One of the great things about working at Michaela is watching the rapid transformation of our Year 7 pupils. From their baptism of fire induction in the first week, through to the end of the summer term, our youngest cohort improves hugely in terms of habits, behaviour and confidence.
The same is true when teaching them history. I was really impressed by their latest essays, particularly from the lowest ability groups, that I thought it would be useful for me to blog about how we got there.
We are so lucky in our department, in that we are given the space and time to talk about what to teach and how to make sure it sticks. Unlike the monstrous regimes of data meetings, school wide marking policies, or discussing the latest diktat from on high induced by ineffectual accountability regimes, we are actually given the space to talk about what to teach our Year 7s. We are also so lucky in that our Year 7s get three hours of history a week – which means we get to spend much longer embedding knowledge and helping the pupils practice.
That process of constantly thinking has led us to where we are now. We have lots to learn, and we are by no means there yet. My colleague Jonny has outlined some of this thinking in his blog, in particular the focus we have on the ‘horizontal’ or ‘domain’ specific vocabulary needed to make sense of a historical era or epoch and the ‘vertical’ vocabulary which is needed to analyse a specific historical debate, issue or question. Some might call the latter ‘conceptual’ vocabulary – tools which enable pupils to discern change and continuity, causation, significance or interpretative elements of the past. I think that can be quite limiting. While ‘concepts’ are vital components of the historian’s tool kit, it is important to remember that any historical question is rooted in a specific domain of knowledge, even if there are conceptual similarities across time. The causes of the enlightenment will need a radically different conceptual toolkit to the causes of the First World War, despite both questions being causation focused, for example. We would therefore expand ‘vertical’ vocabulary to include all of the thematic and conceptual terms needed to answer a specific question and to understand a particular period. We try to choose questions which allow pupils to master a broad domain of history, without the tapered and conceptual enquiry questions which often mean pupils only remember knowledge which is needed for that specific enquiry. Our Year 7s answer the following questions: ‘What led to the development of Egyptian/Greek/ Roman civilisation?’ ‘What led to the development of the English nation by 1066?’ & ‘What were the main challenges to the king’s power in late medieval England?’
How do we get Year 7 writing analytically?
Writing analytically is, of course, not a generic skill, but an ability to bring relevant horizontal and vertical (conceptual) vocabulary to bear on a specific question, which draws upon the wider context of the relevant domain. Many make the mistake of assuming this ‘analysis’ is divorced from the wider domain of knowledge. This wider domain and the vocabulary to make sense of it needs to be explicitly instructed. In essence, we do the following:
- Use of Knowledge Organisers to embed key dates, people and events as well as analytical vocabulary needed to analyse a specific question.
- Lesson content which challenges all pupils, with extra content used to enable the high ability pupils to draw upon more examples in their essays.
- Pre-empting common misconceptions and more practice for the weaker pupils.
- Constant repetition and drilling of the key horizontal and vertical vocabulary within lessons.
Pupils need to be constantly exposed to good historical writing. We are doing them a disservice by assuming that even with enough knowledge, pupils will be able to conjure up a well written and historically sound essay. It is fair to say, that most of the main historical ‘points of clash’ in a debate have already been discerned. A pupil in Year 7 is not going to break any new ground in terms of historical scholarship. We, the experts, need to guide our pupils onto the right path of analysis (for that specific topic). Critics may say that this is too prescriptive, or that we should just teach them how to ‘think critically’, and analysis will follow naturally.
I think we need to be teaching them the main arguments for an essay as explicitly as we teach the dates, people, and events needed to construct the essay.
Patently, as the pupils acquire more knowledge and with our guidance they will come to realise that there is not necessarily a clear cut answer to historical questions. Our latest Year 7 essay was “What led to the development of the English nation by 1066?” This is clearly a question about causation. In most history classrooms, teachers will be getting the pupils to sift through card sorts, evaluating and synthesising the relative impact of different factors. There is nothing disingenuous about getting kids to evaluate the relative impact of causes on an event. However, the questions we need to ask are:
- Is this how historians really conduct their analysis? Do they approach every question with the same critical toolkit, or does each question require specific domain knowledge in order to answer that question and formulate that critical toolkit?
- Can our time in the classroom be better spent embedding knowledge and the structure of analytical writing, or getting them to discover the answers themselves – particularly in Year 7?
By the end of year 7, some of our pupils are able to prioritise causes and sequence them both chronologically and in order or importance. By Year 9, given the strong foundation they already have, we are able to develop their vertical vocabulary to include the ‘weight’ of different causes (latent causes, triggers, underlying causes, accelerators and pre-conditions).
Every time pupils write a paragraph, we give short and sharp feedback which the pupils then act upon immediately. Because the behaviour is so good, it also gives us time to go around and give verbal feedback to each pupil in the lesson itself. Their paragraph structure has remained the same since their first unit, with more examples and complex conclusions built in as time goes on. In the future we can flex and adapt this structure to meet the complex demands of historical questions later at KS3. In their final year 7 unit, we try and flex this foundational structure even more by looking at a question which incorporates change and continuity as well as causation. Below are some examples of the final essays they wrote for their Anglo-Saxon history unit. All essays were completed in 50 minutes entirely from memory. These are a selection from our high, middle and low ability groups.
Essay 1 – High Ability
Strengths: Excellent sense of period. She clearly understands the ideas of peace and conflict as pre-conditions for nation-building in the English context. It is also really pleasing to see clear references to her knowledge of religion, which is taught alongside history as a Humanities subject (see use of ‘monotheistic’ and her knowledge of the ‘Ten Commandments’. She also makes a link between King Alfred and King Hammarubi, from when she studied Ancient Mesopotamia.
Essay 2 – Middle Ability
Strengths: Correct chronological sequencing. Huge amounts of specific details recalled to strengthen her analysis. Eg. Correct dates of the Synod of Whitby, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people. This pupil has an excellent sense of period, with the essay drawing upon ideas from 597AD-1066, and with clear references to the development of the ‘heptarchy’ through comments about the development of a nascent identity through religion and clarity on the role of translation from Latin to West Saxon English as a vehicle for unification. She also makes links between her bigger concepts, by linking Alfred the Great’s penchant for translating great works and his leadership of Wessex during the Viking invasions.
Room for improvement: There is an implication that conflict was the key factor, but it is not explicit. As I suggested earlier, this is not necessarily a problem at this stage – particularly for such a broad question. These analytical structures will be taught in the subsequent late medieval unit.
Essay 3 (two paragraphs) – Middle Ability
Strengths: The strengths of a knowledge-rich curriculum are really highlighted with this pupil’s paragraph on conflict. Here the pupil makes reference to the Great Heathen Army, the Battle of Brunanburgh and even the campaigns of Edward the Elder and Aethelflaed. He also remembers the historical significance of Aethelflaed as one of the key women in English history. He also uses the correct Old English diphthong: Æ.
Room for improvement: He is evidently thinking in a thematic, rather than chronological way. It would have been much better had he had prioritised and ordered the disparate elements of warfare in a logical way.
Essay 4 (three paragraphs)- Low Ability
Strengths: Excellent clarity and prose. Use of various synonyms to highlight ‘importance’. Good links made to his religion lessons (monotheistic, Ten Commandments).
Room for improvement: Clearer explanation of why Offa’s coinage enabled him to project his authority and create a shared sense of loyalty, rather than just focusing on the economic element.