‘But I don’t know what a link looks like, Miss.’ Helping Year 7 to express their ideas about how causes of William winning at Hastings link together

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 Woodcock (2005) inspired me to try and improve my teaching of causation with Year 7. 

I always find September rather exciting. A woody, leafy smell mixes with the crisp scent of pristine textbooks and unstolen marker pens. Class lists lay neatly on printer trays, yearning to be transformed into creative seating plans that promise impeccable behavior, despite what colleagues say Jenny was like in Year 8.

The honeymoon usually ends with me, an uninspiring and unruly Year 7 class, and a set of battered textbooks (“no money for a new set this year, I’m afraid”), beached up together on the Sussex Coast, and not-all-that-ready for yet another round of Hastings.

Don’t get me wrong. The drama of events leading up to, and including, the Battle of Hastings, is utterly beguiling. It’s just that I have limited contact time before my Head of Department wants me to murder Becket, and despite the rich and fascinating details that the beginning of the Norman Conquest offers, I have to make sure Year 7 understand it each and every time. Which means that the Byzantine adventures of Hardrada are probably off-limits, even to the sparkiest of classes.

So this September I decided to mix things up a bit, whilst trying my best to ensure that Jenny doesn’t mix up Harald with Harold. How can I improve my teaching of ‘Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?’ after nearly a decade of here-we-go-up-and-down-Senlac-again?  The best place to start, I reasoned, was with a problem.

One of the hurdles that my untrained Year 7 historians meet, year after year, is difficulty in talking about, and writing about, how causes link together to explain why William was victorious at Hastings. A curly haired student called Sol, doodling absent-mindedly on his dog-eared textbook, neatly summed up the issue last year: ‘but I don’t know what a link looks like, Miss’.

Sol has a point. This would be the first time that many of these students have ever thought about how causes might link together to bring about an event. How might I go about helping my students to consider this concept for the very first time?

I decided to call upon the wisdom of James Woodcock, someone I was lucky enough to work with during my PGCE year. Woodcock’s seminal article on how ‘the linguistic can release the conceptual’ has made an indelible impact on the history teaching community, and his ideas inform every single causal enquiry I teach, either implicitly or explicitly. Here’s why:

‘Woodcock is asking a new question. He is asking whether a direct focus on specific vocabulary can actually develop an understanding of the nature of historical causation and a facility with causal reasoning. For example, there are so many synonyms for the word ‘cause’ precisely because there are so many ways in which something can be ‘caused’.  If the only words students use to describe causation are ‘cause’ or ‘reason’ they can never produce a meaningful analysis.’

Woodcock’s suggestion that, by enriching students’ language he can enrich their ability to think at higher levels, is certainly a compelling one, and one that I thought could help me with my Year 7 problem. Woodcock uses the word ‘latent’ to exemplify the opportunity that an increased causal vocabulary can bring to students’ causal analysis:

‘I can remember when my GCSE teacher used the word ‘latent’ to describe the tensions in Soviet society preceding the revolutions…this was a revelation: not only was ‘latent’ a word that I had never encountered before, but the ideas contained within it were also new to me.  Suddenly, the idea of causation as something more than a simplistic, linear chain of events started to make sense.’

Perhaps, I reflected, one of reasons why Sol was struggling with linking causes was because he didn’t have the language facility to form ideas about how actions, beliefs and context are integrated in bringing about historical events.

So what might the process of playing with different ways of expressing a link unearth in terms of vocabulary? Some synonyms are as follows:

  • (Linked to)
  • Connected to
  • Associated with
  • United with
  • Related to
  • Tied up with
  • Bound up with
  • Combined with
  • Coupled with
  • Joined with
  • Teamed with
  • Melded with
  • Tacked on
  • Intergrated with
  • Blended with
  • Mixed with
  • Paired with

What I soon realised was that the word ‘link’ was an umbrella term for describing a variety of different ways that actions, beliefs and context interact. Perhaps, I mused, its imprecision is unhelpful. Would exposing pupils to ‘related to’ and ‘united with’ help them to think about the ways in which Harold and William’s actions, their beliefs, and the context interacted? Would it help them to distinguish between weaker links (associated with, related to) and stronger links (united with, bound up with)? Having done so, would pupils then begin to understand the umbrella ‘to link’ by studying its parts?

It was worth a try. To help the pupils with the linking words I extended Woodcock’s idea in a different direction, by providing images to help pupil contrast the different types and roles of links by using the analogy of a chain:

Links Picture

We’ve just killed off Harold and we’re now busy battling with bias at Bayeux. It will soon be time to write up our ideas in our first ever essays – the proof will be in the PEE(L)? 

Download the resource: Thinking about links resource

Main Reference: Woodcock, J. (2005) ‘Does the linguistic release the conceptual? Helping Year 10 to improve their causal reasoning’ in Teaching History, 119, Language Edition, pp.5-14.  (See also the editorial). Find it HERE.

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