Adjusting the lenses: Introducing a truly diverse curriculum at Key Stage 3

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Happily, I think there are few History teachers who need convincing of the benefits conferred by a ‘diverse’ History curriculum. 

National policy has stipulated the importance of promoting inclusivity and belonging among pupils for several decades. For example, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act of 2000 stated that schools must promote race equality between those of different racial groups, whilst the Equality Act (2010) clarified the unlawful nature of racial discrimination. Both of these laws are, it seems, well served by a more diverse offering in the school History curriculum. 

A combination of moral compulsion and the hard-hitting impact of recent global events (including developments in the Black Lives Matter movement, prompted by the murder of George Floyd) has added increased urgency, encouraging teachers to seek out new ways of fostering tolerance. The National Curriculum programmes of study for History also makes reference to the importance of a diverse and varied History ‘diet’, noting that all pupils should know and understand ‘significant aspects of the history of the wider world’, whilst also being aware of the ways in which Britain has ‘influenced and been influenced by the wider world’. 

In short, calls for diversity are ubiquitous – and rightly so, given the indisputable impact that a carefully-curated curriculum has on the social, emotional and academic development of pupils.

So how should we do it?

When it comes to actually devising a curriculum that fulfills this diversifying agenda – a curriculum that is consistent in its approach, and allows for the conscious revisiting of core knowledge and skills throughout the two or three-year Key Stage 3; that is interwoven with meaningful assessments; and, crucially, that is engaging and accessible for all pupils – the reality of (limited) time and (limited) access to useful resources comes into play.

We tend to fall back on a piecemeal approach – “I’ve got this fab lesson on the contributions of Black soldiers; I’ll tag that on the end of my World War One unit’” or “Brilliant, I’ve got some gained time – I’ll just plan this unit on the Mali Empire and then at least I’ve got a little bit of diversity in the Year 8 scheme of work”.

This is great – but our Key Stage 3 curricula are calling out for a more holistic, deliberate approach, one which is not simply sprinkled with diversity, but grounded in it.

It is with these aims in mind that an entirely new Key Stage 3 curriculum has been planned and fully resourced for History Resource Cupboard – with the first four units – covering term 1 and part of term 2 for Year 7.

What is the new ‘diverse’ curriculum?

The Year 7 curriculum comprises 70 lessons (including assessments for each unit) – enough to cover an entire school year, based on History being allocated two lessons per week.

Eight separate units each contain around eight lessons. The first unit is geared towards overview, with the lessons serving to introduce pupils to the medieval period as a whole, and to the skills and concepts to which they will return in the course of the year. You can download the overview lesson here.

Subsequently, a chronological approach is taken – with units on British History (Migration in early Britain, the Norman Conquest, and Outsiders in medieval England) interwoven with those adopting a more global focus (China’s Tang Dynasty, Kievan Rus and the formation of Muscovy, Medieval Africa, and Global catastrophes).

Diversity is at the front and centre of both the lessons themselves and the units as a whole.

When planning for greater representation and inclusivity at Key Stage 3, we need to provide opportunities not only for pupils to encounter individuals and stories with which they were not previously familiar, but for their entire worldview. Their preconceptions and prejudices, their understanding of how things were, can be challenged, perhaps even uprooted.

This means that we must adjust the lenses through which we view and teach aspects of the past.

Spotlighting the overlooked in History

So, the Year 7 curriculum introduces pupils to such characters as Emma of Normandy, the wife of King Cnut whose achievements are often obscured by those of her husband.

And to Xuanzang, the Chinese monk whose 17-year long pilgrimage to India had such an important impact on the development of Buddhism in Tang Dynasty China.

Beyond this, though, each unit is built upon an enquiry question that is designed to spotlight an overlooked, underemphasised or alternative aspect of history.

Recent historical scholarship plays a key role here, too. So when pupils study medieval Africa, they are encouraged to respond to the question “Was there really a golden age in medieval Africa?”, the inspiration for which comes from Francois-Xavier Fauvelle’s 2018 book The Golden Rhinoceros.

Pupils do not simply learn about Sundiata Keita, Mansa Musa and the “bad ass librarians of Timbuktu” for the sake of it – but in order that they are able to reach a nuanced, evidence-informed understanding of the wealth, connectedness and cosmopolitanism of medieval Africa.

Skills, scholarship and the National Curriculum

The new curriculum introduces the key historical skills (significance, causation, consequence, change and continuity, and similarity and difference) early on, and works in a deliberate way to build pupils’ confidence in applying these skills as the lessons move forward.

Extensive use is made of contemporary sources, and up-to-date historical scholarship runs through all units: students encounter and respond to the best of what has been written about the topics under study.

In line with recent work on the importance of developing “hinterland” knowledge or “schema” (see Sherrington 2020; Hammond, 2014), second-order concepts are woven into the lessons, and revisited in a way that promotes pupils’ ever-deepening understanding.

Teachers wishing to adopt and embed the new, diverse curriculum can be assured that it is fully compliant with the recommendations of the National Curriculum’s programmes of study for History.

It also helps to develop the skills that will be tested at GCSE – although it by no means does this in a prescriptive way; end-of-unit assessments and tasks within the lessons are designed to promote engagement, evaluation and synthesis, not to introduce GCSE-style question stems.

A comprehensive and coherent approach

Access is provided to all of the materials and resources needed to structure a coherent unit of work.

The unit can be introduced to students through the big story document, which offers an overview of the key ideas and themes explored in the unit as a whole (as well as a brief comprehension activity, which might work well as an introductory homework task for students to complete). You can download an example of one here.

Lesson Powerpoints are accompanied by write-ups that help to identify the key knowledge takeaways to be emphasised.

A tarsia can be used to help students revise the key terms and content from the unit, before they complete a knowledge test (based on the knowledge organiser) and a written assessment.

Ultimately, the new curriculum opens pupils’ eyes to the heterogeneity of the past. It exposes the range of identities and ideas that have existed in history – as well as the different ways in which aspects of this history have been interpreted and understood by academics.

In adjusting the lenses through which aspects of History are viewed, it promotes a more complex, nuanced understanding of both past and present.

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