New History subject content and assessment objectives – first impressions.

The new GCSE objectives and content have arrived in our twitter feeds, and a first glance reading might leave you thinking ‘what was all the fuss about’.  Look closely and there are some interesting changes, some of which are welcome, others of which I’m reserving judgement on – until it is clear how the exam boards react to them.

1. Scope of Study.

  • More British history;
  • no overlapping;
  • ‘SHP’ thematic study lives on; and
  • “Modern World” given a life-raft.

Many people will turn to the headline changes in content, and it is here that the changes are most obvious.  British history is the big winner, as is a focus on studying different time periods.  Under the old ‘subject criteria’ from 2007 (see link at the bottom) British history made up a minimum of 25% of the content of any history GCSE.  Under the new requirements this rises to a minimum of 40%.    The study of Britain must include ‘at least one’ depth study, described as ‘different aspects of an historical situation across a period of 25 and 50 years’, chosen from Medieval, Early Modern or Modern periods, and which can also include studies of local sites, museums or galleries.

This strikes me as an exciting opportunity.  There is lots of great British history that could be covered, and anything which encourages exam boards to cover interesting periods such as the Norman invasion, the Reformation or the Industrial revolution cannot be anything other than a good thing.  I am particularly pleased (yup) to see the period given as  Medieval as going from 500 to 1500 – such a lot of interesting things in there that could be covered (not just learning the word Heptarchy!).

My only reservation is the rule that there cannot be overlapping periods of time between British and the wider world depth study.  I do not agree that this increases the level of challenge in the GCSE.  Setting British history in the context of world history allows us to understand both at a deeper level.  In practice, the sense of time and conceptual understanding that overlap affords more than outweighs the negligible double coverage in terms of raw ‘knowledge’ or events.   However, this has been ruled out.

Someone, much cleverer than me, once said that the question with history curricula is not really ‘what do you put in?’, but ‘what do you leave out?’.  With the new emphasis on British history naturally comes less emphasis on world history.  The wider world study, which also must contain one depth study between 25 and 50 years, from one of the periods mentioned earlier will therefore count for a minimum of 25% of the final GCSE grade.  It is clear that this study could focus ‘on different aspects of the history of one nation or group or on international relations’.  I would imagine that studies about the causes of the Second World War, or the 1920s boom in America could fit into either of those categories.  So, studying the ‘modern world’ will survive, but perhaps in a narrower way.

Some light at the end of the tunnel for modern world teachers might actually come from the ‘thematic’ study, where ‘some overlap is likely’, with the stipulation that ‘people issues and events’ must differ significantly.  The same periods could be chosen for the thematic as one or other of the British or wider world studies.  So, we might imagine a thematic course which covered ‘the growth of democracy’, and which studied the development of the franchise in Great Britain, ending perhaps with Suffragism, or perhaps a thematic study of the development of the welfare state in Britain, whilst at the same time covering a ‘modern’ wider world study which covered the causes of the First World War, the failure of the League of Nations, or the causes of the Second World War.  I don’t think that these combinations would be against the spirit of the new requirements.

Since my PGCE (which, by the way was excellent and provided me with a very firm foundation on which to start my profession) when I taught a year 10 SHP course on ‘medicine through time’, I have really wanted to teach a thematic GCSE course.  I’m pleased that some of the ‘cowboys and indians’ rhetoric that has recently emerged has not meant the end of an approach which could have an ‘SHP’ thematic character.

2. Aims and Outcomes.

  • knowledge;
  • judgement; and
  • history and citizenship.

I am also happy with the aims and outcomes put forward for history GCSE.  As we have already seen, there is an upgrade for ‘knowledge’ about Britain, which leads to aim that students should be ‘learning more about this history of Britain and the wider world’ – and it seems that this is where the requirement that periods should not overlap comes from.

However, the idea of ‘knowledge’ is widely drawn and wisely characterised, as students ‘deepening their understanding’ and ‘enabling them to think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, make informed decisions and develop perspective and judgement’.   I find myself nodding in agreement as I read it, and I applaud the focus on forming judgement.  I may be splitting hairs, but this is, I think an improvement on the old requirement that students should reach ‘reasoned conclusions’.  Judgement might not be a final decision – it could be contingent, which is closer to the way that human knowledge is constructed than ‘coming to a conclusion’ suggests.  The word judgement also suggests maturation, development and an interplay between history and the person studying it. Sometimes I feel that ‘concluding’ becomes ‘finishing off’ in the minds of students – forming a judgement has a different tone.

Finally, I think that the relationship between history and citizenship is well framed in this section of the document.  History in school absolutely should, ‘prepare [students] for a role as informed, thoughtful and active citizens’. I am glad to see however, that the document is clear that this enabling happens through students being taught to ‘think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments etc’,  and not through the transmission of any narrative of ‘Britishness’.

Other than that, the focus on  interpretations remains, students are expected to develop the ability to  ask questions of the past, and there is an emphasis on on extending students’ knowledge of the ‘wide diversity of human experience’.  There is really quite a lot to be pleased about here.

3. Assessment objectives.

  • knowledge; and
  • sources

The greater emphasis on recall and communication of knowledge is also reflected in an increase in the weighting this is given in AO1.  Under the ‘old’ document AO1 counted for between 25 to 35% of the GCSE grade.  The new requirement is that AO1 (the wording for which is only subtly changed – students now will show ‘understanding’ and not ‘their understanding of history – though much could be read into that change!) should count for between 30 to 40% of the marks

The wording of AO2 has also changed in the same way – students now have to ‘demonstrate understanding of the past through explanation and analysis of key concepts’.  Previously they had to ‘demonstrate their understanding’.  The new AO2 sees ‘similarity and difference’ added as key historical concepts, and the weighting for ‘understanding’ also increases from 25-35% in the previous document to 30-40%.

So, the real changes are at A03, and these changes are also, mostly, welcome.  The old wording of A03 assessed the extent to which students could ‘understand analyse and evaluate’ a ‘range of source material’ and ‘how aspects of the past have been interpreted’.  The new wording has it that students should understand, analyse and make valid historical claims from ‘a range of source materials, including written historical sources whose precise provenance is given’ and ‘a range of representations and interpretations […] as part of a historical enquiry’.

Though the wording ‘as part of a historical enquiry’ was in both documents, I welcome the new focus on using sources to make historical claims.   The old wording could lead to evaluation being ‘bolt-on’ and obscure the point of sources being in an exam.  Students (and some teachers!) might be heard referring to ‘doing sources’ when in fact they should be ‘doing history’.

I’m more puzzled by the reference to ‘precise provenance is given’, and perhaps a little worried.  Teaching practice has come a long way from the ‘parlour game’ of sources A-E, students (and, again, some teachers!) have been steadily moved away from stock evaluation depending solely on provenance to looking at questions of context, tone, of typicality, of relevance and focus.  I hope that ‘precise provenance’ does not lead us back in the wrong direction.  As I type however, I can think of a number of source questions in recent exams where more precise provenance would have been very useful for students.  I’m thinking in particular of an OCR MW exam which used a picture of a family of sharecroppers, where the question was ‘why was this picture taken’. More precise provenance in this question would perhaps have stopped it from being nothing more than an informed guessing game.

4. Controlled Assessment is gone.

I know a lot of people will not be sad to see it go.  Worries about validity and cheating of coursework have led to a great administrative burden being placed on schools, departments and teachers through controlled assessment.  I still regret that students will not have the chance to research, edit and write a longer piece in the way that happens in the real world.  Coursework also showed up the strengths of some students who struggled in exams.  To that extent I wish that a way could be found to allow history GCSE to be partly assessed on coursework of some kind.

In conclusion  Drawing together a judgement.

All in all, in terms of content I think this is a reasonable approach – there is lots to be excited about in fact, and I await the exam boards’ responses eagerly.  I’d be really interested to hear what others feel – It’d be great to hear what your dream GCSE specification would be!

Sources(!)

New ‘GCSE subject content and assessment objectives’ for history (2013)

Old ‘GCSE subject criteria for history’ (2007)

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