From 23-30 April 2020, the RHS hosted its first Virtual Curriculum conference. The event had originally been designed as a one-day workshop to be held in the RHS offices on 23 April. Instead, registered participants were invited to read, watch and listen to a range of presentations, and then to use the online discussion forum to address the questions posed by the presenters, as well as to raise other thoughts arising from the presentations. In this blog post, the conference organisers, Ken Fincham and Peter D’Sena, share the presentation slides and reflect on the discussions that emerged throughout the week.
Virtual Curriculum Conference: The Programme.
Click on the presenter’s name to access their presentation slides.
Theme 1: Transitions from school to university
David Ingledew (Hertfordshire) ‘Transitions and the First Year Undergraduate Experience’
Theme 2: The new A level history syllabus
Siobhan Dickens (Cambridge) ‘Historical knowledge and the A-Level curriculum – suggested new horizons, and how collaboration between secondary education and higher education might contribute’.
Mike Goddard (OCR) ‘Issues around diversifying content in A Level History: an Exam Board perspective.’
Theme 3: Equality, diversity and inclusivity in the curriculum
Eoin MacGabbhan (AQA) ‘Planning for the Future A-level History Curriculum’
Katharine Burn (Oxford) ‘The Historical Association and history for BMEs’
Peter D’Sena (Hertfordshire) ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’
Theme 4: The history student experience
Marcus Collins (Loughborough) ‘A Special Subject? How students experience studying history at university’
Theme 5: The RHS teaching portal
Ken Fincham (Kent) ‘Introducing the teaching portal’
Eilish Gregory (London) ‘The teaching portal: how to use resources in and out of the classroom’
Andrew Foster (Kent) ‘Postgraduate education’
An Online Forum
The online forum accompanying the virtual curriculum conference produced a lively series of comments and debates, from postgraduate students as well as teachers. Certain common themes emerged from a number of different presentations. The enormous step represented by the move from school to university (David Ingledew) produced some interesting reflections on why first-year students liked lectures but disliked presentations. One explanation was that lectures were a novel form of learning, which conformed to the stereotypical ‘university’ experience and were now more often than not recorded. Student-led presentations, on the other hand, were seen as irrelevant and/or anxiety-inducing and sometimes a source of tension when students were assessed as a group but only a few had carried the rest. A useful solution was proposed to that last problem: use a very low assessment tariff and incorporate a degree of assessed reflections of the workings of the group to encourage effective collaboration in future. It was proposed that one way to supplement or enliven the abstract introduction to historiography might be to have a colleague work with small groups and discuss with them different types of source and different approaches which excite or anger her/him, and from this generate a discussion with some written work to follow: in other words, students would encounter a ‘real flesh and blood historian’, and should understand what HE researchers and teachers are about and acquire a broader sense of what learning in history means. The same approach has been used in some secondary schools to good effect.
Mike Goddard’s presentation on diversifying A level history drew attention to the lack of ‘expertise’ and shortage of ‘resources’ as barriers for teachers to take on new and more demanding modules. It was suggested that more research was needed into the dynamics of choice within schools, and that both ‘expertise’ and ‘resources’ might be probed further, since they may contain a host of different types of challenge. Here, as elsewhere, attention was drawn to Key Stage 3 (KS3) as a time for experimentation and innovation, without the constraints of GCSE and A levels, which can create a ‘trickle up’ to key stages 4-5: Katharine Burn, for example, noted that some schools were exploring migration at KS3 as a theme, using the new GCSE textbooks and resources. A widespread view was that HE should be more involved in discussions with teachers to explore options and approaches at this crucial stage. Siobhan Dickens’ talk prompted reflections on the success of Teaching Fellowship schemes, which had long-term benefits for participants, which included giving teachers more agency and creativity, and establishing enduring relations between HEs and local teachers. It represents a valuable model of HE/secondary collaboration which could be developed in other contexts and institutions. As one participant noted, there is immense goodwill available in HE for supporting schoolteachers. Consultative forums such as that run by OCR, or the HA’s new HE committee, are well-placed to tap this.
Eoin MacGabhann’s presentation raised the issue of keeping the history curriculum from KS3 through to degree level more consciously in step. Certainly, greater understanding of KS3 by HE would be welcomed. Diversifying the A level syllabus would mean hard choices about what modules should be dropped; a larger number of optional modules is only a partial solution, since each has to pay its way by attracting a reasonable number of entries. Here consultation with teachers, students and HE colleagues is one sensible way forward.
Katharine Burn’s talk on diversifying the curriculum in schools raised a question about characteristics of those schools encouraging change: while there were no particular concentration by location, a significantly higher proportion of state schools to independent schools had began to diverse their history curriculum. It seems clear that teachers were more confident about introducing change when it could be done incrementally, without a significant increase in content. There’s an urgent need for more research into parental and student attitudes in order to get a more rounded view of the history curriculum, present and future.
Decolonising the curriculum drew discussion which addressed the problematic and sometimes contestable nature of the concepts associated in what is a wide-ranging movement and the challenges in implementing change. In his presentation, Peter D’Sena cited some of the RHS Race Report’s statistics about the low percentages of BAME staff teaching history in UK universities. Some participants expressed shock and concern, but made the valid observation that staff identifying as white therefore had an enormous role and responsibility – but needed to be given some assurances about how to become ‘allies’. Others mused whether, possibly, there was ‘unresolvable tension between the ethics of teaching and the politics/hermeneutics of historiography’. There was general agreement, though, that there needs to be pioneers, just as there were a few decades ago for feminist and queer history. One or two respondents also noticed how the presentation occasionally littered more general observations about pedagogic practice, with one writing: ‘I was really struck by the comment you made … about there being little point in changing curriculums when still clinging to nineteenth century forms of assessment’. In that sense, the message that it is more appropriately about decolonising education, did seep through.
Marcus Collins’ presentation on student experience generated discussion on the pressure to increase contact hours. Why have we singularly failed to persuade parents and students that contact hours are a poor measure of teaching quality or an inappropriate index of value for money, not least with so much student absenteeism? There is a real risk that raising contact hours would sacrifice quality for quantity. Several participants were in favour of ‘short fat modules’ to encourage concentrated study and for fruitful student-teacher interactions; evidence from Australia suggests that they are particularly useful for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As Marcus observed, SEAS comments suggest that history teaching is in relatively better-shape than other disciplines, and this needs to be deployed in conversations with HE senior management.
The final session, on the RHS’s forthcoming teaching portal, elicited a number of helpful remarks on the scope, novelty, audience, content and clarity of purpose of the portal. These will be discussed by the working group which will be busy between now and the portal’s launch in November 2020.
Ken Fincham and Peter d’Sena