Let’s not overemphasise the fingertip knowledge

Knowledge is back on Britain’s education agenda. Whether it is debating knowledge vs. skills or traditionalists vs. progressives. Talk about knowledge is all over twitter and blogs. I must admit a bias in favouring the reawakening of knowledge. But I do think that we need to make sure we are emphasising the knowledge which is most powerful.

This is a particularly prevalent concern for a history teacher. As I fear that in teaching substantive historical knowledge we may just come to teach a list of key ‘facts’ and dates. Facts and dates have a place in history education. This knowledge is what Christine Counsell has referred to as ‘fingertip knowledge’. That is to say this is the knowledge which students need in their minds, or at their fingertips, during historical enquiries. Without knowledge of historical events students would be incapable of constructing answers to historical questions.

For example, let’s look at that classic Year 7 History questions ‘Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?’ How possibly could students answer this questions without knowledge of events. Moreover, this enquiry would need to take place over several lessons, requiring students to retain that knowledge over several lessons. Therefore, knowledge needs to be taught and students need to retain this knowledge during their enquiry.

However, the retention of this knowledge is not the ultimate objective of the history classroom. Instead what we must value is what Counsell calls residual knowledge. This is the rich historical residue that is left behind after students have moved to another enquiry or area of study. This is what can help to develop a sense of period (perhaps I will explain the importance of this in another post) or develop understanding of substantive concepts.

If my students retain knowledge of key dates, people and events then great. If I can give them a quiz and they get questions right in Year 10, about topics they studied in Year 7, then brilliant. I use retrieval tasks and timelines from memory. But we have to be careful that we do not spend too much time focusing on dates, people and events. Instead our focus on knowledge needs to be focused on developing students’ conceptual knowledge.

For a long time second-order concepts have been the focus of history teachers pedagogy. This focus is absolutely correct, as second-order concepts provide the organising principles for history teachers. When we answer questions in history, then we focus on cause and consequence, change and continuity, interpretation and significance. It gives shape to students’ learning. This is vital. But we also need to think about substantive historical concepts.

Concepts such as democracy, kingship, empire or nation are what have been called substantive concepts. These have a changing nature based on their historical contexts. For example, ancient Athenian democracy is very different to modern liberal democracy. Yet, they are both democracies. That is a challenging idea for young history students. It takes a huge amount of knowledge about the past to develop an understanding of these concepts. Students need to have studied these concepts through different historical examples.

Furthermore, teachers need to help students manage the cognitive dissonance which is needed to grasp the at times conflicting nature of these concepts. For example, trying to understand the role of slavery in Athens and its role in developing democracy. Substantive concepts are complex and at times contradictory. History is at times messy and that is the challenge. As a result, some of the powerful discoverieswhich have been made about how students learn, need to be utilised.

Therefore, it is using residual knowledge to develop students’ knowledge of substantive concepts which should be teachers’ long-term focus. We need to use retrieval and interleaving to achieve this (another post needed to go into that too). It is through focusing on students’ mastery of these concepts that we can best prepare them for further historical study. By grasping the complexity of these concepts students’ will have the language and contextual understanding to grasp future study.

Focusing on substantive concepts requires students to engage with fingertip knowledge. But when we talk about making knowledge important in the history classroom we need to be careful. We have to be careful not to focus on pub quiz knowledge, which so many have criticised those who value knowledge for wanting. That is now what I think most people want from a knowledge curriculum. A knowledge rich history curriculum should therefore be focused on develop students’ conceptual understanding and sense of period.