My #WLFShistory takeaways

On Saturday I attended #WLFS history, having booked my place almost the instant the WLFS’s head of history Louis Everett had tweeted to announce the conference back in the mists of late 2016. To say I was excited to go is an understatement. And one of the best things about the conference, before I even get to the insights about history teaching from those whose workshops I attended, was the opportunity to put real human faces to Twitter avatars with whom I’ve conversed, debated and sparred, and from whom I have already learnt so much about our discipline and its craft.
So here are the things I took away from each session. If there are any inaccuracies or errors in my understanding or interpretation of what the presenters said then they are entirely of my making and I apologise in advance.

Hywel Jones

The WLFS headteacher Hywel Jones opened the conference with very brief remarks, but set the tone for the day by addressing the fundamental importance, as well as the exciting opportunities, of delivering a rigorous knowledge-focused education, enabled through the expectation of excellent discipline, to all pupils. This theme of the regretful past neglect and the emancipatory potential of knowledge, especially for the disenfranchised and marginalised, ran through the day like the word ‘Rhyl’ did through the sticks of rock with which I used to rot my teeth on childhood holidays.

Christine Counsell

Christine followed with an opening address. The Moses of history teaching (if we follow her, we’ll reach the promised land) treated her attendant disciples to an hour long tour de force in which she defended the recent drive in education for a greater focus on knowledge, comprehensively torched the straw man that this drive is led by neo-liberal lizard overlords who want to brainwash kids into voting Tory (or something) and passionately asserted (as Hywel did) the emancipatory potential of such an education for ‘the poor’ (and it felt absolutely appropriate that she use such a stark, pointed term). Neatly, convincingly, authoritatively, Counsell positioned her argument as one that sought social justice; the kind of education she believes in doesn’t straightjacket kids, nor in history does it promote a Whiggish single narrative to the detriment of argumentation. In fact, its aim is the opposite: to equip those with the least power to challenge those with the most by giving the poor what makes this possible: knowledge.

Beneath this grand argument, Counsell was also characteristically practical: how can history teachers ensure they provide such a powerful education for their pupils? How do we ensure our pupils can – at the very least – read and enjoy ‘coffee table history’ (her term) such as Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’? I was particularly struck by her notions of ‘fingertip knowledge’ and ‘residual knowledge’. When we teach yr 7 about the Norman Conquest, Magna Carta, the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt they need to know (have stored in long term memory) specifics: dates, people, places – 14th October 1066, Stephen Langton, 1348 and Smithfield – in order to have the ability to explain, weigh evidence, make claims and interrogate interpretations. However, when they get to year 9 it is probably not necessary – not to say unrealistic – for them to have retained ALL of this detail. However, the residue of what they studied in year 7 should be attended to: do they still know in which order those events happened? Can they say which centuries? Do they recall which monarch sat on the throne? If they can then they are knowledgeable and we can feel confident they have in their heads a picture of the past as it unfolded and can see how what they study in year 9 links to and builds on what they studied before.

Rachel Foster

The first workshop I attended was delivered by Rachel Foster and was titled ‘Historians in the classroom: some practical reflections on the place of historical scholarship in school history’. My interest in this theme stems from my recent, clumsy attempts to use historical scholarship with my pupils. Having read and enjoyed Marc Morris’ excellent account of the Norman Conquest over Christmas I thought my top set year 7s would benefit from my taking some baby steps in this area. I thus read aloud in a lesson Morris’ description, some 8-10 pages long, of the Battle of Hastings with the aim of seeing whether we could definitively answer a range of questions they had about the battle, from ‘who had the biggest army’ to ‘why did William win?’. Although not completely without merit this wasn’t a roaring success, owing to the intricacy of Morris’ narrative as he weaves together the various chronicle accounts of the battle, carefully judging how much weight to give to each writer’s tale, leaving the pupils cognitively overloaded and a little lost.
I took two main insights away from this session. Firstly, the value of using scholarship to formulate substantial, valid and focused enquiry questions. It had already dawned on me that historians aren’t much interested in who had the best claim to the throne in 1066, nor in the reasons for William’s victory at Hastings. The big question they ask about the Conquest is how far did it change England? It therefore follows that precious lesson time used asking pupils to decide who they think should have been crowned by the Witan in January 1066 would be better spent securing their chronological knowledge of the events of that year and the subsequent conquest, before immersing them in a proper historiographical debate about what changed in England for whom, how and why.

My second insight came from Rachel’s stunningly simple yet utterly profound statement that ‘texts teach’. By reading historical scholarship – even tiny snippets, a paragraph here and there – our pupils will come to ‘understand [better] what is distinctive about history as a form of knowledge’. That’s me sold, now to dig out some AJP Taylor as my year 9s begin to look at the causes of World War Two…

Jim Carroll

My second workshop was by Jim Carroll, titled ‘Grammar. Nazis. Might the grammatical release the conceptual?’ I had been impatient to meet and hear Jim as I have previously done a lot of work on, and blogged about, the language of history, much of which has been well received (he says arrogantly) by fellow history teachers. However, I knew from Twitter exchanges with Jim that in this area I was barely hanging on to his coat tails, both in my own conceptual understanding and in the extent to which I had been able to practically apply this understanding in my own practice.
The session didn’t disappoint. Neatly building on what I’d heard from Rachel Foster, Jim argued (and demonstrated) how academic historical scholarship should be the model we use for developing our pupils’ ability to speak and write with authority. Previously, I had been much taken with Caroline Coffin’s approach that uses the language and genres of school history as models for pupils, and especially with her proposed taxonomy of genres that would see pupils progress from writing narratives and descriptions in year 7, to explanations in year 9 and arguments in year 11. Jim was convincing in arguing that such a taxonomy is problematic, not least because actually all history is argument and to prevent pupils from doing that explicitly until the later years of their school career is limiting.

He also showed how using the language of academic historians as a model invites us to teach our pupils to use ‘abstract generalisations’ or nominalisations – phrases built around a noun that carry within them a huge weight of knowledge. For example, historians can use a phrase like ‘the failure of the League of Nations’ to embody a series of events and developments that contributed to the outbreak of World War Two, without having to lay them all out in detail. As such, it is these phrases our pupils need to be able to spot, wrestle with and ultimately come up with themselves, in order to write good history. What’s more, it is through such phrases that historians convey cause, effect, change and continuity as well as ranking, prioritising and characterising these second order concepts. If we can teach pupils control over nominalisation, we can wean them off the unthinking use of P-E-E and generic ‘connectives’ like ‘so’, ‘therefore’ and ‘as a result’ that so scar much history writing in schools.

Michael Fordham

Last but not least I heard from Michael Fordham, who came to tear down, then rebuild in an intellectually honest way, our notions of progression in history, and how we assess that progress. Michael demonstrated how the ‘flightpath’ idea of progression, where over time and as they study the curriculum pupils appear to be getting better at history (or any subject) by reaching ever higher levels/thresholds/grade descriptors to please data hungry SLTs eager to show Ofsted that learning is happening no really honest Mrs HMI they’re all on track please don’t put us into special measures, is intellectually dishonest and educationally bogus. For Fordham, the curriculum *is* the progression model – in other words pupils make progress if they learn the content of the curriculum. They don’t make progress in abstract ‘skills’ such as use of sources, or historical interpretations, they make progress by knowing more about the past. As he succinctly put it, an Oxbridge professor of the history of the Carolingian Empire is a better historian of the Carolingian Empire than he is because she knows more about the Carolingian Empire, not because she’s better at ‘change and continuity’. In a similar way to Rachel Foster and her ‘texts teach’ mantra, Fordham appears to have divined a stunningly obvious, yet (and this is no exaggeration in the context of the English education system in 2017) revolutionary truth that once heard and digested cannot be denied. Of course the curriculum is the progression model, just as it is in maths, science and every other school subject – why did we ever allow ourselves to labour in a state of false consciousness that it was ever any different?

Michael then went on to propose a model for assessing the extent to which pupils were learning the curriculum and therefore getting better at history, a system which also allowed for assessment of knowledge beyond the unit just taught, encompassing everything the pupils had ever learnt in history and checking on the retention of the ‘residual knowledge’ that Christine Counsell had talked about earlier in the day. Michael has blogged about many of the elements of this model, which included less predictable exam questions that would free us to teach to the domain and not the test, as well as the introduction of anthologies of sources and the explicit teaching of specific interpretations of events, people and developments in the past.
Michael made clear that his thinking in these areas is constantly evolving and he welcomed comments and critique. My only question would be around how granular we can/should be in defining what the curriculum is. If we say we want pupils to learn about the Battle of Hastings, well what do we want them to learn? In how much detail can we define that? Michael goes some way to answering this question in his blog here and I think it will be incredibly productive to keep the conversation going about the nuts and bolts of what we want pupils to learn at this kind of granular level.

Professor Robert Tombs

We were incredibly privileged to hear from Professor Tombs of Cambridge University on the subject of why teach your own country’s history? Following Christine Counsell, he tore down the straw man that to teach the overarching narrative of British history is to propagate the Whiggish interpretation of the advance of liberal democracy through the development of parliament and extension of the franchise. He also made the point very well that the more our young people know about the story of the nation in which they were born, or in which they now live – and hopefully feel they belong to – the more they will be able to recognise when history is being used and abused to pernicious ends, not to mention the fact that ALL children deserve wide knowledge as they fall heir to what went before them. Finally, the prof. put a massive smile on the face of Ben Newmark, sat just down the row from me, when he drove home the intrinsic fascination of history and rejected the need for bread and circuses to capture the interest of our young people.

Final thoughts

What a day. I left feeling very inspired and with practical ideas to implement in my classroom straight away. But for me the most gratifying thing was the conference felt like a meeting of minds – here were over 100 history teachers giving up their Saturday to think hard about their discipline. It is fair to say my own training was inadequate in explicitly apprenticing me into the discipline of history and equipping me to think carefully about the subject and how it operates. I’m playing catch up and getting better all the time, and days like this teach me so much that it is a real privilege to attend them. Many thanks to all those I spoke to, but particular thanks to Louis Everett and the history team at WLFS, not to mention their immaculate pupils, for such a warm welcome and well run day.


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