Teaching history traditionally – really traditionally.

Our white bearded and semi –retired librarian chuckled at his apt choice of password for a head of history. “I’ve given you the Battle of Culloden,” he said. For one panicked moment I frantically ran through my knowledge of history. Culloden did bring up an image of mist on the heather, blood stained kilts and mournful bagpiping but I wasn’t sure of the century of that battle let alone the date. My schooling wasn’t a help. At primary we didn’t do much history, although I do remember drawing a very fine portrait of Henry VIII in year 6, with lots of stubble. Secondary schooling was largely modern world and sixteenth century at A level. At university I did lots of ‘early stuff’ and otherwise focused on American and South African history. My largely sixteenth or twentieth century teaching experience was useless. Fortunately our librarian could not conceive that I wouldn’t know, he explained that he would be emailing all password details. I’d got away with it.

It is mostly only among those ‘of a certain age’ I ever get that rising panic. I actually feel very well informed when at CPD with a younger generation of history teachers as I have filled in lots of gaps in my knowledge over time. However, I wish I had a framework of key events in British history that wasn’t quite so patchy… Therefore I was fascinated to discover that my own daughter was being given just that in her history lessons at her prep school this year. In Years 3-5 she had done some very nice topic based work but in year 6 classes are taught history by a subject specialist. Mr Clarke, also semi-retired, has defied the winds of change that have totally altered the shape of history teaching over the last three decades.

So far, utilising three 30 minute lessons a week he has taught about each British monarch from Henry VIII to George III PLUS the agricultural revolution, French and American revolutions AND the Napoleonic wars… Next week my year 6 daughter will be examined on about 15 pages of A4 revision notes. I suspect the marking on the longer answers will be of the ‘tick for each fact’ variety.

I admire the sheer audacity of standing against all pressures, to continue his approach. It has also prompted some very serious reflection on my part about the possibility of teaching chronological overview effectively. This previous blog explains my frustration that anyone could claim to be teaching wide sweeps of time without acknowledging that understanding will be a casualty. I still think the same.

Given those stated views what intrigues me is my actual gut reaction to my daughter’s experience. I’d better whisper it very quietly… I am pleased. Not at her having to plough through all those notes in her half term holiday but that she has the beginnings of a framework, a schema, from which better understanding can grow. And I’m jealous, she has actually studied the eighteenth century, something I have never done.

I’ve been forced to think about WHAT precisely I want my daughter to get from her history study. Once upon a time, as a keen NQT, I would have said ‘transferable skills’ and scoffed at any approach so focused on just ‘telling the story’. Now I know that skills don’t transfer readily between domains and are reliant on the quality of contextual knowledge.

Now I think I am just happy that she has enjoyed some stories from the past and that these provide ‘a framework’ so she will have more chance to understand references to historical events and greater capacity to expand her knowledge and understanding of these events in the future. Perhaps there never was a golden age when most children had that framework but I certainly meet adults that did gain that from their schooling and I’d love for all children to have what these members of an older generation take for granted. True, I do rather flinch at the selective nature of what my daughter has been told as ‘the story’ and would prefer her teaching to highlight ‘the nature and status of the knowledge she acquires’. I would rethink the extended writing and I am also sceptical about how much the class have the capacity to absorb or retain long term. I think the reason they retain some knowledge is because of testing and because the events are told as a story with colourful characters and on-going threads (the theme of religious conflict runs through the account).

However, I am persuaded from my daughter’s experience that sweeping (and deliberately/pragmatically superficial) narratives of the past should have a real place in history teaching, alongside depthStories are powerful learning tools and I think it is a tragedy that history teachers, of all people, disdain to utilise this power to build sweeping frameworks on which stronger historical understanding can later grow. It is odd that so many teachers and educationalists are far less critical of ‘Horrible Histories’ despite giving a similar justification to mine for Mr Clarke’s approach, in support of that programme.

However, sweeping frameworks are not enough. I do want more than this for my child, even in year 6, especially with an hour and a half a week to play with. Ultimately I want her to ‘think historically’ and I like this description of this goal from Tosh:

The most valuable objective of history teaching is to enable young people to situate themselves in time, to recognise the centrality of change and development in accounting for the world around them, to grasp the merits – and the drawbacks – of historical comparison and to draw on the past for a richer sense of possibilities in the future. Tosh J. (2008) Why History Matters, Palgrave Macmillan

Howson, who has written lots on how to achieve this goal argues that “fact cramming history’ [does] little to provide a meaningful big picture of British history and …[is] of scant use.” However, personal experience makes me wonder why some of the ‘older generation’ I come across, despite being educated rather like my daughter, seem pretty able to ‘situate themselves in time’ and use their rather good historical knowledge to do this. I’ll try and explain. Howson refers to Some research done to investigate the degree to which and the ways in which students used their understanding of the past in thinking about the present and future. Forty seven British school students were asked:

People say that the USA is the most powerful country in the world. Will the USA always be the most powerful ? How do you know?

In response 75% offering no explicit historical perspective at all and only 8% were able to draw on historical knowledge and understanding to illuminate perspectives on the present and the future. The researchers concluded that the ‘majority of students did not instinctively draw on historical knowledge…and [the weakest students] found it difficult, even when prompted to connect the past, present and future.’

What is it these students lack? Of course, you can’t draw on historical knowledge you do not have. It would be interesting to find out whether these students actually KNEW about past empires and the fact they rose and fell. Cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Willingham have demonstrated the crucial importance of detailed knowledge to analyse effectively. The skill of analysis is dependent on the quality of your knowledge. So far, so good for Mr Clarke. His sweeping framework means students are more likely to have chronological knowledge that allows them to ‘situate themselves’. Perhaps that older generation also utilise their deep and wide-ranging knowledge to think historically.

However, I think Willingham also gives a fascinating explanation of why students are unable to ‘instinctively’ draw even on knowledge they may possess.  Willingham gives an example of students who have learned to thoughtfully discuss the causes of the American Revolution from both the British and the American perspectives but don’t even think to question how the Germans viewed WW2. He explains that this is because ‘thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about’. In other words the mind is naturally distracted by superficial details (what Willingham calls the ‘surface structure’) e.g. the story of WW2 and can’t see how what they have learnt about considering alternative perspectives can apply in a new context (what Willingham calls the ‘deep structure’). He explains that the ability to identify the deep structure (i.e. realise it would be productive to think about alternative perspectives/the rise and fall of previous world powers) requires two factors:

  1. Being really familiar with a problem’s deep structure. This comes from long term repeated experience with one problem or with various manifestation of one type of problem (e.g. you continually look at a range of perspectives in interpreting the past.)

“After repeated exposure to either or both the subject simply perceives the deep structure as part of the problem.”

This raises an issue with an approach that continually invites students to identify ‘deep structure’ when they do not have the expertise to identify it. Students could not ever give a historical perspective on American world power without knowledge of past empires and ALSO having been repeatedly exposed to the idea of the rise and decline of empires (the deep structure.) Identifying that deep structure ‘instinctively’ is the product of expertise.

However, Willingham also says that identifying deep structure is helped by:

  1. Knowledge that one should look for a deep structure (e.g. knowing you are on the lookout for alternative perspectives/earlier examples of world powers/causes of events).

Howson suggests that “progression in history is about moving from default positions with respect to certain ideas about the past and helping students make moves that allow for more powerful conceptions.” I would agree that as we teach, for example about empires, we should aim to help our students understand those more powerful conceptions. However, the research outlined is more problematic if the starting assumption is that generic and transferable historical understanding is being tested when actually depth of knowledge is of such crucial importance to the quality of responses. If I had been ask to explain the significance of Culloden in the context of on going Scottish/English tensions would I have failed because I lack a generic sense of historical perspective? I am not sure progress towards a generic understanding  of these second order concepts can be independently assessed.

So I disagree that my daughter’s teaching this year is of ‘scant use’ because knowledge is essential to ‘situate yourself’ in history. However, I also want my daughter’s teaching to continually highlight those important second order concepts and written work should invite students to consolidate what they have learnt in class about those concepts, so that they are more likely to gradually build the expertise to ‘instinctively’ think historically. I think this should be built into long term planning but is also often incidental (such as when I recently drew my class’s attention to the parallels between Russia’s desire for a sphere of influence in Poland in 1945 and in the Ukraine today). Because I knew my daughter was studying the conflict between Catholics and Protestants I bought her Joan Lingard’s  The Twelfth Day of July, a novel about a friendship between a Catholic and a Protestant in Belfast and then to help her see how there were other religious conflicts I bought her One More River by Lynne Reid Banks about a Jewish girl caught up in the Five Day’s War. It was a natural thing for a history teacher to do. This makes me wonder if enriching a more narrative approach is something some history teachers have always done.



Willingham, D. “Critical Thinking, Why is it so hard to teach? AFT Summer 2007 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3200/AEPR.109.4.21-32#.U48r1rFwbcs

Howson, J. “Potential and pitfalls in teaching ‘big pictures’ of the past” Teaching History Sept 09  http://www.history.org.uk/resources/secondary_resource_2692_8.html

Howson, J. “Is it the Tuarts and the Studors or the other way around?” Teaching History May 2007 http://www.history.org.uk/resources/secondary_resource_706_8.html






4 thoughts on “Teaching history traditionally – really traditionally.

  1. “People say that the USA is the most powerful country in the world. Will the USA always be the most powerful ? How do you know?”

    The past is often not a good indicator of the future. I don’t have a detailed knowledge of historical facts and I have never felt disadvantaged.

    You don’t need any knowledge of history to provide an answer to the above questions, in fact I would go as far as to say that a knowledge of the current will allow you to answer the question far more effectivelly than a knowledge of history.

    Just my view though.

    1. I think the researchers were hoping to find out if pupils instinctively used the past to aid their judgement. The point I am making is that I question whether they ever could ‘instinctively’ use historical context given that they might not know that context.
      Whether historical context is even necessary to provide a coherent answer is a debate for another time!

  2. To be honest, it’s really not hard to construct the kind of broad brush historical context framework you say you feel anxious you lack. Just read some historical novels or get a copy of Muir’s Historical Atlas and browse a bit. Or even, these days, Horrible Histories. I had a very traditional, chronological experience of history at a very traditional, academic school, but in all honesty my fairly copious general historical knowledge wasn’t acquired institutionally. It was accrued because I was engaged, motivated and self determining. Mostly that came from TV, from buildings and a history teacher who told us stories and encouraged a lot of chat and empathy.

    1. I certainly agree that is a pleasurable way to set about getting the knowledge your education didn’t provide. You are rather preaching to the converted. I am a history teacher, naturally I love historical novels and dramas as well as documentaries. I would disagree with your first assertion though. It has taken my lifetime to fill gaps. I can only speculate but without your schooling perhaps you would not have found the new knowledge you gleaned as easy to assimilate?

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