Two months ago, in a post asking 'Why isn't our education system working?', Joe Kirby argued a major problem was lack of rigour. Writing, not about the "intended" National Curriculum, but "the enacted school curriculum: what actually gets taught in classrooms," he argued :
Schemes of work in schools are admired based on how relevant and engaging they are as opposed to how rigorous and challenging they are. In principle, there is no trade-off between relevance and rigour; in practice, there is all the difference in the world..."
Better men than I have taken him to task on the speech and the curriculum, notably David Cannadine, Simon Schama and Richard Evans; Russell Tarr has refuted the attack on the Mr Men lesson. I want to take issue with another pedagogical aspect of the speech: I am deeply concerned by this attack on relevance: in teaching, where it is a prerequisite of learning; in history, where it is integral to the discipline.
relevance is a prerequisite of learning - and thus, of rigour
A study conducted in American science lessons reinforces this message and identifies the impact of perceived relevance on motivation and subject choice. In a randomised controlled trial, Hulleman and Harackiewicz demonstrated that encouraging students to make connections between their lives and what they were learning in science "Increased interest in science and course grades for students with low success expectations." They particularly underlined the importance of this for disadvantaged students who "May not perceive, or may have a harder time perceiving, relevance and value in their schoolwork." They also noted that "Interest is a more powerful predictor of future choices than prior achievement or demographic variables," something particularly important for history teachers.
If students believe they are being presented with material which is irrelevant to them and their lives, they are unlikely to take an interest in it and so to retain it. If students feel something about what they learn (the despair of a slave, the excitement of the start of the Renaissance, the momentum of the Nazi takeover of power), they are far more likely to remember it. And this is particularly appropriate for students who may not immediately perceive the meaning of the material they are being offered.
What this looks like in practice:
The underlying sentiment is clear: the subject lacks meaning or connection to their lives. This was a challenging, wonderful group of individuals with a huge amount to offer and they didn't see any point in learning history.
I spent an entire term 'off-piste,' covering the scheme of work only incidentally, examining historical and philosophical dilemmas which exemplified the importance of history. We looked at problems like what caused the London riots as historians; not only did this lead to fascinating discussion, it inspired Zelal to visit a police station to ask for arrest statistics. (I wrote a long description of this campaign and have cut it out to save for another post).
Three months later, the relevance and importance of history were entrenched in their minds - then I aimed for rigour. The first thing I got them to do was to write and then rewrite essays on the causes of the London riots. Throughout the rest of the year, I kept underscoring the relevance of what we were learning, but also pushed them as hard as I could. Students worked exceptionally hard and ended up with far higher levels and far greater engagement in history. Nineteen students picked history for GCSE at the end of the year, a rate three times the school average.
when we learn history, we seek relevance
To offer one example, Jeremy McInerney's notes in his course on Ancient Athens: "The Greeks established democracy, valued the rule of law, and articulated definitions of freedom and virtue. At the same time they owned slaves, denied women a public voice, and asserted their racial superiority... They were a complex, complicated civilization, and we are their descendants... By engaging with the Greeks, we may come to understand our own world more fully."
*Almost all the remaining photos in this blog are student responses to a question I include on their half-termly reflection sheets, which is adapted from the work of Hulleman and Harackiewicz cited earlier: How is the history we have learned useful or relevant to you/to modern life?
Not just Athens though - we can learn more about how multicultural societies rise and fall from Convivencia Spain, trace the fear of the 'undeserving poor' from Elizabethan Poor Laws, consider the importance of individual liberty through the Putney Debates. Every aspect of history has relevance to some aspect of our lives today, it is intrinsic to the subject. Once you highlight this way of seeing, students will do the same: two years ago, in her first lesson on the Cold War, Penelope spontaneously likened its proxy conflicts to the Byzantine Empire's system of client states (she was someone who did choose History GCSE).
If Mr Gove believes, as it appears he does, history should be relevant to students, attacking teachers who show this relevance seems counter-productive.
when we learn history we acquire habits of mind which serve us well elsewhere
Willingham, ever reasonable, also noted that activities appropriate for experts may be justified for other reasons- he particularly notes motivation (pp.142-3) - he just cautions teachers to be mindful that the result is likely to be motivation, rather than deep learning of a topic.
In sum, if skills are to transfer (and Willingham doesn't say this is a bad idea, he says it's much harder than we imagine), if students are to be motivated, then we could and should be noting the relevance of history.
If teachers need to highlight the relevance of the subject, the topic or the habits of mind this builds, then they need space and support to do so.
If there is another solution to engaging students, getting them learning, I'd love to hear it - but it is not rigour alone, nor discipline alone. These are important. But they force compliance, not a love of learning - they are temporary student. In history's case, a solution relying on these approaches alone is likely to lose us the student at 14. In English, there is, of course, compulsion to continue studying - but we risk a deeper disengagement with Shakespeare, or reading, let's say.
We are dealing with children - wonderful, articulate, brilliant children, but children nonetheless. Let's not condemn teachers attempting to make what they are learning relevant to them. Let's be critical about the approach we take, let's be wary of approaches which inject relevance at the expense of learning or rigour. But let us not pretend removing the relevance and relying on rigour alone is a solution.
Let us, instead, engage our students in that rigour and work with them to find the meaning in the curriculum and the desire to excel - rather than pretending we can impose excellence upon them.
This blog post has grown and been split at least three ways; next week I will talk about what the history curriculum looks like - and what it might look like.