Creativity is now the order of the day for history

24th March 2000 at 00:00
In the February issue of Teaching History Diana Laffin describes how she uses key stage 3 to improve her pupils' performance at GCSE. She explains the rationale for her choice of "enquiry questions" (Did William deserve to win? Were the Nazis good citizens?). Not only are these designed to intrigue pupils and shatter preconceptions but they are carefully crafted to govern the sequence of the lessons they control. Each one integrates different aspects of the key elements of the 1995 national curriculum. But the sequence is designed systematically to teach those understandings, skills and perspectives, not merely to bump into them.

She also smashes into a few teacher preconceptions. She argues that exam technique is not some bolt-on extra that gets in the way of quality learning. It is simply that weaker candidates' poor historical thinking is "more starkly revealed" by the demand to select, deploy and synthesise under pressure. She argues persuasively that such historical thinking can be taught - not in a last-minute, teaching-to-the-test sort of way, but right across KS3.

This is not an argument for rote-learning and endless timed essays. It is, nonetheless, a blatant "standards" agenda - one that integrates thinking skills with specifically historical learning objectives. Low performance at GCSE will not be addressed by a narrow focus on a narrow examination but by an imaginative and long-term tussle with pupils' more fundamental difficulties.

Diana Laffin's practice and thinking draws on all kinds of traditions in history education. But there is a boldness in her new syntheses that is absolutely typical of those history departments that exploited the new freedoms of the 1995 curriculum. She integrates knowledge and process. She blends "outline and depth" in order to build knowledge rather than to cover content. Everything adds up to something bigger than the sum of its parts

It is the kind of planning that will need little change in Curriculum 2000. In fact, it anticipates it. For what is interesting about the new Order is that continuity is more obvious than change. There are some important changes but many of these just make even more obvious to teachers the freedoms and opportunities that were present in the 1995 Order but that many failed to see. Prescribed content falls into the same areas but is reduced, inviting more interpretation on the part of the teacher. We are now "allowed" to integrate the different areas of study, making stronger connections and emphasising hidden themes. At KS3, for example, schools might plan an enquiry on women's suffrage, spanning 1832 to 1928, thereby linking up what were once two separate study units.

The May edition of Teaching History will feature an array of authors celebrating the wide diversity now possible in KS3 practice. It will build on the February edition's theme ofprogression by illustrating and analysing how our best teachers are now planning with much more purpose.

The Historical Association's next issue of Primary History will provide guidelines and ideas for effective practice without duplicating any other support materials such as the QCA schemes of work. It is designed for use as a handbook to assist planning and professional development.

Creativity should now be the order of the day, but creativity informed by a clear conception of historical rigour. Encouragingly, teachers will have to think hard about pupils' learning in order to plan well; more brutally, teachers who rely on mechanistic approaches - whether trotting through the content or trotting through the skills - should now be more exposed. Cutting content cuts both ways.

Christine Counsell is a member of the HA's Secondary Committee. Tel: 020 7735 3901. E-mail:

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