Why this? Why now?

Richard Kennett gave the keynote at the first HA North West forum at the end of January. He has turned his talk into this blogpost so more of us can benefit from his thinking about curriculum. 

This blogpost is unashamedly about curriculum. Put simply, curriculum is what stuff we choose to teach. It is not the HOW we teach it. That’s pedagogy. It is not the thorny issue of how we know if kids got it, that’s assessment. This blog is going to pretty much focus exclusively on the WHAT with some brief side ventures into the how, but mostly the what of what we teach.

And it is curriculum that Ofsted are obsessed with. And I for one am really glad they are. For the first time in my teaching career I feel Ofsted are focusing on the right things. Thanks to the new framework, when an inspector comes to see you, either as a teacher or a subject leader it is curriculum that they are focused on. And they are going to ask you two questions: Why are you teaching this? Why are you teaching this now?

Now these are deceptively both complex and simple. Why this in essence means you need to know why you have picked the stuff and thought long and hard about it. Why now needs you then to think about what you stuff is doing. How is it building on stuff from before and how is it building towards future stuff. And your critical thinking about these two simple questions go hand in hand. And I think in history these two questions are flipping hard because of two things. One, we have to choose the stuff from the vastness of time. For primary schools this means all of history from the first man to the Anglo-Saxons and in secondary this means from the Norman invasion to now. In all parts of the world from all the people who have ever lived. This is a huge undertaking and why I think history teachers love it but find it hard.

And, two, it is even harder when the National Curriculum is wooly at best. Although at times the National Curriculum looks like a big list, nearly all the list bits are actually just recommendations. For example at KS2 it pretty much just says teach the Romans. So basically teach anything on the Romans and Britain a period that spans 300 years. Ok. Easy! Argh. (And I am far from saying I would want a long list like Mr Gove originally provided for us. Hell no!) 

BUT whilst I do acknowledge that this is a bit of a Gordian knot we are trying to untie like Alexander the Great, I am going to attempt to give you some simple solutions. I will hand out metaphorical swords that you can use to cut through this knot.

So let’s start with the hardest of the two questions. Why this? Let’s focus on how we should pick the right content and knowing why you did it. Let’s start on a topic level.

And I am going to try to be a bit controversial now. I don’t think the following are helpful in choosing a topic:

  • Just because it is engaging
  • It is gory. That will entertain the boys.
  • It is social history. That will entertain the girls.
  • It is on the GCSE so if we do it in KS3 it will help us with the content heavy GCSE.
  • It is what we have always done.
  • We need to do a source unit so let’s do this topic.
  • It will be easy to assess this.

None of these decisions have anything to do with thinking about the best history. They are focused on exams, or poor behaviour or sexism! Let’s choose our history based on reasons that involve the history.

Let’s start by choosing topics where the decision places history front and centre! I strongly believe these are better reasons to pick a topic or not. They focus on the discipline:

  • It enables students to make sense of the present day.
  • It is a topic your team believe every student should know.
  • It helps them to understand their local community.
  • It reflects what history academics are studying. 
  • It provides context for their later studies.
  • It builds on KS1 and KS2.

And, for me, you can boil that down into a single question. And it’s a question your department must constantly ask itself time and time again. What is the most powerful knowledge that you can deliver for your students in your school?

And let’s be blooming ambitious about this when we do the choosing.

Also a word of warning here when we think about what topics. Can we always have in the back of our minds that we should trying to think about diversity and going beyond Britain. This is a multicultural and global country and world and I strongly think we have a duty to go beyond the history that has been done for a long time that focuses on male, pale and stale people. The topics we choose should also be chosen to allow us to explore beyond this, to experience the history of women, the history of people of colour and the history of people who are not from Britain. But at the same time not ditching important topics that all kids should know, so for example for me the impact of the Normans.

So, we’ve done the big meta thinking about what topics. Now let’s focus in a bit. Because we really need to do this thinking within a topic too. This is where I think Christine Counsell’s work is fab. She uses the idea of different types of knowledge.There is core knowledge, the absolute fundamental stuff we want every kid to learn and remember – to turn into residual knowledge. Then there is knowledge, from intriguing detail to ideas about place and period. Lovely stuff. Stuff that should be in your lessons because without it kids won’t gain secure residual knowledge beyond a jumble of facts that may be useful for pub quizzes later – and your lessons will be really dull and lacking people. They don’t need to recall this knowledge specifically, but if we neglect it they are not likely, to use another Christine metaphor, to move about within their knowledge. I’ve put an example here for the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Picture1

Thinking through topics like this is an important process that your teams should be thinking about. If you did this for each topic you would, I guarantee, be able to face off any inspector. But more importantly it sharpens your teaching and learning. And if we really want to do this properly, the only way to do it is to swot up ourselves. Reading scholarship is the best bit of the job. It immerses you in current historical debate and lets you make those decisions about core content even better.

I really strongly believe that this constant thinking of ‘why this?’ has led to huge improvements at my school. All our units are now five lessons long and jam packed. But packed with knowledge we have really thought hard over. Like this Norman one we are really pleased with. Purely because we have thought hard about ‘why this?’ Why this knowledge? Why this question? Why this order?

Picture2

This thinking has allowed us to produce knowledge organisers I am really proud of. And yes these can be used by kids but they are far more important for staff. They have opened up discussions about what knowledge. I honestly think the production of these is the important bit. How they are used is secondary as the production makes you think long and hard about why this knowledge.

Picture3

It has also made assessment easier as we test the knowledge we hold important. And it’s made homework easier as we set scholarship reading for our students that builds on this core knowledge or challenges it.

Let’s move onto our second question WHY NOW? So, we’ve picked the topics now we need to think about the sequencing of them.

In history this is actually a little bit easier than other subjects as you probably will just sequence them chronologically, well at least in KS2 and KS3. But even if you do this I think we can do better than just saying why are you doing this topic now by answering that it is because it comes after the last one chronologically. We need to start thinking about what is the curricular purpose of the units we choose. How are they building on what came before and how are they building towards something else.

Picture5

To help you think about this let’s use an analogy. Building a curriculum is like building a house. You choose your topics and when you build a house you choose your materials. When you are building a house you don’t just shove the materials in willy nilly. You think about it carefully, thinking about what each piece is doing. For example fitting a brace on the roof allows the vertical joists to not fall into each other and it allows the roof to sit on top of it keeping the house nice and dry.

If we are going to have a brilliant curriculum we need to think about what is the curricular purpose of each of the topics we choose. How are they helping to build a bigger curriculum? How are they building on what came before? How are they building towards something else.?

Notice in this example, as in all our work, it’s not just building on/leading to substantive topic knowledge (eg development of the British Empire), or substantive concept knowledge (eg concepts of race, empire, classe), or disciplinary concepts (sources as evidence, causation etc). Crucially, we are thinking hard about progression with all these forms of knowledge. 

And so to end I thought it was worthwhile going back to the two questions that started this blogpost – Why this? Why now? Although these questions seem simple, they aren’t. They are complex and if we want to teach brilliant history some time spent thinking hard about them is a damn good use of time. It will make us sharper, shape our pedagogy and lead to great history.

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