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 2

As I said in my previous post, there has been lots of interest in history curriculum planning again.  This can only be a good thing. 

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.

Curriculum planning should be high on the history teacher’s agenda, but in the light of accountability pressures,  thinking hard about creating a broad and balanced history curriculum seems to some to have become confused by and replaced with simply teaching to the test (the GCSE test). 

We may seek comfort in the fact that this isn’t just a problem that we have recently faced. In 2012 David Cannadine wrote about the pressures on grammar school teachers in the 1950s and 60s:

‘In most grammar schools, the history curriculum was relentlessly focused on preparation for O and A Level, many teachers regarded their prime function as being to prepare their pupils for the narrow yet specific requirements of the examination.’

However, I am not sure that they acted like some history departments today:  by introducing exam questions in year 7 and are teaching content that they go over again and again across 5 years in hope that it will help students succeed at GCSE. Unfortunately, I doubt that it will.

Curriculum planning questions

One question to ask is:

  • 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?

This is a good discussion to be had as a department. It really depends on what your view of history as I stated previously.

To start you off I sat down and scribbled down my  ‘back on an envelope’ list of what I want students to know and do by the end of a history course. It quickly turned into a list of 11.

This isn’t the definitive answer by any means, just thoughts from my own perspective.

11 things to consider:

  1. Have a big picture framework of the past that they can slot other knowledge into. Here are 5 ideas to get you started.
  2. Have a good knowledge of the events of the past and be able to place them into the big picture.
  3. Have a real appreciation that history helps us see why things have happened.
  4. Be able to see how, when and why change happens – and to see the extent and pace of change, and how change isn’t always progressing.
  5. Really getting that history isn’t the past but is a construct and appreciate that people construct the past based on their own beliefs, views, and contexts.
  6. Realise that history is constructed from contemporary evidence, much of which is unreliable (though still useful).
  7. See that some events are viewed as more significant than others – and this view of significance can change.
  8. Have a real appreciation of the social, cultural, religious and economic ‘angles’ of history as well as the political and military.
  9. See things from the eyes of the people in the past and know that different people saw things differently. Also, students should be able to see that ideas and actions of people in the past are in some ways similar but in other ways different to our own.
  10. Develop their appreciation and knowledge of the language of history by bumping into terms of key terms (parliament, church, capitalism etc) again and again in different contexts. And, develop sophisticated phrases and words of how to articulate their thinking in history -‘ change words’, ’cause words’ etc
  11. Write (and talk)  increasingly well and with more and more sophistication.

A mix of knowledge forms

As you can see from the above I want the focus to be on gaining substantive and disciplinary knowledge, not just one or the other.  There is not a binary choice to be had in my mind. Both knowledge/stuff and conceptual thinking are interlinked for me. The development of language is unique to both hence 10 and 11.

Another important question to consider when creating a coherent curriculum plan for history is:

  • How do students best acquire the kinds of knowledge I want them to have?

This will be the basis of the third blog in this series.

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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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