Like many others from the history teaching community I recently attended the West London Free School conference. The main message which was evident in the tweets from the day and blogs write ups after was ‘all hail the return of knowledge’. As Christine Counsell said in her opening lecture with the move to a more progressive pedagogy in the 80s and 90s some practitioners had thrown ‘the baby out with the bath water’ and left knowledge languishing, where some have left it while they focus on skills instead. I can see some merit in this view. I’ve seen some horrors undertaken with pipe cleaners and play d’oh. I’ve suffered wearing DeBono’s blooming hats. I have had to do sodding brain gym.
As someone that is very passionate about the progression of my subject and the way it is taught nationwide I am glad that people are talking about knowledge again. I am chuffed that people are discussing how we can bring recent scholarship into the classroom. As a lover of stories I am over the moon that people are considering how we can use micro and macro narratives in the classroom.
But I have my concerns.
To quote Chris Culpin “stuff is not enough”. A great historian is not one who just knows more stuff. It takes something more than this. I teach Robert (that’s not actually his name). Robert knows more about military history than me. He can tell me the date of any great battle in the twentieth century. He can tell me the model of planes that were used, the shell they dropped, the model of the tank they hunted. If I teach him a fact he will remember it. Going into the exam next year he will probably know more substantive knowledge than the other students in my class. At the moment I doubt whether he will secure the Grade 4 or 5 ‘good pass’. Why? He is not a good historian as he struggles to think like one. He just likes knowing more facts. But this is restricting his progression as a historian.
Being a good historian takes a lot more than knowing stuff. It takes you to think like a historian. Thinking historically is an abstract and alien thing for kids. It is not normal. It’s that skill (and I use that word purposely) that if you are shown a source you instantly start thinking about what it can tell you about a period, why it was produced, what other evidence you might need to support it, why it is limited. If you think historically and you are given a solid enquiry question you can think of a logical structure to answer it, a way to hack through the jungle to find the light. If you are given a historical interpretation you can read between the lines to see what that historian is arguing and why they might have produced this when they did.
Obviously to do all the above you need substantive knowledge. I do not doubt that. You need it in bucket loads. But you also need something more. At the West London Free School people called this disciplinary knowledge (a term I like), other people call it second order concepts, some people just call it plain old skills. I don’t care which term you use. What I am trying to argue is that you need both.
My concern with the move toward a ‘knowledge rich’ pedagogy is that some people are already doing what others did in the late 80s and early 90s, they are throwing the baby out with the bath water. Our lessons should never just be teaching knowledge and not giving our students the chance to think about it, to form an argument about it, to investigate it. This is wrong. It will make our lessons insufferably dull and will put kids off history for a long time.
Should we being teaching knowledge rich lessons? Of course we should. But we also should be explicitly teaching skills alongside this and getting our students to think like historians. Christine Counsell and Ben Walsh both actively argued at WLFS that you need to teach substantive and disciplinary knowledge and they are of course right. The Schools History Project and Historical Association have been actively advocating this for decades and it would be a travesty to throw out this hard work. Getting kids to think like historians should be the goal of every teacher and this needs to not be forgotten.