would have moved towards that. I teach the French Bac (History and Geography in English, Year 13) and it really is a content based exam. This content heavy curriculum, in my opinion, encourages pupils to see and make links between and within the subjects they study. For me, it is this approach that encourages original thinking. The children I teach come out of school knowing a lot.

  6. HeatherF

    “I haven’t looked at the underlying assessment objectives for IGCSE questions but it is noticable that questions ask straightforwardly historical questions that can be answered without thinking about any other assessment agenda. Therefore, despite the students having to know the content in more detail it is easier to teach. The history isn’t easier but the lack of technique drill makes it all simpler.”

    Can you explain what is a “straighforwardly historical question”.

    Are you saying they aren’t asked to analyse or evaluate?

    Cany you link to a question that illustrates your point. I will go and have a look.

  7. First just to say that I found this paper by Tim Oates the single most useful thing I have read in the last few years. It talks about the impact of different curriculums on assessment and is in some ways relevant to this discussion.

    BT those comments are my observations. While for AQA I needed to teach the class what might be meant by describe/assess etc for the IGCSE questions when asking for a cause or an effect of an event they do not seem to be testing a more generic skill, just whether the student can explain the causes of that event.There is still a bit of technique (esp for the source paper) but considably less.
    However, the central point of my post was to point out to those who deny it that there is a growing emphasis on skills at the expense of knowledge. That there is clear evidence of this in exam assessment with markschemes which assess skills separately from knowledge. I then wanted to explain why the assumption this was possible is flawed and why it has harmful consequences.

    Finally while I am writing a comment, it has been bothering me that my PGCE tutor could be easily identified and so I want to make clear that although I now have some fundamental issues with some of my training, she was in many ways a brilliant PGCE tutor and I learnt lots from her.

    • HeatherF

      Thanks for the reply. I will have a quick look at the paper linked to.

      I am struggling to understand the argument so I am looking for examples. I was interested when you talked about IGCSE questions.

      I will go and look at a few past papers and see if anything jumps out at me.

      Thanks again.

  8. I felt provoked to look up the AOs for the two boards (thanks!) and there is a difference in the wording that could explain why they are so different to teach but it is the markschemes that you should dig into, if that is your idea of fun. If your starting point is that you want to test a student’s ‘ability to explain’ the markscheme will look different than if you start by wanting to to test if they can explain the causes of the Wall Street Crash. In the second instance you do not need to establish a generic progression in ‘assessing ability’,
    Interestingly the new History International GCSE (first assessment 2014) which is also offered to state schools (called a Certificate in History) has got exactly the same AO’s as the AQA I presume this was necessary to be allowed to offer it to state schools. However, I think from what they said at the time that they worked backwards, justifying why their current format already fulfilled the objectives, so not much had to change.

  9. My comments regarding IGCSE were based on my experience of the markscheme but looking at the assessment objectives does demonstrate my point. The old assessment objectives for Edexcel IGCSE (for the papers that my current yr 11 have just sat ) largely combine skills and knowledge:
    AO1: recall, select, organise and deploy knowledge of the specification content and communicate it through description, explanation and analysis of:
    • the events, people, changes and issues studied
    • the key features and characteristics of the periods, topics and societies studied =70%
    (the other AO’s are for sourcework and 8% for interpretation)

    Below are the AO’s for GCSE’s (which are also the new AO’s for the new IGCSEs because it has to conform with current GCSE’s so the papers can be offered to state schools:
    AO1: Recall, select and communicate their knowledge of history 37%
    AO2: Demonstrate their understanding of the past through explanation and analysis of, and judgements about, key features and the concepts in history of causation, consequence and change. 36% (the last 27% are for sourcework)

    The way skills have been split from knowledge is clear for our current GCSE’s is clear. It is even more obvious at A Level and I have already talked about the distortions this creates.

    BTW in my last post I meant to talk about ‘a generic progression in explaining ability’ not ‘assessing ability’.

  10. Thanks for taking the time to reply HeatherF, much appreciated.

    I think I can see where you are coming from. Although I don’t see the difficulty you see, I can see where you are coming from.


  11. Heather F:
    Regarding your points on skills/knowledge at GCSE – if you look closely at the mark scheme you will see that on paper one (AQA) you can actually not bother with the source analysis at all and you will only lose 3 marks out of 60 – as long as you’ve got enough knowledge.
    I do not know what your point about the 10 mark either/or question is – it is actually an extremely difficult and challenging question – more difficult than some AS questions I would argue, requiring a higher level of thought. The best answers to these questions (30 out of 60 marks available) simply answer the question which is being asked. They are completely knowledge based.

    • Having gone and looked at Ceejay’s examples, I am now most confused.

      To qoute Topol (Fiddler on the roof)….

      “He’s right, and he’s right? They can’t both be right.”

  12. Hi Ceejay, there is nothing I disagree with until your very last point. If you look at the AQA board guidance it clearly states that to answer this question a student must describe, explain, assess and compare it then goes onto explain what doing this should involve. This example was to illustrate the fact that students need a large amount of technique guidance to fulfill their potential on the exam. Are you saying you disagree and that you send your students into the exam without lots of technique guidance? I didn’t talk about sourcework on paper 1 but it required lots of drill for the students to remember that some of the questions using sources required usefulness and others should be used as a stimulus as it was not clear.
    As I said I don’t think many teachers have any idea of the rationale behind the production of the markschemes and that the markschemes, by outlining progress in a generic skill, create unnecessary technique. Those that have not been teaching for a long time don’t even remember that it used to be different or even that there is the possibility of a different way. I had not taught GCSE for a number of years when I returned to it 3 years ago and that combined with the move to IGCSE meant the comparison was stark for me.

  13. I have ended up writing far too much but I have taken a look back at the mark schemes for AQA and IGCSE to try and illustrate my point. The following is from the marking guidance on the AQA GCSE mark scheme. It demonstrates my central point clearly, that current GCSE’s aim at assessing mastery of generic skills. This is crucial given that many people deny the emphasis on skills above knowledge (rather than being drawn from the knowledge as they should be) in education even exists. The emphasis below is the board’s and not mine:

    “…The mark scheme which follows is of the ‘levels of response’ type showing that students are expected to demonstrate their mastery of historical skills in the context of their knowledge and understanding of History…The mark scheme for each question is prefaced by an assessment objective ‘target’. This is an indication of the skill which it is expected students will use in answering the question and is directly based on the relevant assessment objectives. However, it does not mean that other answers which have merit will not be rewarded…
    …Levels of response have been identified on the basis that the full range of students entered for the GCSE examination will be able to respond positively. Each ‘level’… [of the mark scheme] represents a stage in the development of the student’s *quality of thinking*, and, as such, recognition by the assistant examiner of the relative differences between each level descriptor is of paramount importance…Indicative content must *not* however determine the level into which an answer is placed; *the student’s level of critical thinking determines this*. Remember that the *number* of points made by a student may be taken into account only *after* a decision has been taken about the quality (level) of the response.”

    Above I made a further point that this attempt to describe progress in generic skills leads to technique drill. Actually, if you understand that skills like ‘assessing’ are actually made more or less difficult by the material used then my extrapolation is obvious. In fact it is very common to hear History teachers complain that the NC levels, which have the same assumptions, do not actually describe progression in History and I was recently told on Twitter that an article in ‘Teaching History’ on assessing without NC levels was the most popular that has been written for this reason. Yet these same assumptions are hard wired into the assessment of GCSE’s and A Levels in most (all?) subjects after the last reforms.

    In terms of the actual mark schemes, it is difficult but I will try and give you a flavour of the consequences of the focus on assessment of generic skills rather than ability to answer specific historical questions. I am comparing the mark scheme for questions that are not exactly the same (the IGCSE one includes a source stimulus) but this does not really affect my comparison as both IGCSE and AQA expect a similar discussion – of more than one factor to explain an event. It is the way this is assessed on the mark scheme that is interesting (both questions are the 10 mark questions on paper 1 of the exam.)
    The two mark schemes can be found here:

    Click to access 4HI0_01_rms_20120823.pdf

    Click to access AQA-40451-W-MS-JUN12.PDF

    The point I want to make by comparing the mark schemes is the difficulty that comes from trying to describe progression in the apparently generic skill of analysing and explaining events. Also to make it possible to picture what the teacher might feel they must do in both cases to ensure their student can perform in the exam (will they focus on deepening the student’s understanding of events or fulfilling the mark scheme requirements.)

    The IGCSE mark scheme says their AO for this question simply ‘recall of knowledge’. It says that Level 1 responses will be simple or generalised statements with some own knowledge. Level 2 responses will be ‘developed statements’ using relevant own knowledge. Level 3 will be developed explanations using precise own knowledge. There is a requirement to show a link between the factors for the last mark. With this mark scheme the examiner is free to focus on what might be a good response to this specific historical question.

    The AQA mark scheme is much more specific and I can’t summarise it without taking away from the full glory of its complexity, here is much of it:

    Target: Analysis and explanation of events leading to causation (AO1, AO2)
    Level 1: Simple descriptive comment and/or gives one reason 1-2
    Level 2: EITHER Develops one cause. This starts with description at the bottom of the level, then explanation and assessment which focuses on the question OR
    Covers both with some development or explanation. This will involve description or explanation of both with no analysis or assessment and little focus on the question.
    One developed explanation or two explanations of one bullet point plus standard explanation of other bullet point for top of level 3-6
    Level 3: A selective and structured account covering both bullet points, though one may be in greater depth, focused on the question or establishing some argument. e.g. assesses the part played by the assassination and explains the effect of the Schlieffen Plan.
    N.B. An answer which explains both and supports the explanations with good depth and command of knowledge can be placed at the bottom of level 3. 7-9
    Level 4: Balanced, well-argued answer linking both parts, focused on the question.
    e.g. assesses both in depth and reaches a reasoned judgement. 10

    Finally, the mark scheme for his one question in the AQA exam is not so bad on its own but there are lots of different question types (to assess apparently different skills) and they all have different mark scheme requirements whereas for the IGCSE the basic mark scheme for most questions is the same as above. I think it would be possible to write a simpler paper even with the split skills/ knowledge AO’s but the AQA paper rather whole heartedly follows the assumptions behind these AO’s.

  14. NC levels were never supposed to measure progress. They exist to measure children’s ability at the end of year 9. It is SLT amongst others who have erroneously used them to measure progress – NC levels are not fit for that purpose.

  15. Chestnut, you are right saying levels have not been used as intended but NC levels, if used as intended, do not give a correct rank order because they attempt to describe progression in generic skills and this is flawed.

  16. I wanted to add something in the light of the recent headlines on IGCSE being easier because it is very relevant to my original post.
    We have got our first set of results using IGCSE and they are stunning, best in the school. So it seems it was easier for us to get good grades with IGCSE than previously. (In fairness to our department most subjects were already doing IGCSE). However, it isn’t that simple because actually the history was harder as the students had to marshall more knowledge to answer the questions. They needed to be able to know and use more information than with GCSE to access the highest levels. What they didn’t need to do was demonstrate as much skill in ‘technique’. I think all the technique in so many current GCSEs makes them into subject themed tests in critical thinking. Something is being measured but it isn’t necessarily what can be easily taught or learned and it isn’t really the student’s understanding of history that is being tested. On top of this it is inherently difficult to assess the generic skills you have identified for testing (as I discuss up thread) and so results become more unpredictable.

    I am pretty convinced that for schools where students don’t have a culture of home revision for exams IGCSE would be a bad idea. The current skills emphasis papers allows you to get quite far up the mark scheme without that much knowledge (I’m not saying none!) and the technique can be well enough covered in class. However, for our school, we gained from an exam where the efforts of our students to know more history (which had to be applied) more directly correlated with gaining higher marks. I am not suggesting GCSE does not reward greater knowledge it is a bit more subtle than that and about emphasis.

    The question isn’t whether IGCSE is harder/easier but rather WHAT is harder or easier.

  17. […] his own caustic commentary but also includes interesting entries from other teachers, like this poston the inadequacy of current history teaching. Old encourages readers to question the educational […]

  18. […] of these points have already been blogged here. A detailed look at mark schemes can be found in the comments section of that […]

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