History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

How to plan a broad and balanced history curriculum – part 1


Praise be! In the last few months, there has been lots of interest in curriculum planning again. Recently, Ofsted has viewed many of the schools they inspect as exam factories where pupils are taught to pass the test at the cost of a high-quality education.

OfstedThe latest Ofsted framework focuses more on the quality of the curriculum and less on the outcomes that are achieved. This can only be a good thing.

My experience tells me that there are loads of excellent history teachers designing clever and thoughtful curricula, working in schools graded as ‘Requiring Improvement’. Lessons are inspiring, history is taught well but because outcomes at the end are not up to ‘standard’ they do not get the credit they deserve.

Teaching to the test

In the absence of level descriptors (which I personally hated), there have been many schools demanding that history departments set and grade students using clunky GCSE criteria from the age of 11. This is madness. Schools have replaced one defective system with an utterly flawed and uninspiring one. We all know how meaningless school data can be.

Indeed,  a couple of years ago, recently Amanda Spielman stated:

‘If a child’s entire school experience has been designed to push them through mark-scheme hoops rather than develop a deep body of knowledge, they will struggle in later life.’

I pity the poor children who have to go to school for 5 years where every lesson or two focuses on exam questions. How lacklustre. How reductive.

Exam questions and mark-schemes do not show how well students have grasped their history, they are just a narrow way of assessing students at the end of a two-year course designed to fit into our exam system.

What do you mean by ‘history’?

What is history?

So, how would a history teacher or a department go about planning a broad and balanced history curriculum?

Firstly, there has to be an agreement amongst your department about what you are aiming for – an agreement of what history actually is in your school context.

Clearly, there are many starting points for this kind of discussion, E.H.Carr and Geoffery Elton kicked this debate off for us in the 1960s. This is well worth a re-visit.

As a department, you should agree on what the subject is that you are actually teaching.

Personally, I think the best place to look is to Canada. I have blogged about this before but I think it is worth revisiting here.

In Beyond the Cannon: History in the 21st Century Peter Seixas states that there were three possible approaches to answer the question: ‘which story of the past should we teach?’

  1. The collective memory approach: tell the one agreed story of the past. Curriculum designers, textbook authors etc would agree on what that story is and then teach this grand narrative, potentially through a core textbook.
  2. The disciplinary approach: give the students the tools to critique different accounts of the past, examine the evidence base of each account and assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of each interpretation.
  3. The postmodern approach: similar to the disciplinary approach in presenting the idea of competing narratives of the past, but going one stage further: acknowledging that the problem of competing narratives is not just about analysing the evidence base on which each was constructed upon, but also acknowledging the fact that each account was also influenced by the political/ideological/ religious/cultural context in which it was created. And, that students should be given the tools to unpick all of this so they can see those different narratives may serve different political or ideological purposes.

Some neo-traditionalists may think that the main aim of a ‘history’ curriculum is to create the grand narrative of the past, focusing more on first order concepts and memory above other elements of the discipline.

Those favouring the disciplinary approach would see the value of second order concepts more.

Those aiming at what Seixas describes as the postmodern approach would focus more on the second order concepts but would also strive to teach interpretations really well. Richard Harris and Rosemary Reynolds’s recent research suggests that although this is the area we should strive for to help educate our pupils for the future,  some teachers are not yet doing enough when it comes to interpretations. However, for me, this is the approach that we must strive to take.

If you are unsure what history really is then you could turn to Dr Lucy Worsley’s for a definition. Worsley is, by day Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. Surprisingly she sits firmly in Seixas’s postmodern camp. This is how she starts her American History’s Biggest Fibs series:

‘History is usually presented as a set of facts and dates of victories and defeats, or monarchs and presidents. Consigned to an unchanging past. But it’s not like that at all. History is the knitting together of rival interpretations: deliberate manipulations of the truth and sometimes alternative facts.’

And this is how she opened her series, Britain’s Biggest fibs:

‘Lots of people remember their history lessons from school as dates and battles, kings and queens, facts and figures. But the story of our past is open to interpretation. And much of British history is a carefully edited and even deceitful version of events. You might think that history is just a record of what happened. Actually, it’s not like that at all. As soon as you do a little digging, you discover that it’s more like a tapestry of different stories woven together by whoever was in power at the time.’

Curriculum Planning Questions

Two good questions to  ask yourself when curriculum planning are:

  • What do I want my students to be able to know and do by the end of course that they couldn’t do at the beginning?
  • How do students best acquire the kinds of knowledge I want them to know?

This will be the focus of the next blog post.

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About the author
Richard McFahn
Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.

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