Vermeulen – What is Progress in History T.H no.98 pp.35-41

Vermeulen’s piece is based on two main points – the interplay between skills and knowledge and the rejection of a linear form of progression.

According to Vermeulen, getting better at history is getting better at judgement. Historial judgement is made in the “interplay” between propositional and procedural historical knowledge. Propositional knowledge is the “know that” of history, of the narrative of history “underpinned” by understanding of concepts of historical study. Procedural knowledge is the “know how” of history, which Vermeulen casually lists as “evidence” and “communication skills”.

It is when talking about the “concepts” of history that Vermeulen most clearly rejects linear models of progression. Vermeulen claims that progress here means increasingly complex understanding (reflecting Lee and Shemilt’s “stronger misconceptions”) of historical concepts and claims that progress is made in a spider’s web pattern, presumeably with new information, being secured, forming a node in the increasingly sophisticated pattern of a specific historical concept. Later in the article Vermeulen makes clear a rejection of the discrete skill domains of linear progression models for assessing individual pupils.

Vermeulen relates how research which used deductive thinking methods when assessing the abiility of children to understand the “skills” of history are pessimistic about Children’s abilities, whereas those who used inductive methods of teaching (such as discussion) found that children could be helped to make complex and sophisticaed use of evidence.

Inductive teaching methods for “skills” might link with Vermeulen’s ideas for teaching understanding of historical concepts or “know that”. Vermeulen stresses the need for revisiting similar concepts. A strong link between inductive teaching of skills and re-visiting historical concepts might be be a process of inductive repetative personal exploration rather than a re-visit to secure the level a pupil reached last time. A further link might be found in her emphasis on regularities and similarities of history, through which pupils understanding of concepts acquire “increasing complexity” and the need for “deliberate” creation of patterns of similarity.

Having rejected linear models she says that they can nevertheless be useful in planning, but doesn’t really explain how. In respect of planning she offers two broad strategies – firstly an emphasis on “meta-understading” -“an understanding of how history works” borrowing from Bourdillon. This meta understanding is to be attained by “deconstruction” of narratives and sources to show how history works.

McAleavy: Using the attainment targets in KS3 AT2

I’m really glad that I read this after reading Lee and Shemilt.

Lee and Shemilt’s arguments that NCAT are flawed because of their lack of relation to how pupils learn, their over reliance on arbitrary “once attained” targets like “evaluate” and connecting certain targets with certain ages are to an extent anticipated by McAlevy.

For example, McAleavy talks of “visiting” and “re-visiting” concepts. Which seems to echo Lee and Shemilt’s ideas of pupils exchanging weak for stronger misconceptions, rather than the once and for all attainment model implicit in the bare words of NCAT. Similarly McAleavy’s “threads” helps prevent the idea that pupils should only look at different types of interps at certain ages, or only begin to consider the “evidence” behind interpretations at another predetermined age.

However much that remains of of his view of interpretations is troublesome. Firstly McAleavy bases his ideas for activites and assessment solely on the targets in the assessment criteria. This shows how important progression models are – they form short and medium term targets that teachers use in their plans for activities. McAleavy still talks of a pupil reaching level 4 in AT2 – which implies that before this a pupil is not able to assess interpretations according to their evidential base, and that afterwards they can. A “once and for all” attainment is what McAleavy expects, in the final analysis.

His emphasis on the “historical validity” of interpretations implies that this is history work in search of the truth. That interpretations are to be quizzed mainly on their relation to the “truth”. I believe this is problematic on a raft of levels. For instance see my post number 67 on the TES website (posting as foodkid). In addition, this implication contains a pitfall, a tragedy and a danger.

This search for “truth” is further implied in the activites suggested in figure 1. Most of the questions posed here and the activities suggested could sit solely in the realm of AT4 or questions of “enquiry” “reliability” or “evidence”. For instance, pupils are asked whether the interpretation is plausible, what was the purpose or intended audience of the interpretation, or how far was the background of the author affecting the interpretation? These questions are all reasonable questions to ask, but risk the “red herring” or formulaic “hunt the liar” pitfall of “sources A-E” type exercises.

More importantly, and tragically, they miss the crucial, exciting and living point of framing an interpretation question, the reason that Counsel calls interpretations “the jewel of key stage 3”; namely that in explaining why the interpretation is a certain way, we can find out just as much about the author’s culture, time, lifestyle, beliefs etc as we can about the period of time that is the subject of his interpretation.

Dangerously, McAleavy frames questions which are seriously misleading as to the nature of interpretations and historical knowldege, such as “which parts of the interpretation are factual and which are points of view”. Pupils are invited to sort statements in accounts of historical events into piles of FACT and OPINION. This is a false dichotomy. I can see no reason why one cannot have an opinion that is largely “factual”. One could have a “fact” that is made up, by a protagonist, a “biast” commentator, or a wicked historian.

One last problem that I have with this article is McAleavy’s assertion that we should introduce pupils to a range of interpretations. He says that there’s no hierarchy of truth to this list, but he doesn’t really make clear why we should so expose our students. Again the implication is that our pupils need practice in searching for veracity in the sources of history that we find around us.

Before reading this I was hoping that I’d come away with the beginning of an idea of the type of questions that we should be asking about interpretations, and I suppose I have found a set of “threads” that McAleavy wishes us to consider when looking at interpretations. He also provides us with a “definition” of sorts and a warning to be aware of the differences between “contemporary” points of view and a “concious reflection on the past”. I could use these threads and the definition as a basis for making a questionnaire, or the start of a discussion with teachers.

I really enjoyed reading the article as I feel like I’m finally starting to piece together the two halves of my enquire – namely that of “progression” and “interpretation”. McAleavy conciously uses the NCAT model of progression (albeit in AT form) to craft his medium term and short term planning of questions and activities in relation to “interpretations”.

However, I also feel that I’m starting to disappear up my own fundament in a post-modern funk. The link between past and present, the lack of distinction between viewer and what is viewed, between history and the interpretation is once again becoming a burden. It would be so “nice” to be able to see the world in terms of “primary” and “secondary”, of “what happened” and “the ways that people have sought to bend the truth”.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to McAleavy?

Action Research Model

I’m going to use this model, from “A teacher’s guide to Classroom Research” by David Hopkins.

I’m going to use this because I like it! It’s not as harsh as some of the other models, by which I mean it fits the way that I see research in a real classroom really working.

Just as learning is an ongoing conversation, it seems to me that this is reflected in the ongoing reflection and change built into this model.

Rob Phillips and the History of Interpretations

Just finished reading a review of Husbands, Kitson and Pendry’s “Understanding History Teaching” and Rob Phillip’s “Reflective Teaching of History” in This quarter’s Teaching History.

Nicholas Kinloch, the reviewer, makes the point that we can’t understand how we teach history, unless we understand the history of teaching history.

Perhaps there could be room for a review of the history of the concept of interpretation in history teaching – similar to that article I read about the history of the concept of “skills” in Teaching History.

Research Review 19th September

My title is Action Research and Intervention Study to research the progress of Year 13 students’ understanding of Historical Interpretations.

I’ve done a fair amount of reading on progression and understand that there seem to be several different points of view:

  • NCAT style – ladders of progress, in which pupils obtain progressively harder skills, each one building on the last.
  • “Shemilt and Lee” style progression descriptors, which only describe the kinds of response that children might give to a particular task, do not hold true for all children and are not useful in terms of target. Shemilt and Lee see progress as the exchange of weak for more powerful misconceptions
  • Progress as an exhibition – which is what I need to look at more.

My next step is in reading up more on the following matters:

  • progress – what is the idea of an exhibition; different aspects set out in Vermeulen.
  • interpretations – starting with MacAleavy – what does “interpretations” mean?
  • designing and Action Research plan – waiting for my book to arrive at Waterstones!

Immediate ways forward are:

  1. Fish out the MacAleavey
  2. Read the other MacAleavey (longer one!) from Know How book.
  3. Read Vermeulen.

the harried autodidact

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