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Examining secondary history students’ notions of historical significance when using millennia-wide ‘frameworks’

Jim Carroll

History teachers, teacher-researchers, government agencies and history education academics in England often report that students are frequently incapable of producing complex, developmental narratives over long time scales. Furthermore, while some students may have some command of certain long-term thematic strands – for example ‘medicine through time’ – few appear able to incorporate additional intertwining themes to their overviews.  Students’ lack of a usable ‘framework’ may be a consequence of curricula which regularly present history as a series of sequential, episodic and self-contained topics. For example, 11 year-old students might hurtle from studying the Roman Empire straight to the Norman Conquest. Students are then often expected to implicitly aggregate these episodes into a coherent overview. This approach might disadvantage students resulting in them being unable to apply the methodological apparatus of the discipline of history to the past as a whole.

To counteract these issues, Denis Shemilt has recommended teachers using synoptic, millennia-wide ‘frameworks’ of knowledge. In this view, ‘frameworks’ should be rapidly taught at the beginning of a curriculum; allow the integration of different thematic strands; be driven by low-resolution generalisations about what life was like for ‘most people’; involve temporal and spatial scales covering the whole of humanity; and present the past as a continuum with the present as the ‘leading edge’. This ‘framework’ should then act as an open, usable and adaptable structure which facilitates learning and is adapted in response to new knowledge. For example, Shemilt has recommended investigating how such frameworks might affect students’ notions of the National Curriculum key concept of historical significance.

With some notable exceptions, however, practising history teachers have appeared sceptical of the benefits of such an approach. Their reasons for this vary, but appear to share some areas of common disciplinary concern. For example, some have critiqued such ‘macro-to-micro’ approaches for their inattentiveness to historical evidence; their reliance on grand narratives which might not be subjected to the same status of evidential enquiry; and their impersonality which might not provide the personalised ‘hooks’ onto which students can attach wider-arching narratives.

These issues seemed congruent with my own experiences while teaching history to 12-13 year-old students at an inner-city comprehensive school. I therefore designed and used a framework on the history of slavery from the Neolithic period to the present day. In designing the framework, I attempted to respond to some history practitioners’ implied criticisms. I then conducted an exploratory case study investigating how the framework might have been manifested in my students’ subsequent thinking regarding the historical significance of the Haitian Revolution. My aim was to contribute to professional curricular theorising about what constitutes a framework in practice as well as characterising the curricular goals that history teachers might ultimately hope to achieve when using such instruments.

Possible curricular goals for frameworks I characterised in the students’ work included some producing coherent, millennia-wide narratives. Furthermore, some appeared to identify the present as the ‘leading edge of the past’ and therefore frameworks might have the potential to make historical events seem more relevant to students’ lives. Finally, some students’ evaluations of historical significance may have been assisted by the substantive knowledge afforded by the framework: particularly when assessing the Haitian Revolution’s historical distinctiveness; its consequences beyond national borders; and its modern-day resonance.

Additional studies are required to further theorise the curricular goals that history practitioners might hope to achieve through adopting frameworks. Furthermore, the potential curricular goals characterised in this study might act a heuristic to frame further investigations into whether these manifestations can be directly attributed to the frameworks; and if so the extent and efficacy of the frameworks’ impact. Furthermore, additional larger-scale research regarding synoptic, curriculum-wide frameworks is necessary. This study, like others previously, was performed over a series of lessons and had a thematic focus (albeit on a humanity-wide scale).

The antipathy regarding using grand narratives in schooling has been borne of a healthy scepticism due to their predisposition to be ideologically instrumentalised. But episodic depth studies are no more impervious to such appropriation. Thematically, temporally or geographically parochial approaches that deemphasise our common humanity may result in students misleadingly conceptualising history as a continuously antagonistic, Manichean struggle. Consequently, curriculum designers must continue to theorise how history students might best juggle the interplay of overview and depth when constructing their historical interpretations.

The study briefly outlined is detailed more thoroughly in my paper recently published in the Curriculum Journal: which also contains full references.