Children’s ideas about what it means ‘to get better’ at history: a view from the UK

Haydn, Terry and Harris, Richard (2008) Children’s ideas about what it means ‘to get better’ at history: a view from the UK. In, Empirical Research on HIstory Learning - International Society for History Didactics, Tutzing, Germany, 08 - 10 Sep 2008.


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The past three decades have seen radical changes in policymakers’, educationalists’ and history educators’ ideas about what it means ‘to get better’ in history as a school subject in the UK. Before the advent of a formal, standardised ‘National Curriculum for History’ in 1991, the idea of progression in the subject was loosely defined, not precisely articulated, and seen generally in terms of an aggregation of subject content knowledge, assessed largely through extended writing based on pupil comprehension and recall of what they had been taught. The inception of a National Curriculum for History brought about a much more clearly defined framework for progression in the subject. The introduction of formal (and quite complex) models for measuring pupils’ progress in history, and changing and contested ideas about progression in history as a school subject occasioned vigorous debate, both between politicians, historians and history teacher educators, and between teacher educators themselves.

However, less attention has focused on pupils’ ideas about what it means to get better at history, and the extent of their understanding of the models of progression which have been developed in recent years. This study, funded by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the body responsible for the ‘health’ of the school curriculum in the UK, was part of a review of history as a school subject which aimed to develop more insight into pupil perceptions of history.

One strand of the enquiry asked pupils to explain in their own words what they thought it meant ‘to get better at history’. A series of focus group interviews involving 160 pupils between the ages of 11 and 14 across twelve schools in London, the South Coast and the East of England, revealed that many pupils had very little understanding of the models for progression for history which have been put in place in UK schools, and quite vague and inchoate ideas about what it means to make progress in history. Some pupils saw it as primarily a matter of the aggregation of subject content knowledge, others related it to a combination of acquiring more subject content knowledge and getting better at writing essays. Only a minority of pupils, in some of the schools involved, were able to explain progression in terms which in any way reflected the models of progression laid down in official curriculum specifications, and as expounded in adult discourse about history education.

It is possible that many teachers have perhaps made assumptions about the extent to which pupils understand what they have to do to make progress in history, and that more time and thought might be invested in this aspect of history education in order to improve pupil motivation and attainment in history.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Related URLs:
Keywords: history teaching, pupil perspective, history education
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2361 Curriculum
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB1603 Secondary Education. High schools
Divisions : University Structure - Pre August 2011 > School of Education > Leadership, School Improvement and Effectiveness
ePrint ID: 63057
Accepted Date and Publication Date:
August 2008Delivered
Date Deposited: 10 Sep 2008
Last Modified: 31 Mar 2016 12:47

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