Big stories, little stories

4th September 1998 at 01:00
A work scheme is not a trick to demonstrate curriculum coverage; it's a long-term tool for securing real learning. Christine Counsell explains

What is the difference between a really good history work scheme and one that will merely "get you through" an Office for Standards in Education inspection? If I had to put my finger on one over-riding principle that seems to make a difference it would be this: concentrate on interplay not incidence.

Most ordinary children do not learn things in isolated chunks. Johnny and Jimmy are just getting their heads around the concept of "democracy" or just beginning to understand why Tudor merchants behaved as they did when, whoosh! We're off! On to the next topic, never to see democrat or merchant again. Riddled with anxiety about "content coverage" some teachers want to make sure that everthing is there. But the fragility of democracy or the decision-making of merchants is much less of a mystery, and its relevance to modern life a great deal more obvious, if we constantly have our attention drawn to its parallels and contrasts in other (preferably surprising) places. The position of the content chunk in relation to everything else is what matters.

Fine, but how on earth can the humble history work scheme make this work in practice? Three guiding structures characterise the best work schemes that I have seen: big questions; big stories; and big themes.

First, big questions. And I mean really big questions. It is now widely regarded as good practice to build each chunk of a work scheme around an interesting historical question. A substantial and motivating activity concludes the chunk, allowing pupils to attempt some resolution of the question. However, this only works well if (i) the question is a good one (is it intriguing? is it challenging?); (ii) it is sufficiently inclusive to mop up most of the content areas in that chunk; and, (iii) the teacher refers to it constantly, using it to drive the action of each lesson, sucking the pupils in to the drama of historical enquiry.

What kinds of big questions work best? There is a world of difference between, on the one hand, sticking "Why did the towns grow?" into your question column and then not doing a great deal with it; and, on the other,choosing a more controversial and puzzling question like, "Did the towns make people free?" and using it to drive every ounce of teaching.

Such a question is full of opportunity for humour, fascination and curiosity. It highlights certain perennial qualities of human nature. Medieval towns could be surprisingly liberal places with unusual degrees of cultural mixing - the strength of the trading impulse overcoming fear of "the stranger". Towns could also, literally, free the "unfree" peasant. Yet, at the same time, they were nestbeds of exclusivity. Guilds and charters were designed to keep certain people out, to create club identities, and to protect. So, Johnny and Jimmy, what on earth are we to make of this? Did the towns make people free? Did they?

This is much more than just being motivating and dynamic (though that, of course, is essential). It is about making proper use of that little thing called Key Element 4a in the 1995 national curriculum. Key Element 4a decrees that we should teach pupils to ask and answer historical questions. And so we should, but little atomised exercises alone will not do the trick. The Key Element 4a dimension needs to be there all the time, modelling different types of questioning and getting pupils to analyse the quality of that question in practically every enquiry. What matters is not whether Key Element 4a crops up on the work scheme, but where it crops up and how it is developed by the balance, variety and repetition of question type.

Second, big stories and little stories. Or, in national curriculum-speak,a careful blend of "outline" and "depth". Two problems have dogged proper exploitation of this helpful device. First, some have assumed that there are things called "outline studies" and things called "depth studies". The reality is much more complex and interesting. Second, there is lingering negativity over outline studies because they are likened to the worst of 1950s dull, Gradgrindian plough-through-the-facts history. "Outline" does not have to be superficial or dull. Well-told, "big stories" are as fascinating as "little stories".

The French historian Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie described these as parachuting and truffle-hunting. We need both. The skilful teacher pulls in an outline or a depth dimension, sometimes only briefly, to make things clear or more motivating for the pupils. My pupils might be enjoying a compelling, disturbing "depth study" on the Peterloo massacre but right in the middle of it I need to zoom out into an "outline" story in order to make some aspect of Peterloo make sense. This might be the point at which I tackle the Reform Acts. I pull them in here because part of that narrative makes Peterloo's significance clear.

It works the other way around, too. I might be teaching about demographic change in the 19th century. Suddenly I see Johnny and Jimmy. I am losing them. Quick. I need depth. I need to paint human faces, tell "little stories", maybe even stop, and let them indulge in a detailed, local study. I need to let Johnny and Jimmy dig for their own truffles for a bit before I use my parachute again. All of this must be anticipated in the work scheme.

This movement between outline and depth is no mere pedagogic game. Historians do it too. There is a point at which macro-studies and precise, neutral overviews become inadequate for the engagement of any audience, not to mention the back row of 9Z. Knowing when to switch between them is a special kind of professional sensitivity. It is a responsiveness to the available historical evidence on the one hand and the audience on the other. Listen to Colm Toibin discussing historians' treatment of the Irish famine:

"The famine only comes close when you bring it close; ...when you see a list of names, or when you start thinking about evictions or half-naked people on the decks of ships being soaked by the waves, or when you hear a song about it, or see a mass grave, or a road built during those years." (London Review of Books, July 30, 1998.) The experienced teacher knows instinctively when a topic needs to be "brought close"; when, temporarily, the objective, empirical quest must be sacrificed to emotional engagement. A good workscheme, in very few words, shows connections and relationships, ones which anticipate Johnny and Jimmy's need for resonance.

And finally, big themes. The content of the national curriculum is like some stuff in a sieve. Shake the sieve and what would you like to stay there? At the end of teaching the key stage 3 study unit on 1750-1900 which bits do we really want to endure and which bits functioned merely as working knowledge? The latter will drift away, leaving the more permanent residue of bigger understandings. Content must be made to play a part in serving learning. The best teachers I have seen establish what part they want it to play according to the big themes or main knowledge areas that they want to stay in the sieve.

Take the French Revolution as an example. Pupils are supposed to "cover" it at key stage 3 as part of an enormous, sprawling national curriculum study unit called "1750 to 1900". The content-coverage teacher sighs and says "... and we've got to fit in the French Revolution! What a nuisance. It'll take up one or even two lessons and they won't remember it anyway". The teacher who thinks in terms of themes (or sieves), says, "What I really want the pupils to understand is how democratic ideas developed", or, " social structures shifted" or whatever. This teacher pulls in an interesting aspect of the French Revolution, in the context of something else, in order to illustrate a point. She then pulls it in again,and again, later in the workscheme. It has meaning and purpose in the learning journey. It gets remembered. Its value far outweighs the meagre, but highly efficient, time spent on it. Pupils understand and are fascinated. It has become functional knowledge.

A workscheme is not a trick to demonstrate "coverage". It is a long-term planning tool to secure learning. A good workscheme makes the national curriculum bigger than the sum of its parts. You can look at it and see quickly how Johnny and Jimmy in Year 6 will get their heads round the concept of parliament before term is out. You can see how a pattern of clever reinforcement, across two terms, will enable the weaker members of Year 7 to enjoy using qualified, tentative language in their source evaluation.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is about to produce some model history work schemes for key stage 2. These must take us forward, milking the difference between the 1995 and 1991 History Orders with an appropriate sophistication. They must show the real gains of the last five years so that all teachers can benefit from these and be equipped to take part in continuing curricular debate.

Christine Counsell is lecturer in history education at the University of Cambridge School of Education. She is editor of the Historical Association's journal, 'Teaching History'. Her workshop on work scheme planning, big stories and little stories will feature at the HA's education conference at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, September 12-14. Tel: 0171 735 3901

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