Frameworks, Thematic Stories and
What's in it for Students?
What do these words mean?
Frameworks, outlines, themes, thematic stories, big pictures – these terms are all used in relation to KS3, seemingly inter-changeably. I have chosen to use the term ‘thematic stories’ because to me the words ‘framework’ and ‘outline’ suggest something static, a set of historical lamp-posts whose relationship to each other is unchanging. ‘Theme’ seems similarly inert, more sociological than historical. I prefer ‘thematic stories’ for the simple reason that it conveys that what we’re dealing with is a construct or interpretation, that this story could be told differently, depending on viewpoint or choice of content. And it sounds friendlier! But I expect there’s an MA or PhD in there for somebody who wants to explore exactly how these terms differ.
Why is organizing content by thematic stories a potential improvement?
The starting point is a sense of frustration over what children gain from KS3 History. There is little evidence of children gaining a coherent picture of the past, that infamous framework of knowledge, or of developing their sense of chronology in any depth. To non-teachers those aims seem so simple, especially as, contrary to the delusions of journalists and university historians, children are taught events in chronological order – so why is it so difficult?
The simplest way to answer this is to look at any standard outline KS3 coverage, then look for the story that unites the events. Immediately you can see the problem. There is no single overall story for pupils to follow – what are the links from Becket to the Black Death, from the Civil War to the Industrial Revolution or from the Suffragettes to the Holocaust? It’s a bit like reading all the Harry Potter books but taking random chapters from each in turn. If you have an IQ in stratospheric figures you can somehow hold all the plots in your head and switch from one to another but for most of us … no chance! This makes teachers’ job extremely hard – you have to impose patterns where they’re difficult to see. It’s very unsurprising that pupils emerge from KS3 with patchy knowledge – in some cases, yes, real depth of understanding of individual people and events (because of the high quality of much in-depth work) - but there is little chance of pupils attaining a coherent, cohesive big picture of the past when the topics they study have only the thread of chronological order to hold them together. There’s no visible stories across time for them to hold onto – and stories are at the heart of our ability to remember.
Why hasn’t this been identified before? It probably was (somebody out there will tell me when and who) but it never seems to have been widely discussed or acted on. Way back in the 60s and 70s it didn’t seem to matter that half the class dropped History at 14 – that was just the way it was. And the fact that they hadn’t got past 1688 in history – “so what?” was the unspoken thought. The more youthful amongst you won’t remember that very little 20 th century history was studied in schools until the 1970s anyway. So it wasn’t really until the advent of the NC in 1991 that serious national thought was given to what makes a coherent History syllabus for 11-14 year-olds and then there was no obvious reason to depart from a structure based on chronological blocs moving forward across time.
The experience of the NC since 1991 seems to show that the approach based on chronological blocs is flawed if we want children to develop a sense of overviews, frameworks, chronology. We know that in many schools History teaching has improved considerably. A much wider range of techniques is employed, linked to varied learning styles. Resources are many times more interesting. History teachers are extremely well trained – or they were until Government vandalism destroyed PGCE courses. So that leaves the possibility that the course structure doesn’t mesh with children’s learning needs re sense of chronology etc. It can’t be said often enough that
1. Children do not acquire chronological understanding simply by covering events in chronological order, any more than they learn how to handle sources effectively by just reading extracts from chronicles and diaries.
2. Chronological understanding needs to be broken down into its constituent parts (sequence, duration, sense of period, AD/BC, change and continuity etc) and these need to be taught explicitly. Some aspects will benefit from the emphasis on thematic stories while others (e.g. 1485 is the 15th century, not 14 th, what BC stands for, do the Tudors come before the Stuarts) need Rapid Regular Reinforcement – frequent 5 minute activities, True or False style, which get children thinking about these terms and their meaning - a pacy, active way to start a lesson.
But maybe we need to acknowledge something else, that achieving understanding of that all-embracing framework of knowledge by the end of KS3 is simply too ambitious. It’s not defeatist but setting out a more achievable objective – that by the end of KS3 pupils will be able to tell individual thematic stories across time – stories of power and democracy, everyday life, empires etc. Dealing with these as individual stories doesn’t preclude making links amongst them (especially if we develop good explicit strategies based around children’s ‘sense of period’) but the prime aim should be to give pupils an understanding of these thematic stories as individual stories and help them develop the knowledge and skills to be able to tell them.
Identifying the thematic stories
Here is a list of possible thematic stories for consideration in KS3 planning:
A. Everyday life – how home and working lives have changed – and why. This is where major events such as the Black Death and Industrial Revolution are located.
B. Power and Human Rights – including the two sub-themes on monarchy and the fight for democracy and human rights, both in Britain and abroad. This is where I’ve placed the rise of Fascism and the Holocaust.
C. Empires – incorporating at least two empires, not just the British Empire.
E. Causes and consequences of warfare
F. British unity and identity
G. Beliefs and Attitudes – including religion
For more detail see the individual sections on each thematic story.
So what’s in it for the students? Helping children gain a sense of achievement
The central value of emphasising thematic stories is that it creates far greater potential for pupils getting a real sense of achievement – “I can tell this story, see the links across time and how it links to today”. A sense of achievement creates confidence and enhances the likelihood of future learning.
To take an example, what do we want pupils to take away in terms of understanding the story of ‘Power and Democracy’ (discussed much more fully in the Power and Democracy section)? Here broad take-away targets might be:
a) the ability to tell (at an appropriate level of depth) the story of e.g. power and democracy since 1066. This will entail:
i) how and why the power of the monarch rose and fell
ii) how democracy and civil rights were won and in what circumstances can be destroyed
b) the ability to explain how this story informs understanding of the world today and how it relates to our lives and, perhaps, decisions.
Summary of Benefits
So, in conclusion, a summary of reasons why pupils may well benefit from pursuing these thematic stories much more explicitly across Key Stage 3:
1. It offers the chance to develop a real sense of achievement - “I can tell this story, see the links across time and how it links to today”.
2. Returning to thematic stories at intervals across KS3 creates clear opportunities for returning to and reinforcing knowledge already gained. Re-enforcement is critical for embedding that knowledge for longer-term use.
3. The thematic stories create clearer opportunities to link to GCSE courses from 2016 when all candidates study a thematic unit.
4. In building these stories across time, the use of processes and concepts arises naturally and perhaps can be embedded more easily with a clear purpose to their use – a more effective historical account of the development of the thematic story.
5. Chronological understanding may improve as the different elements of chronological understanding are targeted explicitly.