Thinking Aloud

What do we want students to know about the middle ages?

My review of what I teach about the middle ages continues at a glacial pace. There are so many different angles from which to approach curriculum planning it is hard to settle down and make a start.

Michael Fordham Fordham suggests that one approach might include generating a list of essay style-questions. Perhaps 100 for Key-Stage Three. What might these questions read, uniquely, for the Middle Ages? I concur with Fordham that there needs to be a transition between the Middle Ages and the developing ‘Early Modern’ period post-1485. There might be questions that explicitly refer to this and indeed the full Millennia wide teaching of the key stage. But what of the Middle Ages alone?

My thinking has also been shaped by discussions surrounding ‘fingertip’ knowledge and ‘residual knowledge’. In light of my recent reading of Making Good Progress? the idea of planning for what students must know in the long-run, what we want the residual knowledge to be, seems to be a valuable starting point for planning. This would then need to be integrated with the disciplinary knowledge that students should be expected to pick up through the way that this historical content is taught.

When thrashing out what ‘residual knowledge’ we want pupils to have in the future, we need to have an eye on the next chapter of the story. I remain of the view that pupils need to be able to orient themselves in time, they should have a basic chronological overview in their head. This will involve frequent comparisons between historical periods to pinpoint their unique properties. This would hopefully generate a ‘chronological compass’ for pupils as well as giving some narrative logic to the development of Britain over the last thousand years or so.

With all of these considerations in mind, might I propose the following goals for teaching Medieval history, as something of a starting point. I certainly intend to refine these, and populate them with more specific historical content, that should hopefully fulfil these aims. That is the next question: what knowledge of the middle ages is ‘cumulatively sufficient’ to meet these goals?

 

Some goals for teaching medieval history:

Students should know that:

  • The Church, the King and the Nobility competed for power ‘at the top.’
  • England’s peasants lived complex lives & contested for power themselves
  • Power, wealth and ideas in England were shaped by events outside of her own borders*
  • There are few sources available for life in the Middle Ages. Much information has been extracted from few particular sources.
  • The Middle Ages’ legacy is joined up to events in the Early Modern period and indeed to life today.

*In proposing this, my thinking is shaped very much by Robert Winder’s superb Bloody Foreigners. I am painfully aware that my subject knowledge here is not what it should be. There are, therefore, likely to be gaps which I hope readers will fill.

This knowledge could perhaps be framed in the following essay-style questions:

  1. What was the role and influence of the Church in Medieval England?
    1. To what extent did it change?
  2. Who really governed Medieval England?
  3. How fair is it to speak of a ‘typical peasant experience?’
  4. How do historians know about life in the Middle Ages?
  5. How was England shaped by its invasions?
  6. What event served to change Medieval England the most?
  7. What feature of the Middle Ages has left the strongest legacy?
  8. What marks the Early Modern Period as distinct to the Middle Ages?

 

These questions might then be added to and adapted after considering what events, knowledge and sources are essential and what content we might be more selective about, but might add up to sufficient answers to these questions.

So. Three questions to be getting on with:

  • Is this a valid approach to curriculum design?
  • Are these goals comprehensive and historically valid for teaching the Middle Ages at KS3?
  • What knowledge of the Middle Ages is independently necessary and cumulatively sufficiently to meet these goals?
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