I’ve been using some time this summer to get on with some reading that I wasn’t able to do during my PGCE year, and one of the books I am working through is Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam. This post is a reflection on Chapter 3 of that book, in which I’m trying to reconcile the advice given by Wiliam with what, in the early stage of my career, I feel good practice looks like in History.
While reading this chapter, the following quote stood out.
‘As teachers, we are not interested in our students’ ability to do what we have taught. We are only interested in their ability to apply their newly acquired knowledge to a similar but different context.’ (p60)
How accurate is this for history teaching? How realistic is it?
History is a knowledge-based subject. While second order concepts have importance in understanding students’ ability to understand the domain, they aren’t what the curriculum is based around. Otherwise the National Curriculum would have periods set aside for Interpretations or Change and Continuity or Cause and Consequence, rather than, say, 1066-1509. History is defined by knowing stuff and being able to do things with that stuff. But the stuff is central. Wiliam states that success criteria need to be separated from the context of the learning: they should be about the doing things with the stuff. And being able to apply the stuff to ‘similar but different’ contexts.
This leads me to two thoughts.
One, it lends itself towards activity based method of planning. Thinking about what they will be doing in ways that can be formatively assessed, and not what the content is that they need to know. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, and it might be acceptable at KS3 where the curriculum is vague, but it certainly isn’t applicable at GCSE or A-Level where content is king. If they have to know how the Gulf of Tonkin Incident was manipulated into a cause for military action, that’s what you’ll teach. And that’s what you’ll assess. The success criteria for that is understanding that piece of content, not whether or not it can be presented in different ways, or if it then sheds light on the causes of war somewhere else. Contexts are always unique, and trying to apply it elsewhere takes valuable time from the body of knowledge that is required by the exam. You can’t have a contextless question in history. At least, not one that is answered properly.
Second, it suggests that second order concepts are what history should be teaching. If you can learn about cause in the French Revolution, you can then apply the principles to the First World War. To me, this turns a method of measuring understanding (the concepts) into the aim of teaching itself.
Ultimately history comes back to being a content-based subject. Substantive knowledge is the blood that pumps through it. So what does this actually mean for learning intentions and success criteria in a historical context, if the criteria and context of learning are part of the same whole.
The intention/objective: this will almost always be content based, and best framed as an enquiry. How far were religious reasons the primary cause of the Spanish Armada? How did King Harold die? This might change if you’re doing a specific skills unit, say with new Year 7’s, or teaching exam skills to GCSE or A-Level students (yet in both cases, the skills being taught will not be taught independent of content).
The success criteria: this has the scope to be broader and skill based, such as source analysis or writing a written answer or improving an example piece – but it has to go alongside the substantive. I cannot judge the success of the first question above if they don’t know of other reasons, their relative importance, the context of the time – and this would go hand in hand with success criteria that measures, say, evaluating competing factors against each other, or using evidence in support of a claim. Both are transferable history skills that don’t exist in a vacuum and I can’t then measure whether, say, the 11 Years Tyranny was the primary cause of the English Civil War through their ability to use evidence in support of a claim because they don’t know the content of that.
This brings me back to the root of my difficulty with the original claim – that we are not interested in their ability to do what we have taught. Surely that is what we are interested in – but maybe not the only thing we are interested in? In history, surely success criteria has a substantive role to play, not just a conceptual one? And is this just stating the obvious?