A Journey from Fractured Knowledge to a Hinterland of Contextual Understanding

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Colleagues Tom Cox and Jake Watts discuss how they tried to use the written work of historians to help deepen their students’ contextual knowledge. The results of their study are most revealing.

Identifying issues with GCSE students’ knowledge

A theme that is becoming more prominent within education is a growing fetishisation with brevity.

The content pressures placed on curricula has led to a growing prioritisation, certainly at KS4, of simply jumping into course content in an attempt to make an unwieldy content load manageable.

This burden has led to some schools, in the recent past, choosing to undertake a three-year KS4.

The connections between these disparate strands of historical thought seem to be bony and abstract.

These strands, in many cases also became merged, with many students failing to appreciate the intricacies of difference between the Renaissance and the Medieval Period as they possessed no distinct image or sense of specific historical period for either era.

To repurpose. Based on the wonderful work of Mike Hill, we concluded that our students imagined pasts; their creation and visualisation of the historical past, was limited by our failings to plant the substantive seeds of knowledge in the fertile ground of a contextual sense of period; to world-build.

Our students could not picture the historical place or period they were studying, which limited their ability to think across time periods and consider the extent of change.

This hindered their creation of what Alex Benger has called a thickened sense of period .

We fell into the trap of assuming that students understood the history we were teaching them – therefore making assumptions about the depth and colour of their imagined pasts.

This assumptive divide between our own imagined pasts and students made conceptual historical thinking even more of a challenge. For our children with greater cultural capital, the problem was not as significant.

They found it easier to attach new knowledge to their existing substantive and conceptual schema.

Our lower-attaining students however, were afflicted to a greater extent with the fractured understanding our lessons cultivated.

We had reflected that the colour was missing from our curricula painting, and resolved to imbue Year 9’s experience of medicine with as many hues and shades as possible.

So, what have others done to address problems such as this?

World building as a concept, though a relatively new idea within History teaching, is not novel in other disciplines.

It has been used in science fiction, fantasy and in general fictional writing as a foundational building block for successful immersive worlds such as those of Brandon Sanderson.

What characterises these secondary realms is a sense of depth and completeness which welcomes the reader and provides a scaffold, one where, from the simplest relationships to the most complex systems, readers feel attuned to the essence of this past world.

History teachers have long searched for ways to cultivate an historic environment for their learners, one where a sense of period and place could be felt through the history being taught.

Taylor went to considerable lengths to help her learners “unpack the richness of place” in the way that she approached the setting of the physical scene in the students’ learning environment.

Much of our approach was based around the work of Mike Hill and his idea of curating an imagined past for our learners.

His focus on the careful and consistent building of their imagined past shifted how we approached the crafting of history in our classrooms.

With medicine, one key issue has been that students struggle to understand the concept of changing rationalities and beliefs over time.

As highlighted by Dawson, medieval ideas relating to medicine – though rational at the time – seem alien or even ridiculous to students.

This has led to students branding medieval people as stupid, scared or superstitious.

We found that students often fail to comprehend that medieval people were as real, and as complex as themselves. This significantly hinders their ability to work conceptually within the period, as argued by Bateman.

Consequently, the positioning of understandable and believable historical perspectives became an equally important goal of ours.

Benger’s view that thick contextual knowledge was the key to creating as accurate a representation of historical perspectives as is plausible was formative in our aims. 

It tied with our focus of creating a coherent, consistent and cohesive world.

Consequently, we not only focused on macro features such as disease, landscapes and towns but also on the stories of those individuals who experienced these events and trends, aiming to switch between the historical scales of overview and depth.

How did we attempt to resolve this problem in our teaching?

In order to develop a tapestrical, rich and immersive curriculum, we considered the concepts of world-building in a contiguous and purposeful lesson sequence.

The essential building blocks of imagined secondary worlds were intended to be integrated in each lesson, developing ideas of British medieval society, geography, culture and individual perspectives.

Willingham’s contention that meaningful narratives hold cognitive precedence was an integral aspect of our lesson construction, with guided readings and class readings interwoven throughout the scheme .

These narratives aimed ultimately to help students build rich pictures of medieval people, places, institutions and environments, and tie together (and build from scratch) their disparate threads of substantive and conceptual knowledge.

Through a cohesive and engaging story, we aimed to help students reach a hinterland of medieval contextual understanding.

These readings were built on academic histories as it has been argued that to develop more nuanced understandings students should be approached with challenging yet enlightening texts from historians.

Using Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England , Jack Hartnell’s Medieval Bodies and Roy Porter’s Blood and Guts,  both as class readings and independent guided readings, we aimed to create fertile ground for seeds of future substantive knowledge to be placed within.

This substantive grasp of the content of the medicine course was intended to provide disciplinary currency and enable our learners to be more nuanced in their causal reasoning surrounding the distinct lack of advancements during the Medieval period.

We placed these readings at the start, in the form of a whole-class reading.

The students were instructed to highlight any words they did not understand, and to also highlight words, phrases or sentences that they thought might be particularly important for understanding Medieval medicine (and, during later lessons, its continuities).

The teacher was to read the text aloud, which was a narrative taken directly from Hartnell and Mortimer’s works.

This would allow the students to see quality reading aloud modelled, picking up on the clarity of speech, pronunciations, tones, speed and emphasis.

This text was coupled with a chapter from Hartnell’s Medieval Bodies, with the challenging and detailed nature of these texts setting the tone for the richness and depth of the world we were encouraging our students to build.

Both of these texts were referred to at different points in the scheme of work; once as an additional homework on the Church as an organisation during the Middle Ages, and then during lessons as a resource to question students to deepen and extend thought.

Pieter Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death (c 1562) was used as a central resource, providing students with an imagined depiction of the past from the past.

Not only did we rely on these texts to create a schematic framework for the retention of content and concept, but also to infuse our students’ minds with a deeper, thicker understanding of the world they were studying.

In order to help our students, build and visualise this world, we embedded imagery of the places, people and institutions tied to the narratives. The use of images to help students in their world-building processes aimed to transport our class into a different time and location .

For our lesson on the Black Death, Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death was centred as a resource which students annotated to add detail and the later returned to the source to add more conceptual ideas about the extent medical change.

By focusing thought, in this lesson, around this image, alongside the reading element of the lesson we hoped that students would begin to link their literary imagined worlds to the visual expression of historical thought that was in the painting.

We hoped this would give them a visual hitching post for their individually-constructed worlds.

This was augmented by first-hand accounts of responses to the Black Death, such as a written account by Italian chronicler, Agnolo di Tura, as well as a pictorial representation of the symptoms of the plague, with writing from Giovanni Boccaccio.

Ultimately, this was targeted at producing a richer and more stable impression of the medical world, from which we hoped to establish a more accurate and coherent historical picture of Medieval Europe, one that did not place Britain at the centre of these historical narratives.

All of this consideration about the imagined world that our learners build from their historical experience led us to consider the question of how our pupils experience our classrooms as a space – and whether that space augments or diminishes their ability to world-build.

Does sitting in a classroom make the medieval realm of Britain seem even more abstract, or could it in fact aid the narrativizing and environment building?

In order to experiment with this scene-setting, the classroom was infused with medieval music and battery tea-light candles – the lights were turned off, blinds closed, images were looped on the whiteboard throughout and Frankincense incense was burned.

Within this enclosed space, the hope was that our students would become immersed in a world that the historical narrative was helping them build, one that was separate and other.

History Resource Cupboard KS3

Did we enable students to develop a thicker contextual understanding?

According to Wineburg, the strangeness of these historical worlds that we were discussing are difficult to reach.  

The imagined pasts we as university-educated teachers might be trying to confer or translate for students is not something our GCSE students would necessarily envisage for themselves.

Our version of this imagined Medieval world may well be conceptualised very differently by students, in that our worlds may be painted in a richer and more diverse variety of colours and tones that emanate from greater contextual historical understanding and knowledge.

For students to effectively translate their schematic understanding into written or spoken form is a difficult prospect and leaves a linguistic gap to bridge in order to assess their historical understanding.

The excitement of world-building is that the process for each student is unique to their own experiences and cultural awareness, and although as teachers we do not want to impose, or implant our own view, it is worth considering how best to go about cultivating an imagined world through lessons that enable rich and contiguous worlds to be built interdependently of us as teachers.

Nevertheless, the lessons served to create a more enriching and holistic learning experience for our students, which engendered for students a desire to engage in their learning.

The lesson sequence, in attempting to combine narrativized, contextual thought with the substantive content deemed important by Edexcel, has perhaps not retained as much of a narrative flow as it might have done with more substantive, geographical and conceptual license.

The point we are trying to make here is that the constrictions of translating exam board-dictated content can serve to make narratives feel unwieldy and it was a challenge to make this feel organic.

Narratives were embedded to help the pieces of the medicine in medieval Britain puzzle fit together cohesively and build a sense of period.

Though scaffolded heavily, these tasks at points proved challenging for certain pupils, especially the reading elements based on historical literature.

The language used in the text was challenging, aiming to allow through the contextual meaning of the narrative a chance for students to increase their historical vocabulary.

Even if not every nuanced aspect of the text was robustly understood, the knowledge and contextual hinterland explored granted each student a wider learning experience of medieval medicine in Britain.

This was visible in a comparison of the written work of our current Year 9 students and last year’s cohort, with this cohort’s work often delving past the surface level explanation of medieval society evident in last year’s answers.

This depth of expectation went from being and exception to being, if not commonplace, then certainly more evident. 

Though difficult, the rigour involved in the comprehension of the text pushed those students who came into Year 9 with a greater level of cognitive ability and disciplinary historical understanding.

The lessons and intertwined narratives had the demonstrable effect of allowing students to exhibit a deepened complexity of historical understanding in their longer historical writing, independent homework and verbal analyses during lessons.

With improvements in the crafting of lessons, particularly with the use of world-building narratives and imagery, alongside tweaks to the formative assessment opportunities within the lesson sequence, the benefits of the focus on world-building for our GCSE students will be rich.

What would we do differently?

Upon reflection, the impact that these lessons had on the contextual understanding of our learners was tangible, though hindsight has enabled us to consider potential improvements and the implications of the way in which they have been taught.

Though somewhat successful in helping our learners develop an imagined past in medieval Britain, or use of primarily academic, literary sources served to, at points, exclude or hamper some learners within our classrooms.

As argued by Dr Martin Ryan, the landscape of modern historical thought is changing, with there now being a far greater emphasis amongst historians on using other mediums than written academic texts in transmitting their interpretations, and we as a History teaching profession do not seem to be on board with this trend.

Perhaps, a solution might be to focus more or rethink the use of images, audio or video.

They were often a side note or bolt-on to the primacy of written history in our lessons, but maybe they should have featured more prominently.

Rather than relying fundamentally on sequential narratives, a better implementation of linear images and greater scaffolding around the resulting inference-based tasks would have potentially facilitated richer additions of colour and context to our students’ historical worlds.

We perhaps assumed a shared level of understanding based on the narratives introduced in the lessons, commensurate of our own historical understanding.

In so doing, at points we have failed to consider or address the finer, nuanced misconceptions that have developed.

These were markedly different from previous cohorts because of the thought and design in forming the lessons.

These might have been resolved through the implementation of such formative tasks like Christine Counsell’s generalisation game, which would both test and challenge those resulting misconceptions which stemmed from the connective links between content and concept.

Even with the wider time implications of a three-year KS4, we found it difficult to offer both individual narratives and localised foci, as well as a macro, societal-wide viewpoint.

As such, the ability to scale-switch was limited as we didn’t necessarily build ‘place’ enough to switch between wider and minute understandings of Britain and places within it.

Perhaps a resolution would be to consider the work of Fearns-Davies and his diverse use of individuals across medicine through time.

If we were to build in individual narratives through which to see the medieval world of medicine and consider the wider narratives, themes and how they play out for an individual, our lessons could better facilitate scale-switching and allow our students a chance to deepen and widen their imagined medieval pasts.

Despite the innate difficulties in developing a lesson sequence to incite a love of discovering the intricate, multifaceted nature of medieval medical history, our reflections on the potential of harnessing world-building in the history classroom are undeniably exciting, just as History should be.

It has the potential to be transformative for GCSE learning, and emboldening for our students in their desire to encounter, interact with and construct their imagined pasts.

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