Genericism’s children

Many a head of history will have used some of the holiday to do a little thinking about how to move his or her history department’s practice forward.

Let’s imagine one such head of history. She has been anticipating the likely state of Year 9’s essay writing by June. What sorts of things will the essays tell her? How are they going to get better? And what does ‘getting better’ mean anyway?

Let’s imagine that she and her department have focused on causation essays – those essays that will answer questions such as: Why did Russia have a Bolshevik revolution? Why did South African apartheid end? Let’s say she’s been thinking about this in the light of earlier causation essays, perhaps Year 8’s favourite on Napoleon’s demise. What is a strong argument in an extended response to such a question? In what different ways do the students arrange, link and prioritise the causes? And what layers of knowledge do the essays reveal? What deficits in knowledge do they betray? What is knowledge ‘doing’ in the stronger essays? What hidden layers of knowledge from Year 7 seem to be indirectly affecting success in Years 8 and 9? Which causation arguments seem to have the most explanatory power? What is giving these students power as they survey and wonder, judge and reckon?

Our head of history will steep herself in the numerous articles by other history teachers who have considered such matters over two decades. She knows most already, but she will search for new ones. And in order to move deeply into decisions about the nature of what she is after, and to build her own knowledge, she will also read recent historical scholarship: Christopher Clark on the causes of the First World War, Mary Beard on the fall of the Roman Empire, or perhaps that new book on the Ottomans … … is there time?

… Stop. Stop right there, head of history. It’s 11pm. 3 January 2016. Time to stop reading. Time to stop dreaming. Time to go back to school. The place where all this should be happening. The place where all this professional knowledge should be prized and used, tested and explored.

The place where it probably won’t.

Dream on head of history. Maybe in the Easter holidays?

Our head of history falls asleep, all over the Ottomans.

How will our head of history’s efforts to use such knowledge fare when faced with a new whole-school approach to lesson planning, using a generic framework such as one derived from Bloom’s taxonomy? Let us imagine three such heads of history conversing with their senior leaders in three schools.

In Scenario 1, senior leaders have insisted that lesson objectives commencing with the verbs ‘describe’, ‘explain’ and ‘analyse’ or ‘evaluate’ must match successive stages of a lesson. Pedagogies associated with these verbs must foster the increments of demand that their hierarchy is deemed to enshrine. These pedagogies form a menu on which teachers are expected to draw.

The conversation our head of history has with an SLT member is confused, stressful and culminates in deadlock. They clash on two fronts: first, over the term ‘explain’; second, over the status of the verbs. The head of history points out that she is indeed privileging pupils’ explanation, but causal explanation. She points out that this is a style of disciplinary reasoning that shapes many history essays. She insists that it amounts to an argument in response to a certain kind of ‘Why?’ question, that students will build such arguments across three or four lessons and that ‘explain’, in such a context, does not mean ‘explicate’, ‘set out’ or ‘expand’. It also has nothing to do with explaining the process of photosynthesis or explaining how a bicycle works. It has nothing to do with the kind of ‘explaining’ to which SLT refers.

To force an ‘explain’ (of either meaning) into the middle section of each lesson confuses the journey toward building powerful, informed, causal explanations, especially if, as SLT expects, the teacher must tell pupils that ‘explain’ is a step more demanding than ‘describe’, and even more damaging if teachers must distinguish it from ‘analyse’. Causal explanation, in history, is, necessarily, analysis.

The tense conversation muddles on. And as efforts to communicate lurch about, our frustrated head of history gradually realises what is going on. SLT is treating the verbs as proxies for learning processes, each with attendant teaching method. She is therefore reading our head of history’s comments on ‘explanation’ through that lens. In other words, our SLT member reads the history department’s curricular account as if it were a pedagogy.

But causal explanation is a curricular object; it is neither learning process nor teaching approach. Causal explanation may, of course, command all kinds of learning process; some might coincide with aspects of Bloom’s taxonomy, but it is not, in itself, a learning process. It is a disciplinary end, a curricular ‘what?’, not a pedagogic ‘how’. To read curriculum as pedagogy is not to read curriculum at all.

In requiring our head of history to build a lesson around learning processes, our SLT promotes an intransitive pedagogy, a pedagogy without an object.

The conversation is held entirely at crossed purposes.

In Scenario 2, by contrast, our second SLT treats Bloom’s taxonomy as curriculum, but the conversation with our head of history is just as vexed. In this school, a variant of the taxonomy is used to capture generic ‘thinking skills for the twenty-first century’. In this construal, the verbs describe processes, but processes to be learned rather than processes of learning – a crucial distinction, for it renders them a curricular object.

Underpinning SLT’s desire to add these into the curriculum is a perception of deficit. History is construed by SLT as information, as a collection of inert facts; students must therefore be taught, as an addition, the skills of critical thinking. They must be encouraged, as an addition, to be creative.

Yet our head of history knows that history is not a collection of facts but a structured field of knowledge. She knows that intricate relations between its factual elements – relations structured by language, by chronology, by narrative – give all that factual material, once secure in memory, a special power, a function in assimilating new knowledge. Our head of history also knows that history lessons tackle the origin, structure and status of that knowledge: students must re-arrange and re-construe, argue and analyse. A history teacher carefully shuttles between representations of the material that the discipline studies (substantive knowledge) and induction into the tradition of epistemic rules and practices that made such representations possible (disciplinary knowledge). To climb into the conversation that is history, to learn its intellectual rigour, is to nurture criticality and creativity in abundance.

Our head of history’s resistance therefore now arises not merely from clashing nomenclature. It arises from the fact that the required curricular addition is redundant.

Scenario 3 yields a happier conversation, yet the result of its harmony is tragic. This time SLT listens well to the head of history. She realises that strong history lessons already see students carrying out all the moves in the school’s generic skill taxonomy. Students in history do, indeed, combine and create, arrange and apply!

Delighted at this surprising, if accidental, compliance, all SLT need ask our head of history to do is to show where in her history curriculum documentation these modes of thinking will be taught, and to evidence the result.

As price for being left in peace, this third head of history will now complete audits against these generic categories. She will screen out the distinctive historical meanings, the ones much discussed in her department, in history teachers’ literature, in her own subject-specific training. In order to satisfy a management narrative, she will re-write columns on workschemes and boxes on lesson plans. She will engage in concomitant casuistry in assessment. Thus, in Scenario 3, curricular by-product has become product. A faux curricular narrative has been created, and now becomes the narrative that will hold the head of history to account.

It is not that the head of history does not value creativity and criticality; it is, rather, that these outputs do not correspond with the means of their nurture. They are not resolvable into objectives of the same name.

Above all, on her schemes of work, they derogate the thing that our head of history sees making the biggest difference for the erstwhile weaker student, the thing that gives hope that vocab-poor students might eventually gain the critical skills SLT claims to prize – that is, the systematic, steady familiarisation with layers and layers of rich, fascinating, enabling knowledge.

The double tragedy is that this investigation of the history department has not improved SLT’s grasp of the nature of historical knowledge, its relational properties and epistemic structures. It has converted these things into a superficial and misleading curricular narrative, and in order to retain professional harmony, the head of history must pretend her curricular decisions are governed by it. She must be complicit in a lie.


These three conversations, about a non-curriculum, a redundant curriculum and a usurper curriculum, illustrate communication breakdowns between genericist and subject-specialist. They do no more than imperfectly exemplify a stream of cri de coeurs in my in-box from desperate heads of history which have waxed and waned (mostly waxed) over fifteen years. I choose Blooms – or rather common applications of its variants – at random. Any number of whole-school policies, on teaching, learning or assessment, would do.

I share them here for two reasons, each of which I plan to explore in this blog:

First, to illustrate a clash of cultures in many of England’s state secondary schools, that between curriculum construed as strongly bounded domains of specialized knowledge and curriculum construed as (or replaced by) sets of aims deriving from assorted perceptions of utility. It is a divide between two views of what is emancipatory for students.

Second, to posit a crisis in our conceptions of senior curriculum leadership. Such a crisis is characterized by an absence of curricular reflection on differing knowledge structures and their epistemic power, on the place of knowledge in definitions of progress, on subjects as distinctive yet shifting traditions into which pupils can be inducted, on the interplay of layers and forms of knowledge within subjects, and on knowledge as the inclusion issue: what Hirst and Peters called ‘public modes of knowledge’ and the access they give us to educated conversation.

This absence matters because it leaves a vacuum. It is a vacuum into which genericism flows.