WLFS History Conference – Part Three

Narratives are Complex

You can find a guide to my three posts, and other people’s reviews here.

The session that I took most from was probably Vartan Tamizian’s session on historical narratives. Unfortunately, my journey here started from the “narrative analysis” questions in the Edexcel GCSEs. However Vartan very usefully fused my thinking, which to this point had remained compartmentalised into separate silos in my head: historical frameworks, which I have been working on for my MA, and narrative accounts in history. This, I think, demonstrates the value of these conferences. One of my colleagues in RS perhaps puts it best, by suggesting that there are no new ideas in teaching, but it can be valuable to be reminded of them.

Vartan’s session was typical of the day, in that it had both strong connections with existing historical discourse, with a wealth of references to literature-review level research and to academic history. I was hooked from the outset. Participants were given a wealth of examples of how narratives are used across the curriculum. One idea I particularly liked was at GCSE, where students produce a “living document”, a narrative of their course so far that they review and update in each school holiday. These narratives serve as excellent revision tools, as well as being quick diagnostic tools for the teacher. Narratives can be used to embed knowledge; the Michaela school have said much on the power of ‘stories’ to develop memory.

In many ways, Vartan was perhaps preaching to the converted. The real value in the session came in how to construct historical narratives. I look forward to trying these ideas out in the classroom, but the clear distinction drawn between actors in history, and external events (“happenings”) seems an obvious and valuable way of breaking down the process of generating narratives.

Robert Tombs

Narratives are inherently complex. One of the challenges of delivering narratives to students is that we need to problematise them. History is too readily abused. Students too easily seize on parts of narratives that fit their existing world-view, their prejudices and discard the rest if they are not taught how to challenge the narrative (Howson 2009). This would involve the clear teaching of different historical interpetations. In light of this, I have wrestled with some elements of Robert Tombs’ closing lecture. It seems to have been an exceptionally popular part of the day, so I write this with some trepidation. But the idea that teaching an English narrative of history struck me as somewhat troubling. Tombs was very deliberate in drawing on the rise of Mary Seacole in history, as a cautionary tale and an example of why we should perhaps return to a more traditional curriculum. It was not clear that the Seacole myth has already been thoroughly debunked. I wasn’t always entirely clear on how far Tombs was echoing Counsell in the morning session. Counsell had passionately reminded us that “to challenge the canon, we must teach the canon” (Christine clearly read my most recent MA essay…!). Was this Tombs’ message too? I felt that it was, on balance, but the very deliberate point of excluding new minority histories was perhaps bristled within the more nuanced points that were being communicated.


I would like to think that the narrative of the day was one of knowledge, and providing the necessary disciplinary knowledge to make it powerful. We can all agree that the day revolved around a committed group of history teachers, wrestling with the complexity of their subject, facilitated by an excellent subject team at the West London Free School.


Roll on next year’s conference Louis! And St. Totteringham’s Day


Howson, J, ‘Potential and pitfalls in teaching ‘big pictures’ of the past’, Teaching History, 136, (2009).



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