Put the past in order

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Christine Counsell says pupils are failing to get to grips with history because they are not taught how to organise their work.

A history teacher wants Year 8 to analyse the causes of the English Civil War. Her pupils find analytical writing very difficult.

They have problems with short-term memory and with the abstract nature of the material. They have difficulty in sorting and classifying because they find it hard to conceptualise, to find "organising ideas".

So what is the teacher to do? Quite understandably, she considers alternative means of communication - painting, drama, oral work, some easier written exercises or perhaps an imaginative response, in role as a Roundhead, maybe.

The pupils continue to use these methods throughout Year 8 and Year 9. It helps them to enjoy and to understand important aspects of history. But, after two years, these pupils have still not received direct teaching in the very area in which they need most. The real learning problem, the one that gets in the way, is still being avoided.

The national curriculum in history at key stage 3 demands "extended narratives and descriptions, and substantiated explanations" (key element 5c). This presents a double challenge: not only must pupils organise ideas into extended prose, but they must also move beyond narrative. They must produce structured descriptions and explanations. This does not necessarily mean an essay. For lower-attaining pupils it may mean just four or five connected sentences. But it does mean that all pupils should be able to reformulate some information and generate some writing on their own. They must select relevant points and order them with some discernible rationale.

Most pupils can construct a simple narrative. The temporal structure and the dynamic of story help them to select and position the information. However, it is much harder to arrange evidence and ideas in response to a particular historical question. To move out of narrative into a conceptual structure requires a different kind of organising skill. It is these demands which have caused many teachers of history to argue that extended writing makes history too difficult for lower attainers.

However, much current work suggests otherwise. Starting with the question, "What is it, exactly, that pupils find difficult?", many history teachers are examining such difficulties closely. Using activities such as sorting and setting, diagramming and arranging, pupils can be made aware of the organisational problem at the heart of historical writing. Once structure is seen as problematic, we can help pupils find a way through it.

Playing games with structure is fun. Can pupils distinguish between the general and the particular by finding "big points" and "little points"? Can pupils see different ways of sorting out the same problems? What sentence formats might they select for different types of historical ideas? Differentiation abounds here, but it is productive. Succinct, objective description and analysis, brought to bear on one issue are essential. Lower attainers simply will not get there unless they are gradually helped towards it.

But working with structure in history is about much more than just "extended writing". It is important for historical understanding. For pupils who struggle with the demands of key stage 3 and GCSE, history is mysterious and arbitrary. Attention to structure and to organisational devices can help pupils see the wood as well as the trees, so building up a sense of historical period. Analytical and discursive writing is important. Teaching about written communication helps them sort their thoughts out.

Unfortunately, some history teachers take rather a reductionist view of the national curriculum. They see the requirement for extended writing in key element 5c and assume that they must simply pepper their workschemes with more references to it. But pupils will not get better at historical writing just by doing lots of it. This misses the point. Extended writing is just one example of the importance of being creative with "organisation" in history. Key element 5 is called "Organisation and Communication". "Extended writing" makes little sense without reference to the other aspects of organisation which the key elements describe. The national curriculum demands interpretation, not reductionism.

One particular vogue in history teaching presents a subtle, but significant problem: the use of imaginative writing designed for particular audiences. Pupils write diaries of the period, for example or propaganda posters. Used well, these approaches enrich pupils' sense of period and discourage anachronism. Used uncritically, these exercises become a serious case of teaching by avoidance. Many pupils can write speeches by conscientious objectors or First World War recruitment officers, but cannot construct a decent paragraph describing the differences between the two.

The historian Geoffrey Elton described historical writing as "the agony of forcing thought into order and pattern". Attempting to spare pupils that agony constitutes a misguided and twisted emphasis upon accessibility. Attention to the problems which pupils have in structuring their writing helps us attend to other problems in their historical understanding. It leads teachers into thinking creatively about the complexities of progression.

At the end of one of my workshops on analytical writing at the Schools History Project conference in March, one teacher commented, "GCSE history will eventually be too easy if we start to use key stage 3 properly." This may or may not be an exaggeration, but no one laughed at her suggestion. It is little wonder that pupils cannot do the writing required of them at GCSE if they have not previously faced the key stage 3 demand for extended, structured, explanatory writing. This is nothing to do with "teaching to the test". History at key stage 3 must be fun, exciting, accessible and challenging in its own right. To engage in fresh thinking about structure and organisation is to help all of these. Failure to do so is avoiding teaching.

Christine Counsell is chairman of the Historical Association's Secondary Education Committee and PGCE history tutor for the Gloucestershire Initial Teacher Education Partnership

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today