Active History Creative history History Thinking history

Residual memory, finger tip knowledge and weaving ‘Big’ history

Quite why it took me so long to make space in the diary for the SHP Conference at Leeds Trinity now seems difficult to explain but until 2013 this annual event had been something I had heard a lot about but not quite got around to attending. Having been blown away by the variety of ideas and experiences on offer in last year’s plenaries and workshops I was eagerly looking forward to a second helping this year and I was not disappointed.

I’d kind of chosen my workshops with a common theme and together with a little follow up reading I’ve started an experiment that I’ll be looking at again in the coming academic year. Outlined below are pen pictures of the sessions that provided the inspiration for the activity and brief comments on the task as delivered in a 50 minute lesson with a mixed ability Y7 class.

In their plenary session on Friday evening Denis Shemilt and Frances Blow aimed to clarify what they meant by ‘bigger’, ‘big’, and ‘total history’ in academic and history education contexts. They discussed the extent to which a successfully taught ‘big history’ course might answer perennial questions as to (a) what future citizens need to know about the human past and (b) how this knowledge should and should not be used to inform decisions about present actualities and determination of future possibilities. One of their slides outlined the following idea:

“History needs to be analysed on different scales because as Braudel argued the past moves and works on different scales.

  • At the level of deep environmental, economic & memetic structures “all change is slow”;
  • Change is faster, but rarely perceptible at the level of “groups and groupings” & institutional systems;
  • Change is fast and visible at the level of actions and events, “surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs;”
At the human scale of action & events, history is familiar but hard to explain – much depends on chance and whim. On bigger scales, history seems increasingly abstract but appears to gain shape, direction & susceptibility to causal explanation.”

(Denis Shemilt and Frances Blow, Size Matters…even in history education, Plenary at SHP Conference 2014).

The idea that on bigger scales students can benefit from having a better feel for the whole and may, as a result, be able to produce better causal explanations was addressed in another workshop delivered by Dan Nuttall and Laura Goodyear from Illkley Grammar School. I enjoyed hearing about their research (part of a wider project I think) into the impact on students’ understanding of the North Atlantic slave trade when it’s considered within the context of a wider history of slavery, extending from Neolithic times to the present day. In their own words they were constantly switching between a hi-resolution depth study of North Atlantic slavery, and lo-resolution Big History of slavery covering over 10,000 years. (Dan Nuttall and Laura Goodyear, A big history of slavery: scale switching to avoid a black and white view of a complex issue, Workshop at SHP Conference 2014)

Of course it’s not only the prospect of pupils developing their ability to explain ‘why?’ that is so appealing. As Shemilt and Blow pointed out, being comfortable with the bigger picture is also important for preparing future citizens, a theme also picked out by Donald Cumming in his plenary session. (Donald Cumming, Our island story: really?! Tackling and teaching (mis)interpretations of History, Plenary at SHP Conference 2014). Re-reading Carr’s essay on causation in history was a useful follow up to these sessions and his parting shot hits the mark:

“Good historians, I suspect, whether they think about it or not, have the future in their bones. Besides the question ‘Why?’ the historian also asks the question ‘Whither?’

(E H Carr, What is History?, reprinted by Penguin, 1990, Ch.4, p.108)

And so to Christine Counsell’s workshop on the final morning. In her session she argued that ‘knowledge is the best friend of argument and debate and that ‘far from being a Gradgrindian imposition, thorough attention to knowledge is liberating and thorough analysis and assessment of its development could help us.’ Her call for a “curriculum design culture rather than an intervention culture”, the development of “temporal agility” , “finger tip knowledge and residual knowledge” and low stakes ‘fun tests’ were thought provoking. She suggested five types of knowledge that might provide suitable foundations and need to be assessed:


  • Chronological frameworks;
  • Substantive concepts;
  • Particular stories;
  • Particular personalities;
  • Contextual knowledge of the period before;

(Christine Counsell, The elephant in the room: knowledge. How can it help us in long-term planning and assessment?, Workshop at SHP Conference 2014.)

So…how to integrate some of these ideas? Once back from Leeds I started to do a little light reading and was browsing John Tosh’s work when the following caught my eye:

“Another way of understanding the task of historical explanation is to see any given conjuncture in the past as lying in a field where two planes intersect. one plane is vertical (or diachronic), comprising a sequence through time of earlier manifestations of this activity: in the case of the abolition of slavery this plane would be represented by the fifty years of campaigning for abolition before 1833, and by the ebb and flow of plantation profits over the same period. The other plane is the horizontal (or synchronic): that is, the impinging of quite different features of the contemporary world on the matter in hand…….Carl Schorske (Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture, Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1980, p. 22) likens the historian to a weaver whose craft is to produce a strong fabric of interpretation out of the warp of sequence and the woof of contemporaneity.”

(John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Longman, 1984, pp.116-117)

Ok so I have built a KS3 curriculum that rests on a thematic approach. The big stories running through the KS are those suggested by the Hodder SHP series of textbooks:

  1. Ideas and Beliefs;
  2. Conflict;
  3. Empire, movement and settlement;
  4. Ordinary life;
  5. Power

with the intention that by the end of KS3 pupils should be able to explain the big story of any of these, how they have developed and their inter-connections. But how much sense have the pupils really made of what we have done? Have they got the ‘finger tip’ and ‘residual knowledge’ necessary to navigate with confidence through the Y7 course? No idea……

But I bet a ‘low risk’, ‘fun test’ might give me a better idea! So why not get the pupils to ‘weave’ their own version of their history course this year where the big stories are the warp (white) and the weft (yellow/orange) is made up of ‘particular stories’ and ‘particular personalities’?

Warp and Weft
Warp and Weft

Take one piece A4, divide into five columns and draw lines to show each column (pupils will cut along these lines). Rule off 1cm at top and bottom (these are ‘no cut lines’ i.e. don’t cut beyond these). Fold the sheet in half with the lines showing and then ask the pupils to cut along the lines from the crease towards the ‘no cut lines’ and no further!! Hold your breath and count to ten as a few inevitably cut all the way……they may be temporally agile but their listening skills are still developing.

Write the headings of the big stories at the top of the columns. Use other strips of paper (they could be coloured or pupils could colour them in later) to represent the events and personalities. Pupils should try to make these strips for the weft from memory and only consult their exercise/textbooks as a last resort.

Chronological frameworks
Chronological frameworks
Chronological frameworks
Chronological frameworks

Now the pupils begin to sort out their ‘chronological frameworks’ as they work out the order of events and ‘weave’ them into the warp. Of course they can check with their partners and change the order if they have not quite got it right = low risk’. This part revealed quite a lot of misunderstanding but provided a valuable opportunity to check and secure and little problems.

Pupils were encouraged to write on the ‘weft’ strips to summarise their key ideas and understanding; they can use front and back of the sheets.


Gradually the ‘big history’ of Britain from 55BC to AD1485 began to take shape. Some pupils began to experiment with different width strips for the ‘weft’ according to how long or how important they felt the event/person to be in the big scheme of things. The start of a 5R conversation in some cases but by no means in all. There was opportunity to draw together ideas and discussions that had been started during the year and many pupils genuinely began to demonstrate some pretty solid ‘temporal agility’ when discussing the big stories over time.

Discussing 'chronological frameworks' and comparing views on 'importance'
Discussing ‘chronological frameworks’ and comparing views on ‘importance’
Weaving the 'big history' of Britain
Weaving the ‘big history’ of Britain
Y7 History Weavers!
Y7 History Weavers!

Last 50 minute lesson with Y7 on a hot day when they were really thinking they might get away with a video (they should have known better) and do you know what….an Ofsted inspector would have been hard pressed to find one pupil not really thinking and working with the problem of what over 1500 years of British and European history was really about.

Was it a ‘fun test’ – yes.

Did it help me to assess  pupils’ understanding of chronological frameworks, personalities and events – yes.

Did I hear pupils discussing their own views of how much had changed or stayed the same and whether the Black Death or the Peasants Revolt were as important as each other – yes I did.

There were one or two who really found it a hard task but then again you don’t get sharp minds without giving them the grit to rub against. I’ll be refining this task next year for sure.


By richmiller66

My name is Richard Miller. I am currently an Assistant Headteacher (Personal Development) at a secondary school in Suffolk, UK. I teach history, citizenship, sociology and cultural capital for pupils aged 11-18. I am particularly interested in teaching more able pupils and looking for innovative and creative approaches to learning and teaching. I use the blog as my reflective journal - the views I share are 'work in progress'!

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