The following is a guest post from Dr Joe Smith, University of Stirling, on the assessment of History using the new benchmarks.
Curriculum for Excellence is presently being equipped with ‘benchmarks’ to clarify what a child at each ‘level’ might be expected to know and do. In terms of history, this means that Education Scotland have addressed the messy question of progression in historical understanding. This blog posts explores some of the problems with the proposals. (NB. Some of the arguments here are similar to those I raised in The Curriculum Journal 2016)
There exist several models for progression in history education, but all are based on the uncontroversial premise that ‘getting better’ means something other than ‘knowing more’. There is, after all, a literally infinite amount that one might know about the past and so to say that, ‘I know more history than you’ is to say that ‘I know a tiny bit more about a tiny sliver of the past than you do’. There is not a totality of historical knowledge against which our knowledge can be cross-checked and this awkward fact means that we can’t assess children based on how much they know, because we, all of us, know very little.
Instead, progression in history refers not to a more complete understanding of the past, but a more sophisticated one. For example, Shemilt (1983) produced one of the first workable models about how progression in history might be conceived. He argued that children moved through levels of understanding through which the complexity of the past was slowly realised:
- Level One – There is a story of the past which can be learned. Things happened because they happened.
- Level Two – There is a single simple story of the past which is easy to learn. Evidence which doesn’t fit this story is wrong. The past could never have been other than how it is.
- Level Three – There is an appreciation that accounts of the past necessarily differ.
Level Four – There is a recognition that there is no single story about the past and the nature of the narrative depends on the questions one asks.
Shemilt’s is by no means a perfect model, but it demonstrates how measuring progression requires an assessment of how children are thinking about the past. If teachers must measure children, then they must assess the sophistication of the child’s thinking as revealed through their written and spoken responses. They cannot and must not, simply put a tick or cross against what the child knows (or is perceived not to know).
The approach to progression seen in the new CfE benchmarks contains none of this sophistication. The benchmarks are problematic in at least four ways.
- They are, in many cases, so vague that they are devoid of meaning
- They assess ‘knowledge’ that is pointless
- They are startlingly undemanding
- They ask children to behave in a way which is fundamentally unhistorical
In the following paragraphs I deal with each issue in turn, drawing upon examples from the benchmarks.
Vague and Meaningless
The second level benchmark says that a child,
‘Researches a historical event using both primary and secondary sources of evidence.’
This is nothing more or less than a description of the discipline of history. It is possible to achieve this ‘benchmark’ at every level from lower primary to university dissertation. What, specifically, does a child have to do to say that they have met this? How independent do they have to be? What are they meant to produce at the end of this? How even can you assess the process of researching something? Historians research so that they can produce an account of the past – we assess the quality of an account informed by research, not the act of research itself.
Recognises the difference between primary and secondary sources of evidence.
The concept of ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’ is not inherent in a source: whether a piece of evidence can properly be called ‘primary’ or ‘secondary’ depends entirely of the questions that are being asked of it. A school textbook is a primary source is a secondary source about the events is describes, but a primary source to an historian of education. In any case, it’s not even a useful distinction to be able to make. Being able to label ‘X’ as a primary source is of no practical to children. In fact, it encourages formulaic thinking along the lines of ‘X is a good source because it is primary’ which is actively unhelpful to the child’s development of historical understanding.
At the second level, a child of eleven and a half…
Describes and discusses at least three similarities and differences between their own life and life in a past society.
I am pretty certain that my five year old child could meet this benchmark, yet this is the benchmark for a child on the verge of secondary school. Apart from anything else, this kind of ‘spot the difference’ activity is not particularly historical because it is devoid of explanation: i.e. ‘I put clothes in the washing machine, they use a mangle’ is not really historical thinking. Whereas,
‘Before the electrification of homes people needed to do their washing on a mangle. This took a lot of time. Since electrification, we have washing machines which means that we spend less time washing clothes’
contains elements of causation and change.
Contributes two or more points to the discussion (in any form) as to why people and events from the past were important.
The qualities of important or unimportant (or more properly significance) are not inherent in a particular historical topic, but imputed by the person talking about the topic. The phrasing of this benchmark presupposes that Event or Person X was ‘important’ and expects children to say why that is the case. The idea that we get to decide for children which actors in the past were and were not significant, is deeply troubling. Instead, the expectation should be that children can disagree about why an event is significant (or even whether it was significant at all) rather than assuming it is important and asking them to tell us why. A better benchmark would be something like ‘Can choose a historical event and say why they think it should be remembered’.
So where has the problem come from?
The fundamental unsuitability of these benchmarks stems from the fact that they are based on the Experiences and Outcomes document which was, itself, wholly unfit for purpose. I have written about their shortcomings at length (Smith, 2016), but the basic problem is that they were never intended to be used as the basis of a progression model. The Es and Os address two incompatible functions – prescribing content and defining procedural knowledge. When these two functions are translated into ‘benchmarks’, curious things start to happen. For example, the ‘E and O’ SOC 2-04a reads, ‘I can compare and contrast a society in the past with my own and contribute to a discussion of the similarities and differences’. This is a worthwhile activity for children to undertake – it asks children to appreciate change and continuity over historical time. However, when it is uncritically turned into a ‘benchmark’, a worthwhile activity loses its value; as eleven year olds are asked to ‘Describe and discuss at least three similarities and differences between their own life and life in a past society.’
Another example is SOC 2-06a which reads, ‘I can discuss why people and events from a particular time in the past were important.’ In this phrasing, discussion is the thing that the child does – the child is writing or talking discursively. However, in the benchmarks the active verb ‘to discuss’ morphs into the passive noun ‘a discussion’ to which the child now contributes. In the process, any semblance of historical thinking is lost.
So what is to be done?
The great pity here is that there already exists a document which might be used as the basis for more effective benchmarking – the 2015 Significant Aspects of Learning (SALs) document. Up until very recently, advice from Education Scotland was for teachers to defer to the SALs in planning the learning of their classes, not to the Es and Os. The 2015 SALs are predicated on an assumption that historical understanding is conceptual understanding; it is not a matter of knowing more.
- understanding the place, history, heritage and culture of Scotland and appreciating local and national heritage within the world
- developing an understanding of the world by learning about how people live today and in the past
- becoming aware of change, cause and effect, sequence and chronology
- locating, exploring and linking periods, people, events and features in time and place
By using the SALs it is much easier to conceive progression. For example, we have a well-established model for assessing progression in children’s understanding of causation which derives ultimately from Shemilt.
- It was always going to happen, hence we cannot explain causation
- It was caused by one thing
- It was caused by many things
- It was caused by many things and we can categorise and prioritise these things
- It was caused by many factors which were interlinked and interdependent.
Everyone involved in education in Scotland wants its system to remain among the best in the world, but this means having a clear idea of what ‘the best’ looks like. Progression models are always simplifications of cognitive development, but they are underpinned by a disciplinary understanding of what ‘more sophisticated thinking looks like’. If we reduce progression to a series of performative tasks, then teachers will inevitable teach to these tasks. Instead we should be empowering teachers by demonstrating our aspirations for our children and trusting teacher’s professionalism to deliver on it.