What do we Mean by Knowledge?
This is actually a very contentious issue, so I am going to rephrase it... "What do I mean by knowledge". This is my brief definition of what I am talking about:
- Knowledge of key concepts like "autocracy" and what they meant to people at the time. Knowledge of how these concepts changed and developed over time and why they mattered.
- Knowledge of context - the things that were going on in and around historical periods and the impact of these on the time.
- Knowledge of key people and events. This is really the surface level - events cannot be understood without their context or the underlying concepts.
My main focus when planning is to lay the foundations of the first two conceptions of knowledge so that the events make sense. This is based on an understanding of how to teach kids effectively, but also on having a really solid grasp of those concepts and that context myself. I will go into the issue of planning for progression within units in a later post.
So the real question is, how do I know what concepts and which aspects of the context to teach? This is where I come back to reading good historical overviews and depth studies. Any historian worth their salt will try to explain the important context and concepts to the reader as part of the unfolding narrative of events. As such it is the best place, in my opinion, for a history teacher to start. Robert Service for example begins his work on Russia with an exploration of the concept of autocracy and the concept of serfdom as well as an exploration of the context 1855-1881 before launching into the events of the reign of Alexander III. In essence it is this which allows the reader to make sense of events.
In terms of pupil understanding, the process is no different, however exam boards (and too often textbooks) make little allowance for how the context and concepts might be developed. Below I have tried to outline my own thinking on the concepts and context necessary for students to understand the Russia 1855-1964 course. This in effect was the invisible step which I did before beginning to plan the sequence of content to teach as outlined in my last blog. I hope by making this visible, it shows even more how the core concepts and context are the groundwork which inform how the content and events might be covered.
Based on the discussion with Ian Dawson, this is an attempt to unpick what kinds of things the knowledge will help students to understand. All of this is necessary for students to really get to grips with the flow of events:
Year 12) What role did the tsars play? How did autocratic governments work? How did Russia’s system compare with western systems? What were the pillars of autocratic support (nobles, church and peasantry) and what happened when these were shaken? What expectations did Russians have of their rulers – especially in terms of war and empire building but also in terms of looking after the populous? Why were Tsars concerned about their image abroad?
Year 13) The nature of Soviet government and the power structures created. The extent to which later Soviet rulers could be deemed to have been autocratic. What role did Communist leaders play? How and why did Soviet leaders build dictatorships? The relationship between dictators and the people. What were the pillars of Communist rule (army, party and people) and what happened when they were shaken? What expectations did the Soviet people have of the Communist Party? Why were Communist leaders concerned about their image abroad?
Year 12) How was society structured? Who was at the top of society and what role did they play? What was the role of a serf? Was serfdom abolished or just modified over the period? Who were the middle classes and where did they come from? How different were the aspirations of the classes in Russia? What were the divisions between rich and poor? Why was there a deference culture. What was the impact of Urbanisation on society?
Year 13) What vision did the Bolsheviks have for Soviet society – Soviet man? The rejection of nationalism and the belief in internationalism and the continuous revolution. What was the continuing impact of Urbanisation on the countryside? How did the relationship between Soviet and Western society change and develop?
Year 12) What made Russian culture unique - the Slavophile arguments – cultured nobility and highly uncultured/illiterate serf population? What role did the Orthodox Church play in Russian culture? The relationship between different ethnic groups in Russia – the issue of empire and national independence – Russification.
Year 13) What was the Bolshevik vision for Soviet culture – the glorification of the worker and socialist realism? Why did the Bolsheviks destroy the Tsarist cultural heritage? The building of a new nationalism under Stalin and a new focus on Russification. What was the relationship between the nationalities and the Soviet Union?
Year 12) The ideology of autocracy and its justifications. The role of a hierarchical society in autocracy. The beliefs of liberals and their justification for change. Democracy and its potential impact on Russia. Marxism and the belief in the dialectic. Peculiarly Russian forms of socialism: Populism and possibly Nihilism.
Year 13) The nature of Leninist interpretations of Marxism. The parallels between Leninism and Marxism and the interpretation of the dialectic. The nature of Stalinism and its relationship to Marxism and Leninism
Year 12) Why people opposed the tsarist regime and the associated risks. The beliefs of different opposition groups and why they thought tsarism was wrong. Debates over the means and ends of change in Russia (evolution or revolution; socialism or democracy etc.)
Year 13) Why did people oppose Communist rule? The risks of opposing Communism in the USSR. What it meant to be a dissident in the Soviet Union and the limits of dissidence. Who opposed Soviet rule?
Year 12) The agrarian – serf based economy and its limits in the C19th. Why modernisers saw the need for economic change. The impact of economic change on the ideology of autocracy – the liberalisation of the market. The role of the aristocracy in the economy. The importance of the mir for peasants. State sponsored capitalism. The nature of Russian capitalism. The impact of capitalism on living conditions and culture. Why opponents demanded other economic systems.
Year 13) The rejection of capitalism. Land redistribution. Collectivisation. Industrialisation. The building of an industrial culture with centralised state control. Centralised planning and target setting.
Year 12) What was the Russian Empire and why was it important to the tsars? Nature of the relationship between Russia and her imperial dominions.
Year 13) The creation of the USSR and the shifting relationship with the nationalities. Why did strains emerge in the USSR. Policies of Russification vs. policies of limited freedom.
Year 12 & 13) What role do individuals play in history? How much impact do individuals have compared to non-personal factors? To what extent are individuals products of their time?
In addition to the context and concepts, students will also need to engage with the following modes of historical thinking and the relevant processes. I have not really talked much about these but they fundamentally underpin the types of questions I would get students to explore in learning the content. They form the way of moving students through the knowledge by getting them to process it in some way. They also serve to make the whole thing interesting! I am very keen for example to begin units with an investigation of the interpretations of the topic and then investigate these interpretations as an approach to encouraging more debate and discussion.
The whole idea of second order concepts has been fundamental in Key Stage 3 teaching, but often finds itself in the back seat to content development at GCSE and A Level. History is a difficult subject to grasp, so explicit focus on modes of thinking is important if we are going to develop well rounded historians. For more on conceptual understanding see the historical thinking blog I wrote a while back.
In terms of planning for the new A Level, these are the second order concepts and processes I believe that students will need to engage in:
- Students will need to engage with the historical debates over the development of Russia quite deeply. They will need to be able to identify lines of argument and highlight points of agreement and dissent. They will also need to consider the extent to which particular lines of argument might be supported. Importantly this should be seen as debate!
- Students will need to engage with some primary source material – exploring and testing historical interpretations and reaching judgments.
- In addition to these, this unit require quite an in-depth focus on change and continuity over time. Students should understand the flows of continuity and change in various areas of Russian society and how these interacted with each other. They should be encouraged to see the complexity of continuity and change.
- They also need an awareness of similarity and difference – comparing different parts of the content and making valid comparisons. They will need to know how to work with criteria for comparison effectively.
- Historical significance will also be important – students will need to be able to jusge how significant particular events, people and developments were in terms of their immediate impact and resonance. They should be able to develop their own criteria for exploring the significance of collectivization for example.
- There is a lesser focus on causation but where this is present it encompasses contextual factors as well as short term triggers. Need to focus on how to bring this out.
As ever, all thoughts and comments appreciated.