D. Framing enquiry questions for a study in depth

In the final report of the Historical Association's Key Stage 2 - 3 History Project, Dr Tim Lomas asked primary pupils about what demotivated them in the way that primary history could be taught. He cited "copying, simple comprehension, filling in worksheets, instructional investigations (i.e. go and find out all you know about), simplistic questions - often closed and covering too much."

The same methods might also have a similar effect on the learning of secondary pupils. Pupils may succumb to the "so what" factor - being bored by the teaching and seeing no relevance in the content.


The dangers of the so-called "knowledge rich curriculum"

Another danger is teaching content so that equal weight is given to all content that could be taught. This is sometimes called a "knowledge rich curriculum". Vast swathes of content are identified for teaching in equal depth (or shallowness). This approach to curriculum design views subjects like history purely as bodies of knowledge. History becomes merely a matter of "content coverage" on the grounds that teaching has to incorporate as much factual knowledge as possible. Proponents of this kind of curriculum in state education such as the American E.D. Hirsch contend that imparting such knowledge gives those taught it (especially pupils from deprived backgrounds) essential access to the kind of "cultural capital" that more privileged and privately educated children take for granted. It is the kind of knowledge such as that of the canon of great western literature that give children who absorb it improved access to better jobs and positions of power in society.

However there is little evidence to suggest that this approach alone necessarily means that pupils recall much of what they have been taught or understand it if they can recall it. One piece of content may merely follow another with no time given to explore in more depth or develop any deeper understanding of history as a discipline. Factual knowledge is important but not the sole measure of what should be taught. Fortunately the National Curriculum does not encourage this approach. Factual knowledge is important but is not the sole measure of what should be taught.


Teaching History in overview and depth

The requirements of the National Curriculum for both Key Stage 2 and 3 clearly state that "teachers should combine overview and depth studies to help pupils understand both the long arc of development and the complexity of specific aspects of the content". In other words the history curriculum becomes like a concertina. It can be pulled out to take in a broad sweep of history, sometimes across only a few lessons (what Denis Schemilt might call "low resolution " history). The history curriculum can also be contracted, so that the focus becomes narrower and deeper, concentrating on a particular aspect of content in depth(what Schemilt might call "high resolution" history). Teachers are free to shape the content of the National Curriculum so that they can decide how much time to allocate to particular content and within that, what to treat as overview and depth studies.


The aims of teaching history

Since the inception of the National Curriculum schools history has been understood to be both a body of knowledge i.e consisting of substantive information about the human past but also a form of knowledge, shaped by subject specific concepts and processes that reflect the way that history is written at academic level. This kind of propositional knowledge is sometimes defined in two ways

  • first order concepts that shape the way historians write about the past such as such as power
  • second order concepts that reflect the methods used by historians such as change and continuity, similarity and difference etc.

Each successive version of the National Curriculum for History has insisted that the study of the subject in school is not just a matter of imparting substantive knowledge but also of finding ways of teaching through subject specific concepts and processes pitched at the right level for the age and ability range. The aim is to model for pupils how to think, reason, read and write in an historical way.

This requirement sometimes also comes up against the opposite of the "knowledge-rich curriculum" that of the "skills-based curriculum".


The dangers of the so-called "skills based curriculum"?

In this case the purpose of education is to equip pupils with the generic and transferrable skills they will need to live and work in a rapidly changing world. Knowledge is not that important (it can always be looked up on line if pupils are taught transferrable research skills). This can result in history merely being a backdrop to the practise of generic skills or of literacy which has sometimes been coined "History lite". The emphasis in a school is on generic teaching methods that take the generic learning of pupils on. Poorly planned topic work in primary schools or weak project based learning at secondary level encourage tenuous links across subjects. Such approaches neglect an essential component of the subject (or any teaching of it altogether in some intstance )and may well hinder the ability of pupils to think, reason, read and write in an historical way.


Subject-specific pedagogy- Combining rich knowledge with subject specific concepts and processes

Fortunately there is a rich tradition in the history education community of subject specific pedagogy that can benefit both secondary and primary teachers in curriculum planning and devising activities.

Substantive knowledge is an essential part of schools history but it is presented through tried and tested subject specific pedagogy that reflect the National Curriculm`s concepts and processes hence the overlap between knowledge and subject specific pedagogy. In turn this pedagogy obviously overlaps with sound generic pedagogy from which subjects draw and can benefit. Some secondary curriculum models and approaches set no store by subject specific pedagogy and ignore the vital contribution that knowledgable subject specialists can make to pupil progress.

In the primary school non-specialist teachers through no fault of their own and who may well be excellent practitioners in their own right may be ignorant of subject specific pedagogy. That is why a partnership between good secondary subject specialists and primary teachers can benefit everyone.

Christine Counsell wrote recently that "concepts turn content into problems"

Planning the history curriculum through carefully worded enquiry questions set up pupils with intriguing puzzles to resolve where the validity of a conclusion will depend on the evidence it draws upon to support its point of view. In turn enquiry questions are focussed on particular subject-specific concepts and processes over time so that pupils get an opportunity to rehearse their understanding of them at regular intervals regardless of the historical content they might be studying. This is in the tradition of Jerome Bruner`s spiral curriculum.


Suggested Training Activity

1. From any research, reading or prior knowledge about the Vikings identify and discuss any areas of content that;

  • may be of interest to individuals
  • might be of interest to Year 6 pupils

Within a set time limit,try and frame some questions that pupils might understand and that convert that particular area of content into a problem

2. Give out Resources A and B to pairs.

(Resource A is a list of potential enquiry questions about the Vikings. Resource B summarises National Curriculum concepts and processes pitched at Key Stage 2. The light blue boxes represent concepts and processes that will usually be evident in all good history teaching i.e. encouraging pupil questioning and setting outcomes of various kinds so that pupils can communicate their historical understanding.)

Within a set time limit;

  • Select any questions that particularly appeal
  • Compare enquiry questions to the list of concepts and processes in dark blue from Resource B, identifying what might be the main focus for a particular question (No one enquiry question can possibly incorporate all concepts and processes at once.)
  • Highlight any "dodgy questions" that may not be appropriately phrased for the age group or that may appear ahistorical

Share conclusions across the group and discuss Resource C which lists the "dodgy questions". Explain that a characteristic of rigorous planning in history is what Jamie Byrom and Michael Riley have called wrestling with enquiry questions until teachers get the wording right.

3. Return to the enquiry questions in Resource A. In pairs discuss any questions that might link together in some way so that they could be built in to a sequence of lessons. Discuss what appears to link particular questions.

Hand out Resource D which reveals the enquiry questions for the medium term plan written for these materials and Resource E which cites Michael Riley`s definition of historical enquiry. Discuss ;

  • What each question suggests pupils might do to answer it
  • Which concepts particular questions appear to be focussed upon
  • What outcome does the final question expect and how might prior learning from earlier questions them to complete the outcome


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