More knowledge = better history?

It feels as if Chris Culpin’s name is on virtually every second text book in my history department. He is Deputy President of the Historical Association, was a chief examiner and director of the highly influential Schools History Project from 1997-2008. As I listened to his keynote talk at the Historical Association annual conference on Friday I wondered if he wrote it just to conform to stereotype. On twitter the trenchant Andrew Old insists that subject associations are bastions of progressivism within education. I had never felt more strongly that possibly he had a point. The talk was titled ‘More knowledge = better history?’ and the thrust of the talk seemed to suggest that this was a false assumption. In fact at one point Chris talked about the problems of having too much knowledge. [edited 31/5/14, see comments]

There I was telling my A level students to read as widely as possible so that their judgements were well informed. I would not advise reading more deeply when you have not assimilated and to be honest it wasn’t clear what Chris meant but he didn’t suggest more knowledge was simply a problem if it could not be assimilated, which seems the only interpretation that those that value the discipline of history could find reasonable.

He kicked off by asking us if we could all name in order every monarch who was ‘a second’, e.g. Henry II. Presumably he was trying to show the pointlessness of disconnected facts. Perhaps he took his own ability to name them for granted. It is easy to dismiss the value of knowledge when you have it. I, on the other hand, was unable to complete the task and felt ignorant, not smug. Either way this was misleading given that no one in the educational debate over the importance of knowledge places a value on disconnected facts, not even that devil incarnate, Michael Gove (of whom there was the obligatory cartoon caricature on one slide).

‘What is the point of learning large amounts of detailed information when it is there at the touch of a button?’ Chris asked at one point. Again it was unclear how far he was willing to take this argument as he quickly explained that suggesting teaching without knowledge is even an option, is ridiculous. I also don’t know how any teaching could go on without some knowledge being in evidence and wished Chris would, instead of attacking straw men, actually address the arguments of those that think children should be taught MORE knowledge than currently. One of these people, ED Hirsch was mentioned but not his arguments.

The talk was disappointing because it simply attacked positions few would hold. He explained that in the past history had often been simply about copying detail off a board that children didn’t understand and I can sympathise with the need to react against that approach. Chris Culpin is very much part of the movement that responded to such poor teaching by stressing skills in history, so his view that more knowledge in schools does not equal better history is unsurprising. The implications of his views were hard to gather from the talk but clearer if you attended the sessions.

His views reflect (or influence?) the unquestioned assumptions of many history teachers. I went to hear Michael Fordham give a brilliant session on using Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III with year 7s. He explained to the room that you cannot explain or judge the value of that negative depiction without knowing about the monarchs who preceded Richard III and also the context in which Shakespeare wrote. It was clear from the discussion that arose in this session that:

It is quite normal in history teaching in schools today to ask students to make judgements with little of this sort of context in place. In fact…

The idea of spending time telling children a bit about the reigns of preceding monarchs so they grasped the chronology seemed fairly novel in that room.

The idea that in history we can be storytellers simply provoked the question that surely that would be very ‘teacher led’ approach (and by implication bad).

The idea of doing quizzes to help the kids or any approaches that help ensure KS3 children actually LEARN the events was also unusual.

So Chris Culpin is far from alone in downplaying the importance of knowledge history classrooms…

Ironically Michael demonstrated just why it might be useful to know your kings in order as he showed how knowing the story of the previous monarchs, combined with knowing about Shakespeare’s time, meant students could really explain the bard’s interpretation of Richard III. Again, I was embarrassed that I could not order those medieval monarchs without a few minutes to think. Nonetheless when we were all asked to think what explanations the now well informed year 7s might have come up with for Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III it was that apparently useless knowledge of the kings in order (and whether they were Lancastrian or Yorkist) that I had by now plucked from the recesses of my mind, that came to my rescue and allowed me (and the year 7s) to provide a sensible explanation.

A highlight of the weekend for me was hearing Anna Keay give a reappraisal of James Duke of Monmouth. For me history is ‘gossip well told’ (don’t we all love a good story) and there were plenty of colourful details. Anna Keay was asked at the end how she had come to reject the standard view of this royal duke. She explained that initially she had accepted the standard judgement of him as a vain man the Whigs exploited but it was reading far more, learning more about him from the primary evidence, that allowed her to see that history had misjudged him. Maybe sometimes more knowledge does equal better history…


15 thoughts on “More knowledge = better history?

  1. I am reading Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization”. Granted, it is not strictly a “history” text, but it is an analysis of the history of Western Civilization. Ferguson paints in broad strokes, taking a sweeping arc of history through 1000 years in a few pages, to work out a thread of the story, jumping from name to name, from event to event with hardly a word of explanation. It is assumed that I, the reader, is at least on nodding terms with these, the good acquaintances of his discipline. To me they are strangers whom I struggle to connect with their faces on the blank slate of my mind.

    I am, in some respect, highly educated, with a PhD in math and 23 years of University teaching behind me. I read widely in many fields. However, History has long been one of my achilles heels (NF’s book is one attempt to remedy that). I have grown to know many great names of history, but I struggle to place them even within a century of time, and often have to look up who comes before whom in order to make sense of what I’m reading. A great many names of people and events are simply not familiar to me.

    Now, I find Ferguson’s book very interesting, even engaging. But frustrating, and a very slow read as I look things up and then find myself re-reading to try to assimilate. And my mind is “bloated” with all the fresh knowledge — the factual “trivia” and at the same time the sweeping arc of the story he’s telling. How I wish I could leave the ground and soar with him, there is so much to see, so much to learn! But alas I cannot. For me, this tour is on foot, and I must continually call to him, to wait up. It will be months before I finish the volume. And thank goodness for Google.

    Now I don’t fault Ferguson at all for assuming background knowledge in his reader. That is not only his prerogative, it is an essential feature in that book. He simply could not tell this story on foot, as I actually need. It is an aerial assault on the grand story of developing civilization — he could not dwell on a single character’s life for many pages on end. The story would be lost. But I, a near history illiterate, must read it like a friend I knew who had very little vision — 10% or so. He would hold a book close to his face and jiggle it back & forth to see the text. And it would take him ages to absorb a single line. And that is as good a picture as I know of someone trying to “understand” history without factual knowledge, depending on references for every single “disconnected” fact required to understand it. For, in the end, it is not those facts that are disconnected, but the reader who hasn’t those facts at his fingertips.

    1. I really enjoyed reading your comment. Now imagine that having read the book you are asked to use your analytical skills to write a critique of Niall Ferguson’s interpretation. Something very similar happens everyday in British history classrooms.

  2. A terrific blog posting, H! It made me wish I’d been there.
    I hope is a great renaissance in understanding the importance of knowledge is taking place through people like you, Robert Peal, Michael Fordham, Harry Webb, and the like. And, what is also very exciting is that you have this great forum for reporting in detail what such influential people like Chris Culpin are trading in and challenging it.
    It’s such a grubby trick to ask a stupid (and very ideologically slanted) question like the one you were asked. It’s the equivalent of an old Oxford don’s way of discomfiting interview candidates by removing the screw from the door handle so that it came off as they entered the room. And as for the de rigueur mocking of Gove – another cheap device for currying favour!
    But of course knowledge is important! My seventeen-year-old daughter understands that perfectly well. When I read her the first paragraph of Chapter 7 ‘Empty Vessels and the Neglect of Knowledge’ in Peal’s Progressively Worse, she shot back: ‘How can anyone understand the simplest source materials without knowing the background context?’
    One can only hope that the attendees get to read your ‘take’ on Culpin’s talk.

    1. Yes, it was frustrating that the talk seemed to be a series of popular soundbites for maximum audience enjoyment and didn’t really engage with the debate. I really don’t want to misrepresent Chris’s views and I’m sure they are more nuanced than they came across. I presume he would appreciate that Anna Keay’s analysis was only possible because of the depth of her knowledge but I am not even certain of that from what he said. In the end, I have to question what he actually said, especially given the enthusiasm with which some new teachers next to me responded to his comments.

  3. Very interesting blogpost – as a trainee history teacher, I have constantly been stumped when trying to fast-forward to the pupils to ‘deeper historical thinking’ without spending enough time securing their knowledge in order to achieve the analysis!

    1. I remember after I trained I just felt it made sense to get out the old fashioned textbooks to help kids include more informed judgements when they embarked on extended writing. Training did not suggest this extra knowledge was a good idea but at least back then it wasn’t especially frowned upon either,

  4. “It is quite normal in history teaching in schools today to ask students to make judgements with little of this sort of context in place.”

    What I find worrying about this, looked at from a broader perspective, is that it peddles the idea to kids that it is acceptable, even desirable, to make judgments – about politics or science, for example – with only a very sketchy grasp of the facts. Surely this is not something we want to encourage?

  5. Hi Heather, I’m replying to your tweet to me here so I have the required space! I described Chris’ speech as “rather excellent” for a number of reasons …

    At the end of the first day I wasn’t expecting as much of a debate as in the sessions and didn’t take any notes; I was nowhere as critically engaged as you, quite rightly, were. I was quite happy to be entertained instead, as you suggested in your comment above. I do think, however, that Chris wasn’t aiming to denigrate solid and thorough knowledge in its own right. I think his point was that a long list of dry and disconnected facts (admittedly not what the new KS3 curriculum is now, following its redraft) is fairly pointless. I agree with so many of your points above; perhaps I was less ready to identify them myself as I feel pretty guilty about the number of times I ask my KS3 students in particular to make a substantiated judgement when we haven’t had time to get a thorough grounding in knowledge first. One of the many wonders of the HA conference of course, is that it’s inspired me to right this wrong!

    1. Thanks for your reply. It is interesting (and nice) that we seem to be in agreement over the issue under debate and funny that we are just disagreeing in our interpretation of the views of others, namely Culpin and Gove.
      I was wondering if that matters but I think it does because there is a real debate and a sharper understanding of others’ views helps to clarify where the fault line in that debate really is. First I think it is up to teachers whether facts are dry, not the SoS for education. I felt really cross at the time of the debate over that draft curriculum to hear centuries of history written off by actual history teachers as dull or dry.
      I also really don’t think Gove would advocate disconnected facts. His initial history curriculum was ridiculously full of prescribed detail and it would have been impossible to cover it all and it is always right to debate what should be included. However, that curriculum still advocated understanding and the very fact he wanted it to be chronological suggests he actively did not want the facts to remain disconnected. See here for an interesting point on this:
      That is why I suggested Culpin was making a straw-man argument. In his talk Culpin was willing to leave unchallenged the long term trend in history teaching to encourage higher order skills, ungrounded in the necessary knowledge. When a question was asked on the threat to good history teaching from courses that deemphasised the need for knowledge he dismissed the possibility there was a problem, yet you, I and the others commenting here all recognise that problem as does Christine Counsell. Either Culpin has his head firmly in the sand or he does not think this trend is a significant problem. Given the focus of his talk and of SHP under his leadership the second possibility seems more likely.
      I wish Culpin had addressed the arguments of those advocating a more knowledge based curriculum head on. Gove frequently quotes Hirsch and if you’ve not come across his ideas they are outlined here:

      1. I have now listened very carefully to the recording of my talk at the HA conference in Stratford on Avon on May 16th and at no point did I say that “more knowledge can obscure understanding.” No, I really didn’t.
        The starting point for my talk was what I see as the attempt by the government to re-open the long-dead argument about skills versus knowledge. As I showed in my talk, the 1991 National Curriculum History Working Group, of which I was a member, pointed out that more knowledge is essential for greater understanding, and that greater understanding will lead to the need to acquire more knowledge. That is where I and most teachers still stand. At no point did I “downplay the importance of knowledge.” My concluding sentence was to the effect that more knowledge is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for better history.

        It may be that when they speak and write about knowledge Michael Gove and Nick Gibb mean something more “nuanced” than simple factual recall, as some later comments on this site have suggested. I can only say that when it came to the draft National Curriculum in 2013, or when views have been filtered through Ofqual and the exam boards in the ‘strengthening’ exercise, that is what emerges, as I demonstrated in my talk.
        In the same vein, as I also said, I am puzzled by the label “knowledge-based curriculum”. This seems to me tautological, (a food-based meal? a flight-based aeroplane?). It is surely time for wider publication, so that we can all see how a knowledge-based curriculum differs from other schools’ curricula.
        There was clearly a lot of my talk which you found unsatisfactory and I apologise for not explaining myself better. The kings and queens quiz, for example, was not about showing off – I mugged up the dates the week before! It was simply an attempt to engage a very mixed audience, many of whom were not teachers, on a warm afternoon. Moreover, I didn’t “kick off” with it, but with a very telling quotation from a highly-skilled and experienced teacher about the ways in which her best students had used knowledge in their writing.
        So please don’t stop telling your A level students to read more widely – but also please don’t impute views to me that I don’t hold, and didn’t say.

      2. Thank you, I really appreciate you replying to my post. I genuinely don’t want to misrepresent you, which was why I tweeted you a link to my blog immediately after publishing it. As I said in that tweet I actually found it hard to work out precisely what you were arguing. I’m sorry that I misquoted you, I was writing that section from memory. I do see that my post implies a verbatim quote and clearly you did not say’ knowledge can obscure understanding’ and meant something more nuanced. Therefore I have edited the blog accordingly and also highlighted in bold my original comment, explaining that I was not clear about your intention. After giving the matter much thought I still think that my understanding was a reasonable interpretation of what you said (but am fallible and would love to hear the recording) and as well as being sorry to in any way misrepresent you I am also cross with myself because I think there is a very important debate to be had that already suffers from too much misrepresentation of opposing viewpoints. I will write a full comment in response to your last on this.

      3. I am very grateful that you have taken the time to comment because while your talk is not now in the public domain your comment raises many is the same issues highlighted in my blog.
        You suggest that:

        a. ‘The government is re-opening the long dead argument about skills versus knowledge’
        b. You wrote your talk with the presumption that Gove and Gibb were advocating nothing more nuanced than factual recall.

        I am genuinely surprised that you consider the argument over skills and knowledge to be so ‘long dead’ and did not think it worth exploring some of the very live debate on the issue in a talk on the very subject, In a recent Radio 4 documentary, the current director of SHP was interviewed by Adam Smith and I will quote the relevant section in full:
        Adam Smith: [Riley] criticises his own organisations past role in the lurch from knowledge to skills.
        Michael Riley: It [SHP] sent school history in England down a particular cul de sac…, particularly in GCSE history for example. We’re only just recovering (my emphasis) from the use of decontextualized small sources, extracts from written sources and pretty meaningless questions asked about them.

        So Riley criticised the direction of the organisation of which you were once director, suggesting there had been a move too far towards skills at the expense of necessary knowledge. You must also be aware of the views of Christine Counsell who said in the same documentary:
        Christine Counsell: …during the 1990s and 2000s many history teachers began to notice there was an enormous problem (my emphasis) with getting children just to do isolated atomised exercises on sources, not knowing enough about the context of those sources. [We need to be] asking hard questions about how we make knowledge central in schools’ history teaching and how we ensure at the same time children are questioning and critical and curious about how accounts get constructed.
        You must also be aware of Sean Lang and the Better History Forum. They have for some time been concerned that school’s history requires students to practise making judgements when not equipped with enough contextual knowledge and they suggest reforms that would dramatically change the way history is taught in our schools.
        Your description of your talk in your comment is uncontroversial. All sides within this very live debate would not dispute the points you clarify that you intended to make. It was my own impression that your talk did actually make your personal position clearer, even though you did not address any opposing views head on. You were asked at the end about the threat to good history from currently trendy skills based curricula but dismissed that there was a real problem although again you must be aware that there are others within the Historical Association that are more concerned and do not consider the debate ‘long dead’. It is also clear from the other comments on this blog that the problems raised by Counsell and Riley are still big issues in schools and so even if you are entirely in agreement with Counsell or with Riley it is rather surprising that in a talk on the subject you do not explore in detail an issue that another highly prominent history educationalist describes as ‘an enormous problem’.
        I would suggest that the argument about skills versus knowledge is very much alive.
        Moving onto b. I wonder if you typify the debate as ‘long dead’ because you are thinking of a debate over whether history should be ‘simple factual recall or not. There isn’t much evidence that Gove and Gibb had any intention of reopening that debate. They don’t seem to advocate ‘simple factual recall’. In that (ridiculously overstuffed) national Curriculum first draft it is stated that:
        “A high-quality history education equips pupils to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgement. A knowledge of Britain’s past, and our place in the world, helps us understand the challenges of our own time.”
        Understanding was stressed and including to,
        “understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance, and use them to make connections, draw contrasts, analyse trends, frame historically-valid questions and create their own structured accounts, including written narratives and analyses.
        Understand how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed
        gain historical perspective by placing their growing knowledge into different contexts, understanding the connections between local, regional, national and international history; between cultural, economic, military, political, religious and social history; and between short- and long-term timescales. By the end of each key stage, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study”

        In Gove’s own speeches he makes clear he does not advocate simple recall and he repeatedly suggests his views are influenced by E.D. Hirsch see here and here. He argues that knowledge provides ‘cultural literacy’ so children can understand the world Gove also bases his arguments on the research of scientist like Dan Willingham who has researched the crucial importance of knowledge in effective exercise of skills such as analysis, and the problems of transferability of these skills into different, less well known contexts. All these arguments are easily available.
        It is easy to attack a caricature of the more nuanced positions people actually hold (why I am so bothered that I may have misrepresented you). You suggest that this was not your intention and I am glad of that. However, if we are to have a real debate, Gove’s views and those of all sides in this discussion need to be acknowledged and explored. Anything else, even if done unintentionally, just stifles the debate and perpetuates misinformation.

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