What does knowledge-rich really mean for the history teacher?

The History community – in fact, the teaching world in general – seems to have gone ‘knowledge-rich’ mad over the past year or so. Social media platforms and discussion groups seem to be awash with knowledge organisers and knowledge workbooks, and lots of techniques and strategies to recall, retain, retrieve and then write about knowledge.

We asked Aaron Wilkes and Richard McFahn, who both teach, write and lead PGCE courses, to pick this apart a little, discuss the term’s origins and explain what they think ‘knowledge-rich’ really means to a History teacher/department.

Aaron: The term ‘knowledge-rich’ seems to have come to the fore since the new Ofsted framework was announced in early 2019. Whilst I’m not sure the new framework actually mentions the term ‘knowledge-rich’ it certainly mentions the word ‘knowledge’ a lot – over 80 times in fact. From then on, the teaching community was buzzing with all sorts of chatter relating to all things knowledge-based, knowledge-led or knowledge-rich.

Richard: This trend towards ‘knowledge-rich’ has been in the air for quite a while. It now seems that not a day goes by without someone asking for, or sharing a particular ‘knowledge organiser’ in a Facebook history teaching group. However, ‘knowledge-rich’ in England actually originates from changes made in educational policy. Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, both Education Ministers in the coalition government, pushed for a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum via the reforms they introduced between 2010 and 2016. Both appeared to be highly influenced by the American writer, E D Hirsch. Gove stated in a speech to the RSA in 2009 that he was determined to overhaul the curriculum, and said that the acquisition of knowledge lay at the centre of it. And Gibb wrote in 2015, “Perhaps more importantly, Hirsch’s arguments provided us with a compelling social justice case with which to argue for a knowledge-rich curriculum”. Hirsch’s arguments that all students need to acquire core knowledge, resonated deeply with them. They were then determined to drive this ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum via the policy changes they introduced. When you stand back and look, you can really see this in the latest GCSE and A Level specs, which appear loaded with this ‘core knowledge.’

Aaron: I think many teachers, when they first heard the term ‘knowledge-rich’, simply responded with “I already do that!” And I can understand that response, I get it. I think many thought that their schemes of learning are packed with knowledge – and had managed to equip many cohorts to get through GCSEs and A levels that require a substantial amount of knowledge. However, I think that if that was the extent of your understanding of what ‘knowledge-rich’ meant – that it is simply the ‘stuff’, the facts and the figures – that students need to know to get them through a History exam or two in Years 11 and 13, then I’m not quite sure you were quite understanding the term correctly.

In response, I also think that many teachers, and the departments they work in, quickly tried to find a way of being able to say – or even prove – that they were knowledge-rich. I think this is what led to the creation of so many knowledge-organisers and knowledge workbooks – and those road maps that are stuck on walls and in exercise books showing the ‘knowledge’ they do over a three-year Key Stage 3 or their ‘five year journey’. Indeed, it seems that for some places, a knowledge-rich curriculum has been reduced to knowledge organisers, to the idea that “yes, we are knowledge-rich, and I can prove it because I have knowledge organisers and we test students on them”.

In fact, Ofsted themselves are adamant that knowledge-rich shouldn’t simply mean this – their handbook even says that it “must not be reduced to, or confused with, simply memorising facts. Inspectors will be alert to unnecessary or excessive attempts to simply prompt pupils to learn glossaries or long lists of disconnected facts”.

Richard: I’m glad Ofsted now appears to suggest that knowledge-rich shouldn’t just mean list learning.  They now define progress in their handbook as, “knowing more, remembering more and being able to do more.”  This seems clear. We must remember though, that this is just one definition of progression. We get a very different definition of what progression is from history specific scholarship. Lee and Shemilt, for example, who researched this area in the early 2000s, suggested that progression was, “…the way pupils’ ideas about History and the past develop” (Teaching History, Issue 113, 2003). This definition is based on ideas and thinking rather than on knowing and remembering.

However, if you read the latest Ofsted handbook and framework, it appears to be influenced by memory and knowledge retention. It provides a definition of learning, as “an alteration in long term memory, if nothing is altered in long term memory then nothing has been learnt.” To me, this raises questions.  How long are students supposed to remember more for? An hour? A week? A month? A year? Forever? What about other elements of learning?  What form of knowledge are students supposed to be remembering?  And it’s not just me who thinks this. Cognitive Scientist, Daniel Willingham critiqued this definition in 2017 (http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/on-the-definition-of-learning). If school leaders take Ofsted’s definition at face value, without having a deep understanding of how subject disciplines work, they may well want their teachers to teach list learning because this is what they think Ofsted are looking for.

If we are to fully understand what ‘knowledge-rich’ means in history, then we need to think more deeply about what we actually mean by historical knowledge. To the untrained eye, historical knowledge is simply ‘substantive knowledge’ – the substance of history. The facts and dates and agreed events of the past. But if we just teach substantive knowledge, then perhaps we are (to paraphrase the words of David Lowenthal) not really teaching history at all, but teaching ‘heritage’.

In my opinion, to teach ‘history’ we should fuse substantive knowledge with ‘disciplinary’ knowledge. Disciplinary knowledge is made up of the organising concepts of history: change and continuity, cause and consequence, similarity and difference. It also includes teaching pupils that history is constructed from source material and these constructions are interpretations of the past.  To teach disciplinary knowledge involves history teachers knowing what types of analytical thinking students need to develop within these second order concepts.

So, historical knowledge is made up of both substantive and disciplinary knowledge.  To ensure that our students get a truly ‘knowledge-rich’ history curriculum, the history teacher should help them acquire both forms of historical knowledge.  And, in the limited time available to them, teachers need to decide what and how much substantive knowledge needs to be taught, and what type of disciplinary analysis this knowledge should be taught through.

Aaron: It’s always stuck with me what Mike Maddison, former HMI of Schools and National Lead for history, 2008-2015, said a few years ago at a conference I attended – that the application of knowledge is as important as the acquisition. I’ve always tried to hold onto that in the lessons I teach and the resources I prepare – that it’s not just important that they know ‘stuff’, it’s also just as important that they can do something with what they know. I wonder whether, in some quarters, there has been an over-emphasis on simply acquiring and retaining the knowledge, without building in opportunities to apply it, build on it, and connect any new knowledge with existing knowledge.

Richard: I think you are right here Aaron, there does seem to have been a focus on recall and retrieval. Teachers need to know how to sequence learning so the substantive knowledge they want students to have is actually acquired. So, in terms of substantive knowledge, it is a good idea for the history department to know what stories they want their students to know by the end of the course. If we take KS3, if you want them to know the story of power in Britain, you need to consider what elements of that story you want students to know across time.

Aaron: Yes, so a really good example could be one where a department is teaching a Medieval unit and they focus on an enquiry relating to the power of Medieval Kings.  So, this might focus on characteristics good medieval monarchs needed to rule effectively: keeping the barons happy, defending the people and winning wars, looking wealthy and powerful etc. You could then assess a number of monarchs and evaluate whether or not they had these characteristics. Later on (perhaps next term), when you teach your power aspect in the Early Modern Unit, you could start by getting your students to recall the characteristics of a medieval monarch, before you explore your enquiry into Henry VIII. You can then assess how similar or different Henry was compared to medieval monarchs. It’s a little like dropping threads in each unit that you pick up in the next, before dropping and picking them up again. This way your students will see the big story and they will be connecting new knowledge with their existing knowledge. 

Richard: Yes, the idea of building up knowledge and returning to it is absolutely key when planning something that’s ‘knowledge-rich’. And the same applies to disciplinary knowledge. Teachers need to know what types of thinking they want to develop when it comes to say, interpretations. So, we might want them to know what an interpretation is, work out the message of an interpretation, know that they should compare an interpretation to the available evidence (to see what has been omitted, perhaps) and consider the purpose of the interpretation and realise that each interpretation was made in a particular context. Of course, you cannot do all of this thinking in one interpretation rich enquiry. So, the skilled history teacher might, for example, visit the message of an interpretation and its relationship with the available evidence. Then, the next time they teach an interpretations rich enquiry, they could introduce a new element of interpretations work.  A well-planned curriculum would see all of the elements of interpretations would have been taught and repeated.  This means that history teachers need a deep knowledge of the substantive topics and of the disciplinary knowledge they want their students to acquire.

What does knowledge-rich really mean for the history teacher with Aaron Wilkes and Richard McFahn.

Aaron Wilkes is one of the leading history authors in school publishing as well as being a History teacher at St James Academy, Dudley. Aaron is the author of the new KS3 History 4th Edition series as well as part of our Oxford AQA GCSE History team.

Richard McFahn is a history teacher and Lecturer in History Education at the University of Sussex, Richard also founded the websites www.historyresourcecupboard.com and www.historyhomework.com that provide history resources for teachers.

One thought on “What does knowledge-rich really mean for the history teacher?

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