Interdisciplinary collaboration on the wider aims of our teaching

Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant publication: 4 pillars of principled curriculum design

Alan Marshall-Hick, deputy coordinator for humanities and history subject lead, Harris Academy South Norwood writes

Curriculum purpose and design has rightly returned to the top of the education agenda recently. At our academy, departments have been encouraged to consider their curriculum intent; the wider aims of teaching our subjects to our students. At its heart is the idea that what we teach, when and in what order holds as much importance as how we teach it.

Taking history, for example, we aspire not simply to mirror the disciplinary procedures of the subject but to build in our students a layered and nuanced contextual knowledge with the ability to spot connections between themes and concepts across time. In a world increasingly sceptical about the authority of objective facts, our curriculum aims to connect students to the past through a wide range of primary and secondary sources, encouraging them to evaluate interpretations and make judgements on them based on the weight of evidence. In essence, it recognises that history, unlike the past, is not fixed or unalterable. History is also continually vulnerable to rewriting based on outlandish claims or hidden agendas. Fundamental to our approach to the past, therefore, is the search for something approaching an objective truth.

What follows is a small glimpse of our enacted curriculum as derived from our curriculum intent. With the department vision in place, the starting point began with zooming out to our seven-year plans. The aim was not to abolish our existing schemes of work but to seek to build on what was already there. In practice, this meant drawing out key themes and concepts across each year group that would be addressed and readdressed at different points during the year. The idea being that multiple exposures to a particular concept or construct might have an impact on student understanding greater than the sum of its parts.

Take as an example our year 7 curriculum. In progressing from the Norman Conquest to the murder of Thomas Becket, charting through Islamic empires and back to Henry VIII’s break from Rome, and then finally to Cromwell banning Christmas and the Suffragettes gaining the vote, one could be forgiven for finding little difference between our curriculum and the history curricula taught country-wide for decades. Yet the thought process behind the selection of these events is critical to achieving our curriculum intent.

Consider the break from Rome. The Collectanea are a series of texts written at Henry’s behest to justify the monarchy’s predominance over the Church in England rather than the Pope. In this collection Henry himself realises the power of drawing parallels between different periods of history. In creating our history curriculum there is a strong case for identifying periods of tensions in church-state relations before this point, to help students develop an understanding of the deep and complex changes in power relations over time. Following the Norman conquest the church courts were used to prop up a foreign power, then with murder of Becket there emerges the conspiratorial rivalry of a king and his archbishop. In making these curriculum choices not only does the understanding of Henry’s break from Rome sharpen, but we can illuminate the patterns in church-state relations that slowly unfolded from the medieval to the early modern period.

Having established a blueprint for history, I turned my focus to English. We had previously made references to literary works within our schemes of work, eg Shylock and Fagin in exploring antisemitism before the Holocaust; James I’s Daemonologie in teaching crime and punishment so this seemed a profitable route for exploration.

The subsequent meeting with English coordinator Emma Stroud led to a comparison of long-term plans with opportunities for collaboration. In year 7 the Romans in history coupled with Roman fables in English; in year 8 the Industrial Revolution seemed an appropriate point to include extracts from Jekyll and Hyde or Oliver Twist.

The point was much more than a simple matching exercise. Emma emphasised that history could uniquely help English in providing vital contextual frameworks for the development of character. Thus, what English could do for history is add character to the context, bringing agency to the abstract.

History could help English in providing vital contextual frameworks for the development of character [while] English could add character to the historical context, bringing agency to the abstract

The intention is that exposure to key concepts and ideas in multiple domains has the potential to unlock higher levels of understanding and appreciation. We hope that this is the beginning of real interdisciplinary work in action.

Response from the English department: Linking study of history and English enhances students’ understanding of both

Read on the SSAT blog: Four pillars of principled curriculum design, to articulate and evidence curriculum intent

Alan Marshall-Hicks, Harris Academy South Norwood

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