Questioning History

What to do with year 9 when KS3 was compressed into two years? We tried teaching GCSE for examination in year 10 for a few years and, whilst our results were good and the C/D borderline gap did close, we felt the most able were not achieving their full potential by a grade. We could have chosen to go back and continue to teach the KS3 programme of study but four years ago I decided to introduce the project qualification. This would give the students an opportunity to build on their historical skills and for their only time in their historical learning choose what history they wanted to study. At the end of Year 9, they would have a qualification. As GCSE history is open to all students that are interested in history, whatever their ability, we offer Level 1 (G-D) and Level 2 (C-A*).

Students must choose an area to study and create an enquiry question and complete a project proposal form outlining their objectives, give a timeline of activities and resources they will need. Then they research their enquiry question; write up their findings giving supporting arguments and alternative viewpoints or interpretations. They also must use a range of different sources and at Level 2 evaluate the reliability of their sources and draw their own conclusions based on their research. Throughout the project, they have to keep an activity log recording what they have been doing, including problems encountered and how they have overcome them. Finally, they must share their work with an outside audience and then write an evaluation of their own learning and how they have tackled it. Really, it’s like a mini dissertation and we try to ensure the academic rigour for history is driving their project forward.

 We start by showing students Ron Berger’s ‘the story of Austin’s butterfly’ and we discuss that is okay to get things wrong and the importance and value of hard work and redrafting in order to produce a piece of work that they can be genuinely proud of. Getting them to create a really good historical enquiry question is the next step. Riley has discussed the importance of history teachers creating enquiry questions that will provide “purposeful learning” and “rigorous historical thinking”.  This can be problematic for teachers, so getting students to do it would be a challenge.   We list some possible topics they might be interested in researching.  Most chose topics that they knew something about and had studied at primary school or at KS3.  We provided stacks of history magazines to get them to find topics they knew nothing about and to pique their interest in something new.  Their first attempts at enquiry questions were pretty dreadful e.g. what was fashion like in 1900? Or was Henry a good king?  As they need to give alternative viewpoints or interpretations we gave them some sentence starters to get them thinking e.g. How significant was …, how important were the consequences of …, how have interpretations of ….changed?

Over the last four years students have created some fantastic questions, such as Did Catherine of Aragon fail to have any male heirs because she was anorexic?  This was based around an article the student had read by Tremlett (2010).  The student had seen Tremlett’s article in a Sunday Magazine, bought and read his book and did a huge amount of research, both historical and around the science of pregnancy and anorexia – no mean feat for a 14 year old.  She got an A*.  Other examples ranged from “did Richard III kill the princes in the tower?”, “Should Derek Bentley have been hung for his part in the murder of PC Sidney Miles?” (Level 1 student) to “who made the biggest impact in the medical industry during the 1800s?”

The first year was difficult as we struggled with the concept of 30 students studying 30 different topics.  However, we learned from experience.  Once the students are up and running with their research they work independently and the teachers have individual learning conversations with them.  Students must set their own learning objective for each lesson and assess whether or not they have met it at the end.  This is recorded in their activity log.  We intersperse this with whole-class teaching on subjects such as evaluating the reliability of sources, how to write a bibliography or how to write a good conclusion.

This qualification has been a success in our department. Apart from the good results (approx 90% pass rate over the last 3 years), the students have gained a great deal. They have learned historical content and skills. Their literacy improves and they learn independence and resilience. Perhaps not least of all, they have increased enjoyment as they have made their own choice of study.

Click here to read the article in the August 2014 edition of UKEdMagazine


Riley, M. (2000) ‘Into the Key Stage 3 history garden: choosing and planting your enquiry questions’ Teaching History, 99

Tremlett, G. (2000) ‘Was Henry VIII first wife anorexic?  Catherine of Aragon’s secret problem’  Mail on Line

Lesley Munro is Head of History at Homewood School & Sixth Form Centre in Tenterden, Kent. Find her on Twitter at @LesleyMunro4.

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