Highlights from a seminar with Dr Lindsay Gibson: Small Cards, Big Picture: Constructing students’ narrative frameworks

It was inspiring to hear Dr Lindsay Gibson lead a seminar on how history educators can support their students in constructing big picture narrative of the past. It was interesting to hear how Canadian teachers have experienced similar difficulties to their British colleagues in getting students to consider what their individual topic based studies amount to. As many commentators in Britain seem to desire, Canada seems to struggle to get its students to string together narratives of Canadian history, deploying narratives which accurately sequence events and explain the developments in succession.

Gibson spoke at length about the existing literature, and he had numerous interesting insights. His seminar was built upon a summary of a pilot-study he has conducted with his colleagues in Canada. In short, Gibson had provided students with a ‘pre-test’ inviting students to list significant events in Canadian history in chronological order, and to then write a narrative of Canadian history. This was followed up with a teaching intervention and a repetition of the earlier test. I shall present some of the highlights of the seminar below:


  1. Narratives lay at the heart of students’ big pictures of the past. Gibson presented “narrative frameworks”, in a Shemiltian sense, as sitting above students’ historical knowledge using the second-order concepts and as a useful “instrument” for providing some organisation to students’ historical knowledge. Gibson very clearly buys into idea that students should be given a framework first, prior to teaching, across approximately five extended lessons. This is in direct contrast to other schools of thought which have suggested it might be better to develop a narrative out of a wealth of historical thinking, providing order to existing knowledge, rather than providing an outline to be revisited later. Such a belief was curious, given Gibson’s attempt to teach the overviews to tenth grade students: those with the most fixed and developed historical knowledge. It will be very interesting to hear how Gibson’s attempts to teach a framework to fifth grade students before developing their subject knowledge progress.
  2. A real strength of Gibson’s work, with his Canadian colleagues, was a resource he had created with a number of cards, akin to playing cards, which summarised key events in Canadian history. These cards encompassed a range of different themes, and ensured they covered a broad chronological range, including contact with the First Peoples, a history which is taking on increased prominence in Canadian discourse. These cards were used to test and support students in sequencing and have the potential to be used as a resource in developing students’ narratives. What was particularly impressive about these cards, were how they had been constructed with such close contact with academic historians. Gibson had created an exhaustive list of approximately 350 events and then submitted these to a range of historians, inviting them to highlight the seventy most significant on the list. One of the challenges involved in dealing with big picture narratives is the risk of ‘whose narrative?’ is being provided to students. Part of the aim of teaching students’ such narratives is to allow students to understand how narratives are constructed. To challenge narratives, they will need a broad base of knowledge, and this disciplinary authenticity should allow students to scrutinise and interrogate narratives they encounter in ‘everyday history’. This is the sort of powerful knowledge which we should be striving to impart as educators.
  3. Gibson suggested that one of the key features of a narrative are that they are “purposeful”. What he meant by this, I think, is that students’ narratives should have a clear beginning and end. There should be a clear ‘thread’ which links together the events that students have selected to include in a narrative. His task, for students, was to write a narrative of Canadian history and to give it a title, reflecting upon their work. Gibson hopes that this will help students to provide effective summary overviews of their narratives, and to see what past events have amounted to. This is extremely challenging, and is worth unpacking on its own, far beyond any discussions of how we might best support students in providing a narrative in the first place.
  4. When/if Gibson publishes the research he has conducted as part of this pilot study, the numerous findings he has made are essential reading. Gibson provided us with a wealth of interesting observations and conclusions, such as the number of errors students made before and after his teaching intervention. Gibson had tallies of the number of events students incorporated in the pre-test and post-test, the chronological breadth of events selected etc. etc. This provided fascinating insight into the students’ views on history, and how easily they were skewed towards the events they had studied most recently. It is exactly the sort of iterative analysis teachers should be conducting of their students’ work to target future interventions. For me, the most interesting observation that Gibson made was that, after the teaching intervention, students used fewer collective pronouns such as “we” and “our”. This suggests that students might have been coming to see narratives as historical constructs, and treating them in a more dispassionate fashion. It would be fascinating to unpack the reasons behind this, and consider how students understanding of their own history was being altered by the development of historical narratives of Canadian history.


Throughout the discussion the question of what prior knowledge (substantive and second-order) that students would need to be able to construct effective overviews constantly lurked in the background. I continue to disagree with Gibson, and other practitioners such as Shemilt, that overviews should be taught before more in-depth historical knowledge. Alison Kitson suggested that history educators have become increasingly effective at teaching historical interpretations. Perhaps it is time to encourage students to critically engage with historian’s narratives as interpretations. What might that look like?

Thanks must go to Dr Lindsay Gibson for generously giving his time, while visiting Europe, to lead this seminar. Further thanks must go to Arthur Chapman, and his colleagues, for the regular and lively discussions that take part at the IoE History Education Special Interest Group. 


“There are too many camera angles!”

Werner Herzog, the acclaimed German film director, reflects on the perils of modern football coverage. “There are too many camera angles” he complains. There is a particular beauty to seeing the ever so subtle shifts in the patterns of movement of a team. The tactical brilliance of a manager and how a team of eleven players execute are quite something to behold. There is a certain rigour and depth, a plane of sporting enjoyment that is hidden from view behind an excessive focus on the moments that attract more immediate focus. The disputed penalty, the fracas with between two team mates or an exciting diagonal pass.

And so it is with history. Students are left with a fragmented view of our past and no real sense of what each of their individual history lessons amount to. This is not a particularly new observation. OFSTED’s history subject reports have documented the problem in 2007 and 2011. History teachers have theorised on the problems in supporting students in forging connections across lessons and units of work, mostly in the columns of Teaching History. Jim Carroll, who has since turned his focus to the language of history teaching, published the most recent and thorough study on how teachers might support students in the British Curriculum Journal.

That said, the problem remains under theorised and the history teaching community is some way from reaching a consensus on how to help students construct meaningful big pictures of the past. Indeed, there is a fragile consensus at best on what students’ big pictures might look like. One of the more promising approaches revolve around Shemilt’s ‘frameworks’ of the past.[1] These have looked at providing students with some chronological and thematic organisation to all of human history. Students are given a provisional overview of human development, in socio-political and economic groups, with the past divided up into chronological chunks. In this way, students have something to slot new learning into and can question the original generalisations that they are taught. However, this ‘big picture first’ approach is fraught with difficulty, and Carroll has noticed an unsurprising lack of take up among history educators.

The Usable Historical Pasts project adopted a similar approach.[2]  Their conception of a ‘big picture’ was for students to be able to offer a chronological narrative of British history in the previous two thousand years. This is a more manageable temporal dimension, and therefore perhaps a curricular goal around which more of a consensus can be built. Their research is fascinating in demonstrating the problem of too many camera angles. When invited to offer a narrative of the past, even university undergraduate students were drawn towards “event like” narrative of the past, simply listing the more eye-catching and significant events of the past. Students’ selection of events appears to be far more intuitive than strategic. We need to provide students with the tools for constructing narratives that stretch across generations. Without it, students are left with mere episodes of the past. Without these extended narratives, how are students to see the true intricacies of the past? How might students, or citizens, truly relate the present to an unfolding past? If students are not taught to develop the skill of managing large amounts of information, why do we bother? If students assemble their own big picture narratives, might these be destructive and come into conflict with narratives driven by the evidence? At risk of asking one too many questions, if students big pictures are dominated by events that instinctively stick out to them, surely they are building their historical knowledge simply using experiential knowledge. Surely students need deliberate reflection and practise at selecting events, to see what’s really going on. We might focus on the penalty incident, because it speaks to our existing interest in the drama of the game. But what are the real issues of the game, of which this was just one fleeting moment.

What’s more, there’s a beauty to a bigger picture which every student is entitled to see. It is therefore great to see Dr Lindsay Gibson speaking at the Institute on the 9th April on this subject. Hopefully further dialogue among history educators ensues. What do history’s big pictures look like, and how can we support students in constructing them?

[1] Shemilt, D, (2000) ‘The Caliph’s Coin: The currency of Narrative Frameworks in History Teaching’ in Stearns, P., Seixas, P. et al (Eds.) Knowing, teaching and learning history: national and international perspectives, New York: New York University Press.

[2] Lee, P. J., & Howson, J. (2009). “Two Out of Five Did Not Know That Henry VIII had Six Wives:” History Education, Historical Literacy and Historical Consciousness. In L. Symcox & A. Wilshcut (Eds.), National History Standards: The Problem of The Canon and The Future of Teaching History, Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Where can I read about the WLFS History Conference?


  1. The Twitter hashtag #WLFSHistory
  2. My Blog!
    1. My review of Christine Counsell’s opener.
    2. My review of the WLFS approach and Jim Carroll’s session.
    3. My review of Vartan Tamizian’s session on historical narratives, and Robert Tombs’ closing lecture.
  3. Other valuable blogs on the WLFS Conference:

    1. Conference organiser extraordinaire Louis Everett has posted his own reflections and the resources for the day.
    2. Lee Donaghy has an exceptional reflection here, which is valuable in picking apart some of the individual workshops and the ‘revolutionary’ idea from Michael Fordham that the curriculum is the progression model.
    3. Robert Peal’s discussion on the importance of knowledge, and how this message manifested itself through the conference.
    4. Alex Ford carries on the conversation about what we want from textbooks.
    5. A further set of reflections by Miss Beckwith.
    6. Sally Thorne writes some captivating reviews of the various workshops in a series of blogposts here.
    7. Michael Fordham has continued to explore how we might conceptualise progression in history.
    8. Tom Rogers has a very interesting perspective on the ‘big picture’ knowledge debate in his TES column.

‘Knowledge’ Organisers in History

Recent writing on knowledge organisers has got me thinking. I find their name somewhat perplexing, and the discussions on their use too simplistic.

The first thing that strikes me is that we need to be flexible with their use. I also believe that teachers are, and that critics like Sue Cowley, fail to understand their nuances.  These are not given to students as before teaching, and students asked to memorise them out of context. My standard practice is, however, to give them to students before teaching commences. The process of constructing the documents is valuable, in pinning down precisely what I want all students to know, as recommended by Joe Kirby. Students are asked to learn them before the teaching but this is not to strip the teaching of its wonder. Quite the contrary. When students spend less time remembering who a historical figure is, they are able to free up their working memory to consider why they are of significance. Once they know the order of events, they can consider more deeply within the lesson why they took place in the order that they did and the connections between them.

Perhaps this demonstrates the point that these documents need to be part of a broader package of teaching. Sometimes they would be more valuable given after a sequence of lessons, and that is where the professional judgement of the teacher comes in. They cannot become ‘cramming documents’ because this will not aid long-term memory. As part of a broader package of teaching, students are able to make sense of the terms, and individuals and their importance, and this will also aid long-term memory. I fear that this dimension has been missed. I can find little, to nothing, for example on what a typical Michaela history lesson looks like. Hopefully the teaching itself contextualises the information, and this discussion of the information will also support students’ memory.

You may also have noticed that I have referred to them as “these documents” and that is for a good reason. In the context of history, it would not be fair to call them ‘knowledge organisers’. Historical knowledge is not a series of facts, or a well organised set of dates (this, would, of course be a simple chronicle), and the information needs to be brought to life by the second-order concepts. The ‘teasing up’ of knowledge over time is a murky business, a challenging balance between ‘facts’ and conceptual frameworks and discussions about knowledge organisers need to remember this. We might also consider re-naming them. Or giving some dimension to them, in history, where they might also support students’ conceptual understanding too.

A Reflection on 2016, looking to 2017

Last year’s set of reflections can be found here. I find this public reflection extremely cathartic, why it might be of interest to others eludes me.

Highlights of 2016

  1. A successful resumption of my MA has been extremely stimulating and interesting. Not only do I feel challenged but it has given my teaching a new moral purpose. I admit being somewhat reluctant to engage in a “wishy washy” compulsory unit called What is Education? However, it was far from wishy washy. I have very precisely pinned down my vision of what education is for, and I’m using it as a guide to evaluating my teaching and developing my practice.
  2. I have recalibrated my work/life balance to the extent where I now feel like my workload is manageable. This is not to say that I do not put in many more hours than I feel that I should, but I’m taking significantly less work home with me and I’ve become far more selective with what work I’m taking on, and what I’m choosing to improve. This does feel, in part, the result of reaching a fourth year of teaching in the same school. I’m also grateful for light touch management – what I hear about many other schools horrifies me.
  3. My teaching has become more ‘knowledge focussed’, building on many of the targets I set for myself last year such as testing for memory, I have been able to pinpoint exactly what I want my students to know from each unit of work. This has been achieved, in part, through the use of knowledge organisers and Joe Kirby’s thoughtful questions that departments should ask themselves. I’ve also benefited from using more of my free time to read more, a leisure pursuit that was previously lost to a good deal of working from home.


Some targets for 2017

  1. To successfully share good practise. I remarked upon 2015 as being a good year for working collaboratively within my department and starting to reach out to other departments. Having grown as a teacher through my MA, I need to share what I have learned with teachers beyond my department. I have been tasked with setting up a research group starting this February which I need to shape and think about how I can make this really work for our school and our school’s partners.
  2. To bring more historians into the classroom. Little more needs to be said. Too much of my history teaching happens in its own little bubble, without enough reference to the works of historians. I’m going to change that and look forward to reflecting on how that goes on this blog.
  3. Help students to see the big picture. This is something I am currently wrestling with as part of my MA. As effective as teaching lessons day to day might be, students are not left with a developed chronological understanding or sense of how their various enquiries link together. 2017 will be all about exploring how to amend this. Fellow history teachers wrestling with this should read this by Rick Rogers.

I hope all readers have a restful bank holiday and productive 2017!

A Literary Review of 2016

The previous year has been so hectic, it has afforded precious little opportunity to conduct much reading. However, what follows, is a brief review of what I have read this year, in the hope it might inspire others and that I might equally be inspired by suggestions made by others.

  • Katharine Birbalsingh, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teacher
  • Robert Caro, Master of the Senate
  • David Goldblatt, The Games
  • David Goldblatt, The Game of Our Lives
  • Neil MacGregor, Memories of a Nation
  • Stuart Macintyre, A Concise History of Australia
  • Philip Short, Mitterand: A Study in Ambiguity
  • Alwyn Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s
  • DT Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?
  • Jonathan Wilson, Angels with Dirty Faces

Battle Hymn of The Tiger Teachers

I am keen not to get to get embroiled in the heavy debates which have dominated teacher tweeters in recent weeks. Suffice it to say, this book has done much to make me question my teaching, consider how I would like to build on our own knowledge based curriculum, and what features I would be keen to avoid. I will say, however, that I particularly like this review by James Mannion.

Robert Caro, Master of the Senate 

This is the third volume, of four, published by Robert Caro. I always find it fascinating that it is taking Caro longer to document the of Lyndon B. Johnson than it actually took LBJ to live his life. I have read this book before. I constantly reel off anecdotes from this particular volume to my A2 Government & Politics set. Any teacher of ‘gov & pol’ really must read this. Any fan of history should also read this. Never will one find such a rich and detailed analysis of an individual life. As such, this series sets the benchmark by which any other depth studies should be judged. I cannot implore you to read this enough.

David Goldblatt, The Games and The Game of Our Lives 

It would be fair to say I have been inducted into a new ‘sports history’ genre of writing this year, starting with the Wilson book listed below. These two books, both winners of William Hill’s ‘sports book of the year’ award, are very different in character. The Game of Our Lives is a fascinating insight into British society in 2016, using football as its analytical lens. Goldblatt allows football crowds to demonstrate the conflicting national identities that exist within the United Kingdom, the politics of race and of gender. What truly fascinates, however, is Goldblatt’s conclusion that football clearly mirrors gloabl neoliberal economic trends, which the British public have bought into wholesale. However Goldblatt observes that in the realms of football, our view remains parochial and somewhat resistant to these trends. It is in this one significant way that footballing culture remains at odds with broader social, economic and political trends. It is a must read, undoubtedly one of my favourite books I have read this year.

The Games on the other hand take a much more implicit approach. Goldblatt develops a narrative of the development of the modern Olympic movement, and is much more implicit in allowing the reader to forge connections between the games and the societies in which they are made.

Neil MacGregor, Memories of a Nation

This is probably my favourite book of 2016, purely because of its unique and distinctive approach. MacGregor tells us the story of Germany through objects. With a unifying theme of Germanic history, this is an easier and more enjoyable read than perhaps his previous book A History of the World in 100 Objects which was more fragmented. One can only wonder how we might tell the story of Britain in 40 objects. MacGregor would have us believe that our selections would be too triumphalist, unlike the Germans who remain the only nation to dedicate monuments to their own shame.

Stuart MacIntyre, A Concise History of Australia 

I picked this book up in the hope it would assist my teaching of transportation as part of the GCSE crime and punishment course. This it certainly did, but I became fascinated by the broader arc of Australian history. Especially in this ‘post-Brexit’ world we are reaching out to our ‘brethren’ like Australia, feeling a strong sense of connection, certainly a stronger one than we do with our continental neighbours. However, it is interesting how this nation grew up in a much more liberal fashion, and how significant some of the differences have been between British and Australian history. Also of interest is how differently Australia has dealt with the issue of its native population to the American treatment. Neither are great, but Australia, superficially, seems to have done a better job of it.

Philip Short, A Study in Ambiguity 

I randomly selected this from the shelves of Waterstones in the hope for ‘something different.’ I certainly got that. Anybody interested in the differences in politics between Britain and our near neighbours ought to read this book. Mitterand is a genuinely fascinating individual. It is also remarkable how one could fake their own assassination attempt (the Conservatory Affair) and still reach high office. Could this happen in Britain? I think not.

Alwyn Turner, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s

This book probably did more to shape my thinking than any other on this list. I grew up in the Blair years, and have always looked back on the Blair premiership with a nostalgic glow. This tome seriously challenged my outlook. I came to appreciate the broader legacy left by John Major and I wonder how far New Labour genuinely changed Britain. I read this alongside Dominic Sandbrook’s television series on the 1980s. Did New Labour simply ride the wave of Cool Britannia and extend Major’s public service revolution in response to trends arising from the public themselves? Turner doesn’t leave us with a clear verdict on that, but this is a stimulating first attempt to write the history of Britain in the 1990s, which will help to shape the parameters of debate for years to come.

DT Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?

I first read this in January, in the hope that it would offer me a more traditional outlook on the purposes of education in contrast to the more progressive ideas I was hearing on my MA. I was not disappointed. I have found this book useful in providing an intellectual underpinning to my knowledge-led approach to teaching history and offered useful thoughts on how I might further enhance and refine my teaching. In response to this book, I became an ardent champion of the idea of ‘teaching for memory’ and argued for a stronger focus on them in our school’s CPD programme and teaching and learning policy. This has since emerged in our school and I am going to claim credit for it: post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Jonathan Wilson, Angels with Dirty Faces

I came across this book entirely by accident. Well. It came up as an ‘Amazon suggestion’ based upon my previous purchase. This is a fabulous history of Argentina interwoven with a history of Argentinian football. Other than the Falklands War and Christine Kirchner, I knew very little about Argentina, or South America. This book opened my eyes and was a useful induction to the history of this continent (I would very much enjoy other ‘easy going’ suggestions). It was also the first book that I read which meaningfully engaged me with ‘sports history’ as a genre. I have always been attracted to the idea of using sport as a lens into the past. This book has rekindled my interest in finding some ways of squeezing it into my teaching. I have even wondered about how feasible a KS4 ‘change & continuity development study’ would be using ‘sport through time’ as its theme after my head of department suggested that I would be the man to create such a specification. Any readers with thoughts on this, please get in touch.

I warmly invite readers to share their own thoughts on the books mentioned above, or indeed suggest further reading that I might enjoy.

That Was The Year That Was

With one exhausting year at an end, with another on the way with my first foray into exam board marking alongside my efforts to complete my History Education MA, my sanity demands a brief ‘taking of stock’ of the year that was.


  1. Although not immediately related to teaching and learning I had the pleasure of being invited to host the Dartford constituency hustings at our school in May 2015. This was an exhilarating experience, and stands out in my mind as a great personal accolade from 2015. The deeper point to take from this though, is that my students have had an excellent range of enrichment offered to them this year, topped off by the visit of Lord Professor Peter Hennessy to deliver our annual humanities Christmas lecture, where we also raised over £240 for Crisis at Christmas.
  2. Collaborative Teaching – This has been my third qualified year in teaching. As such, I’ve developed a lot of great (and not so great) resources and lessons. This has been the year where I’ve managed to consoldiate them into reasonably solid historical enquiries and have been able to share these with non-specialist colleagues and other time pressed colleagues within the department. It has helped our department standardise our offering, improved non-specialist teaching & laid the foundations for a more collaborative department approach to teaching as we encounter new GCSE and A-Level specifications.
  3. Challenge for All – In brief, I have been working on a few strategies to challenge the most able students. I was then given the opportunity to co-plan and deliver a CPD session on challenging the most able students, in new ‘Personalised Learning Groups’ where staff have signed up to work in a development group based upon one of the school’s High Impact Teaching Strategies as we seek to understand and embed David Weston’s principles of diagnosing areas in our teaching requiring development and refining one new teaching habit rather than making short-term use of a wealth of ideas thrown at us in a scattergun approach in whole-school CPD sessions. I enjoyed the challenge of this, have shaped my thoughts into a Teaching History article proposal and can see the seeds of where I want to take my History Education MA. I have a clear steer for how keep growing in 2016 – that’s the main thing!

Areas for Development

  1. Making feedback work.
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading these ideas about feedback by Tom Sherrington in a CPD session in my school in February. They seemed like the perfect way to follow up on my experimentation in the winter 2014 term with marking every KS3 book every lesson (and in this I was particularly influenced by Harry Fletcher-Wood). I learned a lot from this. In essence, marking every book every lesson was a bit of a waste of time but I have come to cherish the principle “plan what you will mark, how you will mark it & how kids will make use of that feedback.” I have not yet strategically thought about planning my marking beyond a week to week basis. This needs to change in 2016.
  2. Sixth Form Independence.
    As I battle teaching the second new history A-level specification in two years without a textbook, I have found my time, energy and efforts being absorbed entirely by ensuring that lessons and homeworks are well resourced. This has left no time for developing meaningful structures for promoting independent learning by sixth form students or wider reading by students. I have found it much easier to do with my government & politics class, where wider reading is easier to identify and co-ordinate for students and I’m quite proud of the thorough unit guides I’ve made for students which they have found most helpful in supporting their independent endeavours. I need to do the same for KS5 history – ideas on what effective independent learning by sixth form students looks like and how to achieve it are most welcome!
  3. Testing for Memory
    Teaching discourse in the last twelve months or so has come to focus much more on low-stakes testing. It is certainly present in my teaching and is increasingly so, but this is not yet routine and I would be loathe to suggest that it is ‘systematically’ deployed in my schemes of learning. I’d also like to further understand and try out the idea of ‘cumulative assessments’ as set out by Michael Fordham here. At present, my feedback & assessment strategies are to look at a piece of work mid-enquiry and then mark/assess a core task at the end of a historical enquiry. There is a more meaningful testing and feedback structure that could be woven together (see making feedback work above).

Wishing all readers a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year.