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School History’s alternative futures: how should children make sense of the past?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 29 July 2021

derwiki / Pixabay

Arthur Chapman.

Parallel worlds are a staple in popular culture – in Dr Who, His Dark Materials, The Man in the High Castle, The Chronicles of Narnia and elsewhere. It is nevertheless surprising to find visions of what school history can be from what might almost be alternative worlds of assumptions appearing a mere week apart on gov.co.uk: Ofsted’s research review on History education, and a speech by Schools Minister Nick Gibb published last week.

As far as ideas about school history teaching and curriculum are concerned, the Schools Minister’s speech might almost have been written at any time since 2010. Arguments familiar from policy interventions  over the last decade are re-presented – drawing on E.D. Hirsch’s research from the 1970s (which concluded that deprived students’ reading comprehension appeared worse because they lacked the background knowledge of their middle class peers) and claims about failures of history education made in a non-peer-reviewed self-published academic pamphlet from 2009.

Ofsted’s history research review, by contrast, draws very heavily on the discourse of school history itself – in particular, on articles by teachers writing in the Historical Association’s professional journal Teaching History about building knowledge of concepts like ‘Parliament’, about the meaning of ‘Class’ for Chartists, about ‘World Building’ through history teaching, about developing understanding of historical significance and historical causation, and a wide range of other topics. The journal is referenced 150 times in the review’s 191 footnotes.

The two texts do not just differ in their sources of knowledge about school history. They differ in their conceptualisation of what school history is. The Minister seems to understand school history almost entirely in terms of substantive knowledge about the past – which is discussed extensively, and as involving subject-specific ‘skills’ – which are referred to briefly in passing.

School history is understood to be about building a large ‘reservoir’ of factual knowledge in children’s minds. This knowledge, we are told, will help society to ‘level up’ and assist children in navigating our social media saturated disinformation economies. Deploying internalised encyclopedias of substantive knowledge, children will be able to check and discount distortions and manipulations in social media representation. What role ‘skills’ might play in this is not explained. It would appear that children will be ‘able to tell the difference between truths and falsehoods’ by recognition, simply because they have been taught ‘important facts and truths.’

Ofsted, by contrast, offer a model of school history as education in two types of knowledge in interplay with each other – substantive knowledge (‘knowledge about the past’), on the one hand, and disciplinary knowledge  (‘knowledge about how historians investigate the past, and how they construct historical claims, arguments and accounts’) on the other. Ofsted discuss vital questions – such as how teachers can develop children’s knowledge and understanding of causal argument in history and their ability to establish evidence for claims in contextualised ways – in some depth. The section of the report on ‘Securing progression in disciplinary knowledge’ represents 5,970 of the 19,112 words of main text in the review.

In common with much national and international research in history education, Ofsted argue that it is the combination of the substantive and the disciplinary, and not one type of knowledge alone, that makes school history powerful:

Deploying both substantive and disciplinary knowledge in combination is what gives pupils the capacity or skill to construct historical arguments or analyse sources.

Capabilities to put history to use, then, depend on the integration of these two types of knowledge that together constitute powerful historical knowing.

Parallel worlds often collide – as journeys through the worm holes and wardrobes remind us. They also often have common features – there is gravity in Narnia too, after all. It is no surprise then, to find commonalities in our two texts. Both converge in stressing the importance of substantive knowledge, even if Ofsted demonstrate that whilst necessary it is not sufficient.

Another convergence is this: although Ofsted makes extensive reference to research by history teachers, both Ofsted and the Schools Minister’s speech rely very heavily on general cognitive science (E.D. Hirsch and Daniel Willingham, for example, respectively). This is, of course, important, but there is also much evidence about domain-specific understanding – about how children learn and teachers teach in the context of history, mathematics, and so on. A point well-recognised in the contents of standard handbooks on learning and instruction.

The value of research tied to specific problems and domains is demonstrated by Stanford University’s History Education Group’s research on Civic Online Reasoning. This shows that knowing substantive and disciplinary history, even at professorial level, is insufficient to enable one to evaluate information online. Doing that requires knowledge of how online texts and environments work: professional fact checkers are much better able to spot distortion online than historical knowledge-rich university history students and professors, the research shows.

It is worth saying, also, that Ofsted’s history research review has important things to teach in relation to Government proposals for initial teacher education (ITE) reform currently in consultation. The vital curriculum knowledge that Ofsted draw upon from Teaching History has, in large part, depended on university based ITE and the networks of expert tutors and mentors that higher education/ITE partnerships have created over time. Teaching History articles are often based on PGCE or masters’ assignments, for example, and much of the journal’s editing, over the last twenty years and more, has been the work of ITE tutors. You do not build upon hard-won subject specialist curriculum expertise by weakening the infrastructure that helped make it possible.


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One Response to “School History’s alternative futures: how should children make sense of the past?”

  • 1
    Rosemary Davis wrote on 29 July 2021:

    As a school student from the 5th to Upper Sixth, I learned from the history teacher to challenge and critique ‘factual’ accounts of historical events. This included critiquing the use of concentration like conditions used by the British during the Boer War and which eventually led to such facilities being banned internationally. This ability to reason, challenge and discuss has stood me in good stead throughout life. In modern times, the Thematic approach to history during the 60s, 70s and early 80s was the equivalent of my own experience. Bring it back!