With the old A-level the students could get away with quite a simple argument in their essay and they could still get full marks. What my team and I have realised with the new A-level is that this is not the case (well at least we think this isn’t the case!). The A-level requires a sophistication of argument and a depth of historical thinking that was not there before. As it wasn’t there before, it wasn’t in our schemes of work but we have been working really hard to tackle this.
Let’s take a question:
‘The Bolshevik state under Lenin, between 1918 and 1924, was just as ruthless as the Communist state under Stalin, between 1928 and 1941.’ Assess the validity of this view. [25 marks]
A simple argument could be: Yes Stalin was as ruthless or Lenin. OR Stalin was just as ruthless is some aspects but more ruthless in others.
A more sophisticated argument could be: Both leaders were as ruthless as each other but they were doing it for different reasons. Lenin’s ruthlessness came from an ideological stance but Stalin’s came from a personal obsession with power.
The big question arises how do you get the students to make these more sophisticated arguments. Put simply it requires more historical thinking. To reach the more sophisticated argument you have to think of the questions behind the question. For example: What do you mean by ruthless? What were the motivations behind the leaders’ ruthlessness? Who was the ruthlessness aimed at or who suffered the most under it?
We’ve been wrestling with how we help the students do this but two things have worked well so I thought they were worth sharing.
1. Make the difference between sophisticated and simple arguments explicit.
I was concerned that often the history made it difficult for the kids to get this understanding. So I made it a lot more simple. I chose the medium of cats. I like cats. So below are arguments that range from simplistic to sophisticated about why cats are brilliant:
I explicitly went through this with all my A-Level classes and now every time we do an essay I dig it back out as a visual reminder. This week we also used it judge the students conclusions against this scale where we agreed as a class where each students’ argument lay on this line. I appreciate that this is silly but sometimes kids like that and it helps them remember.
2. The cake analogy – getting them to think of the questions underneath the question
My Head of History led a great meeting this week where we discussed the difference between a Band 4 (A grade) and Band 5 (A* grade) answer. He pointed out rightly that it was about sophistication and that this required the students to think about the questions under the question. As a result of this we discussed a few examples (the ruthless one above is one of them). We decided we would demonstrate this to the students and then discussed the best vehicle to do this. What we realised as a team is that this fancy pants thinking is great but it only needs to be a bit of the essay. If the student doesn’t actually answer the main question and instead focuses on this ‘extra thinking’ they will go off on a tangent. Hence we came up with the analogy of a cherry cake:
We need the kids to keep MOST of their essays simplistic or they will not actually answer the question. If they don’t do that they will fail. Actually the sophisticated bit is the cherry on the cake, it is probably the 5 to 10% of an essay, maybe the last few lines of each main paragraph or the bulk of a great conclusion. So we’ve made a LOT of cherry cake slides. In the next fortnight we are all going to demonstrate this to our A-Level classes whenever we introduce an essay question. Fingers crossed in doing so the kids will get the message so often they will start doing the extra thinking themselves.