Being ambitious with the First World War: ‘Blended, not binary.’

Thanks to Alex Fairlamb, Assistant Head and SLE at St Wilfrid’s RC College in Newcastle, for continuing our series where colleagues reflect on how a Teaching History article has moved on their thinking. Alex has been inspired by Gary Howells work in TH 92 and here is the second part of her post in which she shares where her thinking has taken her and the work she is developing as a result…

In my previous blog post, I discussed ‘Being ambitious with the causes of the First World War: interrogating inevitability’ by Gary Howells in Teaching History 92 and how he encouraged history teachers to be ambitious in their approach to teaching the First World War.  In this follow up blog, I am also writing about being ambitious with the First World War, through taking a blended, not binary approach and by ensuring that we situate it within our Key Stage 3-5 progression model, so that schema development happens and that knowledge is built upon over time.

Revisiting Will Bailey-Watson’s TMHistoryIcons 2020 key note ‘Ambitious History’, these are some of the elements he identified for an ambitious curriculum:

  • Local History
  • Beyond Anglo-Centric
  • Authentic – interpretations used in their pure form
  • Resonance
  • Global topics
  • Historians and scholarship – the pursuit of an enquiry, that changes
  • Diverse history
  • Historical methodologies

This struck a note with me, as I had written a ‘would like to teach’ World War One scheme of learning (SoL) just the year before after I had delivered my ‘Blended, not binary’ TMHistoryIcons 2019 presentation about diversity within the curriculum.  Why do I do this?  These were my concerns and thoughts about how World War One might be being taught:

  • Separation history, rather than diverse history.  Concern that BAME and women’s history are taught as ‘isolated’ stand-alone elements.  Coexisting, but separate.
  • Tick list tokenism vs blended, not binary – National Curriculum hangover effect? How do we ensure that is a blended, not binary approach BUT that individual narratives and experiences aren’t nuanced or lost.
  • Inaccurate understanding of the past  – by not including a representative narrative of topics, we providing only one lens of a kaleidoscope of lenses.  Students will therefore not have accurate and representative knowledge of their past.  This therefore can:
    • cause prior misconceptions and inaccurate views of women and BAME people to be reinforced
    • reinforce unconscious bias
    • limit contextual understanding of future events and developments
    • undermine learning that Britain is a part of the world, not the centre of it (thanks, Christine Counsell!)
  • Inclusivity – not teaching a history which is representative of our society and our history, with students left feeling like either they are not represented or worse, that this history does not even exist (lost narratives)
  • Anti-racist teaching and education – for us to challenge racism and misogyny in all its forms and structures, we need to be explicit about what we are teaching and WHY we are teaching it.

For me, I felt we were at Hamer’s [1] Stage Three and I wanted us to be ambitious and get to Stage Five.

[1] John Hamer,

With curriculum development now underway, and me opting to plan our department’s World War One SoL, Will’s talk and my existing ‘would like to teach’ SoL gave me the framework that I needed in order to approach fully planning our new ambitious SoL.

For me, the key element of this study was to ensure that diverse histories were rightly woven into the narrative we would be teaching about the First World War, to align with our approach to our new progression model from KS3-5.  Therefore, whilst identifying our scholarship and engaging in wider reading of World War One, I also sought to identify where narratives we had previously taught could be built upon, to ensure that we were building up knowledge overtime, which could then be further developed in upcoming modules.

Our progression model meant that once I had identified my World War One enquiry questions, that I was able to tuck into prior learning about the impact of the industrial revolution, imperialism and growing globalisation, and the emergence of German nationalism.  The progression model is wonderful in ensuring that myself and the students have the foundation from which to prepare to immerse ourselves again into the environment of the late 1800s at the start of Year 9 and explore how the causes of World War One were emerging, both in the long and short term, similar to Howells approach in Teaching History 92.  (Note here, I am crediting the History Department as a collaborative team creating this model.  I introduced progression models to the school, but it was a team effort in determining approaches and topics etc. ) Here is an example of wokr in progress.

The two enquiry questions that I opted for are:

  • How did the pillars of C19th civilisation crumple into the flames of war?  (Hobsbawm)  This would enable us to draw upon the developing knowledge established in Year 8 so that they could explore how phenomena such as the industrial revolution and German nationalism built over time and contributed, as well as highlighting the destructive nature of the conflict after periods such as the Enlightenment, as we then hurtled towards destruction and economic troubles. It was key to ensure that we didn’t just focus on Britain as part of the crumbling civilisations.  The Meanwhile, Elsewhere Russian Revolution as homework was purposefully selected so that when we study growing tension between Russia with America and Britain, between Stalin and Hitler, and the emergence of the Cold War, that we could see that narrative through time evolving. 
  • What long shadows did the First World War cast? (Reynolds, The Long Shadow) Engaging the students in the wider impact of World War One beyond the immediate devastation.  Traditionally, we would have studied Nazi Germany and World War Two after this, but we felt that not only did we cover this at GCSE, but also that it would be more appropriate to explore how this global event impacted upon Britain and America in terms of race relations, the role of women and attitudes towards communism, for our later studies in Year 9 and beyond.  This would help us to avoid teaching the Cold War in Year 10 with children first of all not knowing how and why Russia had become communist, but also why it was unusual for the USSR to have signed a pact with Hitler, then allied with Britain and America, as well as why tensions existed during the conferences of the 1940s.

Once I had the enquiry questions and progression model to work from, my wider reading meant that it was possible to move forward through the traditional topics, but do so in a Hamer Stage 5, not 3, approach.

Below is a list of how I used to teach World War One and how I now teach World War One. It’s not perfect and it will continue to change over time, the more I read and learn more.  I know there will be places where I can do better and should do better, and I welcome suggestions where I can improve it.  At the time of writing this, I am reading Endell Street and I intend to weave this into not only the History of Medicine: WW1 but also into the below SoL when we explore medicine and injury but also female suffrage after the war as we zoom in on their dual roles as Suffragettes as well as doctors, surgeons, nurses and orderlies.

Weaving these narratives together, and removing ‘bolt-on’ lessons on women will help us to avoid separatism history.  Our intention is that children will see the past, including World War One, more accurately, as a tapestry with differing narratives interwoven.  For me, this is key not only to ensuring that it is accurate, but that also it is representative.  For us to tackle issues of misogyny, racism, homosexuality and anti-immigration attitudes, as architects of a curriculum from a large domain, we need to ensure that we work hard to include multiple lenses, reflecting our kaleidoscope past.  David Olusoga wrote in 2018 that ‘Black soldiers were expendable… then forgettable[2]’.  I sincerely hope that by 2028, we have worked together as a country to ensure that lost voices are heard, understood and are at the forefront of what we study.

If you would like to access my World War One SoL, the link is here:


[1] John Hamer,

[2] Olusoga, David,

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