Some reflections on the West London Free School History Conference Saturday 25th February 2017

Along with over a hundred other history teachers, I went to the WLFS History conference this weekend. It was a brilliantly rich, informative, inspirational and enhancing day. I want to share some of the themes that ran through the various lectures and workshops which I don’t feel can be adequately described in a tweet.


The democratic nature of the discipline.

These were Christine Counsell’s words at the beginning of the day. She argued that, as history teachers, we must prepare children for argument. In Jim Carroll’s workshop, he emphasised that pupils need to be able to see the need for an argument. He argued that this could be achieved by asking pupils genuine historical questions. They need to be able to wrestle with the kinds of questions that historians argue about so that there is something to argue against. In Vartan Tamizian’s workshop, he showed how pupils had constructed their own narratives of the past and, in doing so, had seen the necessary processes of selection and prioritisation it entails. Finally, Professor Robert Tombs emphasised that a lean and potent narrative should have room for lots of voices and experiences.


The importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum.

In the opening lecture, Christine Counsell argued for a knowledge-rich and discipline based curriculum for social justice. She stated that the “poor will never have a chance of climbing into the corridors of power” unless we provide them with the adequate substantive knowledge to give them the ability to join the speech community and education community. She reminded us of the great joy that is to be gained from the stories of history. Together, we enjoyed reading what she termed ‘coffee-table history’ from Simon Schama. Counsell’s joy of history infectious and I was struck by the importance of letting pupils share in that joy and that comes through their grasp of knowledge about the past.

As teachers, we serve to pass on knowledge but we must remember that the disciplinary and substantive knowledge sits above us. We are tiny cogs with an important task.


Reading historical scholarship.

In his workshop, Jim Carroll shared his research on teaching literacy as part of the teaching of the discipline rather than as a bolt-on tick-box exercise. His initial theorisation of this relationship had begun from a sense of dissatisfaction with the historical writing his pupils were producing.

Like many other history teacher-researchers have done recently including Rachel Foster, Kath Goudie and Paula Worth (Teaching History) Carroll looked to historical scholarship to help him theorise this further and he discovered how very different the ways in which pupils were being trained to write a history essay was from actual historical scholarship. In Ian Kershaw’s work, he was struck by the density of each paragraph and the way in which events were bundled up into abstract generalisations. Moreover, he noticed that historians rarely use heuristics such as “because”, “so” or “therefore” and he realised that these words don’t necessarily serve a purpose in a causal argument where the role of a cause needs to be described. It is verbs such as “arising from”, “allowed to” and “delivered” that characterise a historian’s argument and a historian’s proficiency in using that word comes from being drenched in knowledge of the past and knowledge of the discipline.


This is just a flavour of what I gained from the day but it touches on some of the most important themes. It is a privilege to be part of such a strong, varied and vibrant community of history practitioners who, quite happily, give up their Saturdays to discuss curriculum, knowledge and history. It reminds me of the wider purpose of the thing that we are trying to do everyday, a little at a time. But as Headteacher Hwyel Jones made clear at the start of the day, we need to spread the message wider than our own echo chamber to really make a difference.


Further reading:

E. D. Hirsch Cultural Literacy (especially chapter 2!)

Daisy Christodoulu Making Good Progress?

Kate Hammound Teaching History 157

Jim Carroll Teaching History 162 and 163

Michael Young Futures


1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Where can I read about the WLFS History Conference? | Goldilocks History

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