‘But look Miss -here – I wrote down loads of facts.’ Helping Year 12 to think about the quality of their knowledge

This is one in a series of weekly blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post ends with a practical resource or activity. Today I show how an article by Hammond (2014)  inspired me to encourage Year 12 to re-consider what it means to successfully substantiate their causal claims. 

Scott, pimply and politely incredulous, pointed to the beefy paragraphs in his essay on Pitt the Younger. He then turned the page and gestured overleaf, where more paragraphs huddled together, shocked at the ‘C’ grade that had been scrawled underneath.

Scott had clearly used a significant chunk of the course textbook to make his case that Pitt was not a mince pie due to his political skill. He had painstakingly (and, in terms of grammar and spelling, painfully) tried to substantiate all of his causes of Pitt’s political survival with umpteen facts. Yet something was missing. His sentences felt dogged and desultory. Scott’s style was more bulldog than border collie when it came to the liveliness, dexterity and reach of his writing.

Kate Hammond, a Head of History in Cambridgeshire, noticed something similar with the writing of some of her Year 11 students. To extend dog references to an excruciating degree, she was not unlike a bloodhound with a bone in her attempt to find out what distinguished the best answers from the weaker ones. This was not an easy task: according to her GCSE markscheme, essays she saw as stronger could arguably be placed at the same level as weaker ones. Leaving her markscheme aside for the purposes of her MEd research, Hammond decided to examine her students’ work with a view to theorising the underlying properties of knowledge that were indirectly contributing to success.

As Hammond acknowledges, many in the history education community have acknowledged the interplay and interdependence of substantive historical knowledge and second-order knowledge. Hammond was asking a new question, however, which went further than simply stating that substantive knowledge enables conceptual understanding. She asked: ‘what happens when – as they marshal material or advance conclusions – students use substantive historical knowledge implicitly?’ Her tentative conclusions include the following:

It seemed that better pieces of historical analysis did not rest on the superior quantity of substantive historical points that a student deployed, but that there was some sort of deeper quality to this knowledge that was allowing them to use it in clever ways….It also seemed to me that students were displaying, in indirect yet powerful ways, different types or forms of substantive historical knowledge.

Hammond’s reflections about how different layers of knowledge were making effective historical analysis possible led her to create a diagram in which she outlined the different forms of substantive knowledge that students possessed when writing their essays. This diagram is a powerful and instructive synthesis of her work;  do download the article if you haven’t already.

In the diagram, an inner circle represents students’ knowledge of the essay topic, a middle circle represents period knowledge and an outer circle represents wider historical knowledge such as relevant knowledge of systems, characteristics and ideas.Hammond found that the more successful students seemed to hold multiple pieces of substantive historical knowledge in mind (from across all three circles) and used them to ‘flavour’ the claims they made.

So far, so fascinating. Yet where does that leave poor, bewildered Scott? I began to get the guilty feeling that Scott’s ‘C’ grade had more to do with me than to any innate dog-like characteristics. Hammond’s research had led her to question a teaching approach that is driven by mark-schemes rather than by a determination to build deeper and more wide-ranging knowledge. Had my own narrow focus on the exam deprived Scott of opportunities to build up such knowledge? Had Scott had ample opportunity to build up such knowledge across his school career? 

My guilt only grew:

How much time do we, as history teachers, devote to ensuring that students are building up knowledge on all three scales? What tactics are we employing to ensure this week’s topic knowledge becomes next week’s period knowledge and next year’s wider historical knowledge?…How much time have we invested, throughout students’ earlier secondary schooling, in considering what forms of substantive historical knowledge our students would later need in order to ‘flavour’ their points in a particular context?

As Hammond points out, history educator Fordham has suggested that regular chronological tests might begin to help build some of this knowledge, with end-of-year exams requiring students to revisit knowledge built throughout the year, making use of it in new contexts. Other history teachers, such as Dennis (TH164) and Stanford (TH168), later demonstrated how these types of assessments have been useful in building pupils’ substantive knowledge. I have begun to tackle the task of regular chronological testing, through the use of Google forms,  HERE. Yet I wanted to do more. Hammond again showed me the way, by asking the question: ‘Should we model this ‘flavouring’ as we teach, showing students how to bring in wider knowledge in order to illuminate its role more sharply?’

I had decided early on in my career that modelling effective writing and analysis was an invaluable way to help sixth-form students to improve their essays. Here was an opportunity to do more of that: to make the implicit explicit and to try to help Scott to see that it wasn’t the number of facts that posed the problem: it was the lack of depth. Rather than playing a variety of notes and scales, he was stuck with C major. Where was C minor? Where were the flats and the sharps?

Inspired by Hammond, I decided to use different shaped circles to represent different scales of knowledge used by those students who had written what I considered to be the strongest essays. I used different colours to represent different content of knowledge (distinguishing knowledge of political systems from knowledge of people’s ideas and thinking, for example; see Figure 2 in Hammond’s article HERE). Here is just one example of this in action – I intend to use these circles regularly during essay feedback and modelling -to remind my students of the importance of flavouring claims with more than one scale:

Knowledge Flavour

I am now teaching an A-Level course on the Reformation, and recently highlighted the following different ‘scales’ of knowledge on a student’s essay:

Counsell has distinguished between students’ ‘fingertip’ knowledge (temporary, detailed substantive working knowledge necessary to hold in ready memory when working on a topic) and their ‘residue’ knowledge (longer-lasting substantive knowledge of period structures and characteristics that needs to outlast a particular topic focus). Here, we have seen Hammond distinguish between different scales of knowledge. Through the work of Counsell and Hammond, I now try to encourage more complex patterns of knowledge in students’ essays, listening out for (excuse the piano analogy) their use of black keys as well as white, for C major and C minor, for sharps and flats. Perhaps Scott can then develop an ear for such patterns himself, rather than hammering out one endless, repetitive scale.

Download my extremely simple example resource here: Circles of Knowledge Resource

Main Reference:  Hammond, K. (2014) ‘The knowledge that ‘flavours’ a claim: towards building and assessing historical knowledge on three scales’ in Teaching History, 157, Assessment Edition, pp.18-24. Find it HERE.

Other References: 

Counsell, C.  (2000) ‘Historical knowledge and historical skills: a distracting dichotomy’ in J. Arthur and R. Phillips (eds), Issues in History Teaching, (London: Routledge), pp. 54-71.

Fordham, M. (2013) ‘Oh Brave New World without those levels in’t: where now for Key Stage 3 assessment in history?’ in Teaching History, 153: Curriculum Evolution Supplement, pp. 16-23. Find it HERE.

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