I will warn you now, this is a long post. But then again, progression is a complex subject…or rather it is a subject which has been made complex. Please bear with me though, because I think this is fundamental!
If you have not yet read my “primers” on progression, you may wish to do so now.
If you are already familiar with the two aspects above then please feel free to read on...
Over the last week or so I have been marking PGCE trainees’ assessments on planning for progression in history. As I have done this, I have found myself returning to a common theme in my comments; namely that trainees first need to consider WHAT they want pupils to get better at before they start considering HOW they want to achieve this. Where trainees did focus on the substance of history, there was either too much generic focus on the development of historical “skills” and processes (and issue which I will deal with later), or too much time spent on discussing knowledge acquisition and aggregation with little sense of how this contributed to overall historical progression. Knowledge acquisition certainly is a type of progress, but I would argue is insufficient to count for all progression in history. In essence, trainees have found themselves wrestling with history’s twin goals of developing pupils’ knowledge as well as their second-order modes of thinking. Too often they fell down the gap in between.
Interestingly, these confusions were much less evident in work produced by maths trainees. This may be because the maths curriculum specifies a series of substantive concepts for students to master. For example, in understanding algebra, students are asked to “simplify and manipulate algebraic expressions”, to “model situations or procedures by translating them into algebraic expressions”, or “use algebraic methods to solve linear equations in 1 variable” (DfE, 2013, p. 6). As such, maths teachers can help pupils progress to more powerful ideas about maths through a clear content focus. Maths does still have its unifying second-order concepts, “select and use appropriate calculation strategies to solve increasingly complex problems” for example (DfE, 2013, p. 4), but progression in these is can be tied to precise curriculum content. To be fair, this does also come unstuck, as pupils failed to use their second-order ability to apply maths in context in the “Hannah’s Sweets” controversy last year!
A very real confusion
In many ways, the confusion about progression is at the heart of history teaching more generally. Indeed, the recent book "New Directions in Assessing Historical Thinking" (Ercikan & Seixas, 2015) suggests that there are vastly different approaches to understanding historical progression both internationally and within countries and states. This is certainly true of history education in England. There are many reasons for this: