Supporting the development of students’ schema: a wish list for students arriving for their first year of A Levels

Thanks to Heather Sherman of York College for this blogpost. Heather teaches in an FE College and every year she meets new students from many schools as they embark on their two years of A Level study. Heather writes supportively as to how teachers of students at Key Stage 4 can help with the transition to Key Stage 5. Despite the pressures of the exam results at GCSE, this coherence between all the Key Stages is very important if we are to support students to achieve as well as they can at all all levels. There are really helpful ideas here for supporting students to make strong transitions. 

At the May 2019 Historical Association Conference, Heather Fern talked about the new Ofsted framework and the importance in curriculum design of encouraging students to build strong schema that, when previously learned and applied in a new context, will help students increase the complexity of their understanding of that concept. The amazing work that teachers do in developing students’ schema in both substantive and disciplinary knowledge helps students to navigate the step up between KS3 and GCSE, and between GCSE and A Level. Working in a FE college, I teach students from many different schools and see the great range of historical substantive and disciplinary knowledge that have already been developed in school on display in those early lessons where enthusiasm levels are high and the excitement of starting a new A Level is shared by many. As the first half term progresses and the increased demands of A Level start to sink in further, some students find the initial excitement has been replaced with a feeling of being overwhelmed. I often hear the following phrases exclaimed between peers: ‘There is so much to read! There is so much I need to know! We cover so much in a week! I’m expected to do HOW many hours work outside of the lesson?’

With the idea of developing students’ schemata in both substantive and disciplinary knowledge in mind, I think that as a wider teaching community we can continue to build on the great work already being done to help students manage the step up between GCSE and A Level with even more confidence and resilience. I know that teachers at KS3 and GCSE already do so much to develop the knowledge on my ‘wish list’ that I have highlighted below, but I think the more consistently we can do this as a profession, the greater benefit to the students we teach.

The political spectrum

Christine Counsell highlights the importance of fingertip knowledge (relevant to the period) and residual knowledge (that transcends the topic and helps build a broader sense of period). I think that an understanding of the political spectrum is vital residual knowledge for students across many subjects to help strengthen their historical and wider schema. For students to understand the political spectrum helps immensely in the study of any area of history. For example, students may have studied the Nazis several times before they reach A Level and study it again here, but not know (or have forgotten!) that they are a right-wing group, what the values of extreme and moderate right wing groups are, and why this is important in the context of post-World War One Europe in relation to left wing groups. Knowledge of the political spectrum is invaluable to A Level students, and the more it is introduced at KS3 and GCSE and to students, the stronger their schemata will be. Introducing political ideologies including fascism, communism and totalitarianism will help students understand why certain countries react so strongly to key events or figures. Developing this kind of knowledge is perhaps more easily weaved into a course that focuses on the Cold War as opposed to medicine through time, but understanding whether the government who passed key public health legislation was right or left wing can help students in their understanding of the nature of this legislation. It’s no coincidence that the first major piece of reformist legislation in the passing of the 1848 Public Health Act was passed by a Whig rather than a Tory government. 

Bias is not an explanation in itself

When evaluating sources many students at A Level still use the words ‘biased’ on its own as an explanation for why the source might be of limited value to a historian. There is a fantastic collection of articles on the HA website about how to help develop students’ understanding and use of the word bias (a search of ‘bias’ on the website should bring this up under ‘evidence: theoretical’). The more we can continue to encourage students at KS3 and GCSE to explain why a source is biased will help them develop their evaluation skills at A Level. Furthermore, encouraging students to see bias as a potentially positive source attribute is a great way of helping them to understand that bias isn’t an inherently negative thing and depending on what we are looking for in the source can often be incredibly valuable. 

What is analysis and what is evaluation?

Analysis and evaluation are key skills in history, but when I ask students what these words mean they often look at me with a blank expression. This isn’t to say these terms haven’t been explained to them before, but that students may have forgotten what they mean or not been exposed to this vocabulary often. Words such as ‘explain why’ and ‘judge’ are commonly used, and if we can encourage students to associate these phrases with the words analysis and evaluation, it helps develop their schema of synonyms and the different words used to describe the same skill set. 

Reading resilience 

With the dominance of smart phones and ‘sound bite’ information, many students have become accustomed to being able to access information very quickly and in very concise chunks. The more that we as teachers can encourage our students to read extended pieces of writing throughout years 7 to 11 to support the development of their reading and knowledge, the more resilient they will be when they are required to do so at an even greater level in their A Level course. It doesn’t have to be history related – encouraging them to read books and novels is a great way to help get them used to long texts and I know a lot of work goes into encouraging students to do this already. Matthew Springett’s ‘green sheets’ from his Teaching History Article (171, June 2018) is a great resource to help teachers guide students through extended reading for comprehension and analytical thinking that could be (and I’m sure has been!) really effectively adapted for GCSE learners to help develop reading resilience. 

Second order concepts 

Through meeting secondary school teachers at York Clio meetings, I know that there is some amazing work being done on helping students to develop their awareness and understanding of second order concepts from KS3 upwards. These are also vital at A Level. For students to be aware of whether the topic they are studying or essay they are writing relates to concepts such as cause and consequence, similarity and difference, change and continuity, and significance helps them to be able to make sense of the relationship between, for example, key events and people. 

The library

Sadly, I’m aware of the bitter irony of highlighting this at the time of a global pandemic when libraries are not currently open. I have fond memories of picking out books to read from my primary school library and settling down on a comfy bean bag to read. However, I have no memories of going into a school library again until I was an A Level student. I wonder how many students this applies to still? We have a team of amazing librarians at our college who induct students into how to use the search engine and find books on shelves using the dewey decimal system. The more that students have set foot into a library and know how to search for a book on a topic and how to identify it from a shelf, the better their understanding of research skills will be. It’s an incredibly useful skill for students to be acquainted with before they start their coursework module at A Level where independent research will be aided by this awareness of how libraries work. 

Counsell, C. (2000) ‘Historical knowledge and historical skills: the distracting dichotomy’ in J. Arthur and R. Phillips (Eds.) Issues in History Teaching, London: Routledge.

Le Cocq, H, ‘Beyond Bias: making source evaluation meaningful to year 7’, Teaching History, 99, 2000

Pickles, E, ‘How can students’ use of historical evidence be enhanced? A research study of the role of knowledge in Year 8 to Year 13 students’ interpretation of historical sources’, Teaching History, 139, June 2010, pp.41-51.

Springett, M ‘Triumphs show: Not a literacy problem buy a knowledge one: On reading between the lessons: the importance of preparatory reading for A Level essays’, Teaching History 171, June 2018, pp.17-19.

Great blogs/ posts

Christine Counsell’s blog SCL 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (A) curriculum as narrative

Tom Sherringdon’s blog post – Signposting the Hinterland and 

Postscript: thank you to Lawrence Pople for creating this GCSE to A Level writing guide for the start of A Level as a result of reading this post – and for sharing it: KS4-KS5 A History Level writing transition

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