Historical knowledge: what do History teachers need to know?

Having started my blog with something old, here are a a few thoughts about a very recent and characteristically though-provoking article in the final issue of  Teaching History  for 2014 written by Kate Hammond. Called ‘The knowledge that ‘flavours’ a claim: towards building and assessing knowledge on three scales’, the article reflects on the marking of Year 11 GCSE essays, in particular those that seemed ‘secure but less convincing’, (Hammond, 2014). Kate Hammond has written powerfully on this issue before, (Getting Year 10 to understand the value of precise factual knowledge, Teaching History 109).

The key argument in this article is that we should pay attention to the way in which the deployment of substantive historical knowledge varies between pupils. Kate mentions the importance of second order concept understandings explored by Elisabeth Pickles, but noticed that in the essays under examination, the  types or forms of substantive knowledge pupils used seemed to have a more significant impact on the quality of historical analysis produced.

She was able to divide the substantive knowledge she observed in use into a time-scale: knowledge within the topic, within the period, and within history generally. The best essays deployed knowledge from across the scale; more successful pupils were not limited to explaining their reasoning using what Counsell has called ‘fingertip‘ knowledge, (link given is to Sally Thorne’s reflections on this idea).

Hammond then goes on to design a different GCSE style mark-scheme that might better reward the types of historical knowledge she sees as significant. She also wonders whether the choices students made ‘were indicative of the different ways in which students see the past..’.

She draws the following conclusions after a caveat about generalising from one marking experience:

1 developing substantive historical knowledge has implications for curriculum design

2 there are implications for GCSE mark-schemes, especially with pressure on colleagues to ‘teach-to-the test’.

My reflections on this are as follows.

Firstly, I think that although Kate’s caveat about generalisation is sound, I think she brought considerable experience, study and reflection to bear on the marking of one set of essays and therefore although the data set seems limited, the knowledge upon which Hammond draws is not limited. Counsell writes about the implications of this for understanding our teaching in School-based research, (Wilson, 2013).

Secondly, other jurisdictions have been interested in the development of substantive concepts in History, and some of this work is reflected not only in Teaching History but also  in the International Journal now hosted on the Historical Association site. So here I agree with Kate: we need to plan for the development of concepts such as democracy, slavery, church, over time. But these ideas do not necessarily ‘progress’, in the way that we might want pupil understandings of them to progress. So a chronological trawl through the past is not the answer. More thinking needed on that one as we go into changes in the curriculum in England from 5-18.

I am less sure that second-order conceptual development isn’t at work here too though. Having looked at the pertinent excerpts of pupil work Kate included in her reflections, I was reminded of another article by Robin Conway, where the preconceptions pupils have about the topic, about the past generally and about how history works, all impinge on their reasoning about the past.

I also think that re-writing the GCSE mark schemes is problematic for other reasons than those explained by Kate. Examination mark-schemes need to focus on reliability and this may lead to some loss of validity. Where again I agree is that we should focus on more valid assessments of historical thinking in our formative assessments of pupils, because this can inform changes in our teaching.

But that requires another blog…

Thanks to Kate Hammond for yet another excellent and though-provoking article, and apologies if I have misrepresented the ideas within it… I would be interested to know what colleagues make of the entire article, and here is the link to it again just in case:



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