Readers of this blog will know that I am currently writing a KS3 history book (the first of three books I’m proposing to do). The process has been more time consuming than I imagined, which should explain why I’ve been blogging less than usual lately. I’ve not crossed the finish line yet, and there is still much work to do. However, I thought I would share a sneak peak at the foreword to the book, which sets out my intentions for writing it. Do let me know if this strikes a chord with you. I need all the encouragement I can get to complete this project.
There are many reasons why I feel compelled to write this book. When I decided to get into teaching a few years ago, I was struck by how differently history is taught today to when I was in school over thirty years ago. The curriculum, the pedagogy and the exams all felt a million miles away from what I had experienced. Of course, I don’t intend to romanticise the past. Education was imperfect then, as it is now. Nevertheless, in their attempts to modernise and shake up the way history is taught, the proponents of the brave new world threw out the baby with the bathwater. I do feel a sense that something of value has been lost over time.
This book is my attempt to try to bring back some of what has been lost without being overly backward facing. My aim is to weave together the positives from traditional education of the past, together with the challenges we face today and what we now know from cognitive science about the way children learn. I have entitled the book “Learning for Memory” because the content is devised specifically to help pupils to remember what they learn, rather than it being in through one ear and out through the other.
Remembering what is taught is a challenge in most subjects at school, but particularly so in history. When I first started working in a secondary school, I observed a year 8 history lesson in which the teacher gave the pupils a quiz to see how much they remembered of what had been learned the previous year. There were simple and to my mind easy questions, such as ‘What happened in 1066?’, ‘What was the Black Death?’, ‘What was the Magna Carta?’ and ‘What were the crusades?’ Not a single pupil got any of these questions right. Thus, it was impressed upon my mind from an early stage that remembering the material being taught is of crucial importance. There is much truth to the well known quote by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark which defines learning as ‘a change in long-term memory’. Can we say something has been truly learned if it is quickly forgotten? It seems clear to me that remembering is a crucial part of learning history, and that progression in the subject depends on cumulative knowledge. You build on what you have learned previously. This is why my focus in writing this book has been to make the material as memorable as possible.
History is a subject with a very large domain. There is so much information to process within the constraints of the limited teaching time available. One way of approaching this situation has been to focus on developing historical skills, by mimicking the actions of professional historians and creating, it is hoped, mini-historians. In this approach, the ability to dissect source material takes centre stage, along with being able to analyse different interpretations. Needless to say, these are important skills for the professional historian, but these are not the only skills. What is often forgotten is the extent and depth of substantive knowledge required in order to analyse sources and interpretations, and to construct an argument. In the absence of such deep knowledge, the source analysis becomes a fairly meaningless exercise, a dull routine of stock phrases and answers drilled into pupils to help them get the marks in exams.
This approach is problematic to me on several fronts. As mentioned already, without the accompanying substantive knowledge, it becomes devoid of true meaning and fails to equip pupils with a proper understanding of our past. It is also boring and off-putting to many pupils. It throws by the wayside the most important and attractive element of learning history: the narrative. When professional historians write books on their chosen period of history, they tell a story. They piece together the evidence, whether in primary sources or in the historiography, construct their own arguments and then tell their narrative. I find it ironic, that in our desire to create mini-historians, we forget this vital role they play.
I have read much criticism of the use of narrative in the teaching of history. The main one seems to be that it ‘brainwashes’ students into one accepted (and probably elitist) view of history. It doesn’t teach the pupils that all history is interpretation or to accept the validity of different viewpoints. I disagree. I think it’s perfectly possible to teach history through narrative while at the same time making it clear that different interpretations may exist.
In the course of this book, there are numerous occasions where multiple interpretations of an event are presented. For example, when writing about Harold Godwinson’s mysterious visit to Normandy in 1064, I offer three possible interpretations given to us by the Bayeux Tapestry, William of Malmesbury and Eadmer. Pupils can then decide which interpretation they find most convincing. It is within such contexts that source work and interpretation are most usefully taught.
Why do I think a narrative is so important? Mainly, this is because the human element of history is in the telling of the story. Take the story away, and you are left with disconnected bits of information that do not have meaning to us as humans. We need to make history meaningful for our pupils to engage with it, and also to remember it. A story has pathos, actions and events, winners and losers. It tells us something about our shared humanity. I suspect part of the reason why many pupils I’ve encountered remember so little of the history they have been taught, is that it was not presented to them within the framework of a story that could spark their interest and inspire them to want to learn more.
There is another approach, informed by cognitive psychology, that helps pupils remember what they learn. This approach focuses on six strategies for effective learning: retrieval practice, spaced study, interleaving, dual coding, elaboration and concrete examples. There is a conscious effort in this book, and the accompanying digital resources (to be found on www.learningformemory.com), to follow these strategies as far as possible, in order to facilitate learning for memory. Thus for example, the curriculum is interleaved by switching from overview studies (such as medieval religion) to depth studies (for example the conflict between Henry II and Thomas Becket).
Another way of interleaving is to break down parts of a topic into overlapping story narratives, each with their own enquiry question. So for instance, the Norman Conquest is broken up into three stories: Harold Hardraada’s, Harold Godwinson’s and William’s. This allows pupils to learn about an event through different perspectives, paving the way for them to understand the concept of interpretation in history.
A word of warning: this book is text rich. It is vital that pupils get into the habit of reading, and it is also the only way to introduce them to the richness and detail of the periods we study. New historical vocabulary is highlighted in bold and explained in a box on each page. When summarising a complex series of events or a set of inter-related factors, the book contains dual coding of text and diagram to assist with comprehension and reduce cognitive load. In the ‘Do Now’ activities at the end of each section, I often suggest pupils copy out a set of diagrams into their books. These are not mindless or pointless exercises. The process of carefully copying out a flow chart of events helps the pupils consolidate and organise the knowledge in their minds as well as providing a clear summary of the information for future revision.
The ‘Do Now’ activities also include exercises, inspired by Hochman and Wexler’s “The Writing Revolution”, to help pupils develop their historical writing. One such exercise involves a sentence stem that pupils need to complete using the conjunctions because, but and so. This allows them, particularly the less proficient writers, to develop their sentence writing skills. It also encourages pupils to extend their thinking about a topic and thus develop analytical skills at the same time. For example, pupils given the sentence stem “King Harold was unlucky,” might write the following:
King Harold was unlucky, because his kingdom was attacked both in the north and the south.
King Harold was unlucky, but he also made some poor decisions.
King Harold was unlucky, so he lost his crown after less than a year as king.
These might seem like simple exercises to do, but they are actually quite challenging because they force pupils to think about contrasting factors. Here’s another example, using the sentence stem “Anglo-Saxon England was wealthy,”:
Anglo-Saxon England was wealthy, because it produced high quality wool.
Anglo-Saxon England was wealthy, but this increased the danger of invasion.
Anglo-Saxon England was wealthy, so it could import luxury goods such as silks and spices.
A lot of thinking goes into constructing these sentences, and since ‘memory is the residue of thought’ (a quote from Daniel Willingham’s “Why don’t students like school?”), getting our pupils to really think about a topic will hopefully also help them to remember it.
I hope this book is useful both to teachers and pupils alike. The aim is to try to reduce teacher workload by having ready-to-go lessons. Each lesson sequence is indicated by an enquiry question set out in a bold blue heading. At the same time, I want pupils to find this book informative and interesting. I hope they enjoy the stories I tell in here.