‘Curriculums are not what we put in our plans but what resides in our pupils’ minds’ D. Hibbert (HA Conference 2022)

Thanks to Kate Amery (@KatieAmery) Head of History and Politics at West Kirby Grammar School for this blogpost, which first appeared on her own blog. Kate was inspired by sessions at the HA conference…

Some unrevolutionary suggestions for how I get kids to remember more stuff and grasp big ideas.

  1. Start with a bridging unit in Year 7 (courtesy of Ms Ball). Give students the opportunity to share their experiences of primary history. Focus on what history is, the etymology of the word and how historians construct their accounts (my students love that the collective noun for a group of historians is an ‘argumentation’). A recent HMI inspector was particularly impressed when one of my year 8 students proudly exclaimed that ‘history is a construct, historians build claims about the past through asking questions of the evidence that is on offer’. Explicitly teaching big ideas like this help students to get to grips with difficult concepts … it gives them a sense of agency, so it sticks (Arthur Chapman’s work on this has been super helpful).
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2. Go beyond standard retrieval. Obviously knowing ‘stuff’ is history is useful but getting students to go a step further by thinking about where this ‘stuff’ fits into the bigger picture is essential. This seems to have far more lasting impact on their understanding. Each time I introduce a new enquiry question, I simply get students to write the word ‘LINK:’ in the margin and jot down a list of ways in which they think this new EQ connects with their previous work. I am usually amazed by the quality of these connections, and it really works a treat in building up their schema. I have also started to get them to think about how our current content links with other subjects, for example flagging up the connections between Al-Khwarizmi’s work on decimalisation and ICT. This draws upon the work of Deborah Eyres and the High Performance Learning approach, a current whole school focus for me.Letter

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3. Ask students to consider the why. Why are we doing this? What is this point? I like to share our departmental curricular intent with students and get them to think about its relevance to our most recent unit of work. I have also found using a quote from one of the brilliant chapters in ‘What is History Now?’ ed. Lipscombe and Carr, hugely useful in helping pupils to understand the justifications behind curricular content. Peter Frankopan’s chapter on global history provided students with a great rationale behind our first Year 7 enquiry ‘All the treasures in all the world’ – What was so special about Medieval Baghdad?. Giving students an introduction into the joy of studying global history and challenging their preconceptions about the Middle East. Equally Dan Hick’s chapter ‘Glorious memory’ allowed for some great discussions on curricular decolonisation when we explored ‘What to do with your loot?’ in relation to our local museum’s collection of Benin Bronzes.Text, letter

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4. Have an overarching question for each year group (thanks to Tom Allen for this idea in the Curricularium sessions). I have found this encourages student to consider some of the big themes more carefully and introduces them to the concepts of change and continuity.

Year 7: How did monarchy and faith affect people 750- 1649 in Britain and the wider world?

Year 8: In what ways did war and protest ignite change 1649-1900?

Year 9: How have ideas and empire shaped the modern world 1900-1991?

I routinely ask students to mind map ideas in response to these big questions, this is not formalised or assessed but allows for some ‘light bulb’ moments and reflective discussions. It also helps them to appreciate the changing nature and nuance of these influences over time.

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5. Timelines – where does this fit? Timelines are great for getting pupils to consider the links and connections between events and people and helping them to contextualise their current enquiry. Absolutely nothing revolutionary here, but holding off on the delivery of new content and taking time to review the content covered so far, really seems to have an impact.

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6. End of year curriculum review exercises. I like to ask students why we study history and why they think their curriculum is designed in this way. Mentimeter has been as great tool for pooling together their thoughts. I am always impressed with how students perceive the wider purpose of studying history. I also ask them to create a time capsule review in the summer term, as a way of getting them to consider their ‘key takeaways’. I encourage them to include artefacts (connected to the curriculum), 2 historical interpretations and 2 pieces of written contemporary evidence. They present their justifications to the class, and we create mini ‘pop up’ class museum.

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7. Get them involved. What is missing? What would you like to see more of? What would you like to see less of? I try to engage students regularly in curricular discussions. This year in light of student feedback we have woven in some LGBTQ+ narratives, but we need to do better. One of our DIP plans is to work with the Pride Committee to help us develop a new enquiry based on inclusivity for Year 9 and to make visibility of minority groups routine in our curricular design.

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8. Make it relevant to them. I loved reading Steve Adcock’s blog ‘Curriculum as a window and mirror’, that said we have aimed to weave in more stories that reflect our demographic. Student Y is from Ghana and took a lesson on her family history when we explored the ‘Gold Coast’, bringing in traditional costumes and photographs,  student X was beaming with pride when looking at Rani Velu Nachiyar in our lesson on female resistance in colonial India last week, she came up to me at the end and said ‘I am from here …my mum is named after her’. Student Z thanked me for highlighting the significance of Anne Lister in breaking conventional stereotypes and asked for some reading suggestions. Making things relevant and local (but I will save that for another blog!) are priceless in ensuring our curriculums have an impact and leave behind a legacy (a residue).

As I said at the start of the blog, a series of unrevolutionary suggestions but there is nothing more satisfying than students understanding ‘the why’ and leaving our classrooms being able to appreciate the big ideas behind the best subject in the world!

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