How can we identify and nurture gifted historians? Alison Rowan explains the role of NAGTY’s history think tank

What are NAGTY think tanks?

The National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth think tanks are two-day events focusing on a particular subject area or element of education, where colleagues with significant expertise in a field are invited to work with NAGTY to look at areas in which schools could develop their work.
Each think tank session is chaired by a convenor with recognised expertise in the subject area.

The first history think tank

In November 2005 NAGTY convened a history think tank, for 27 of the country’s leading experts and practitioners of history and education. The think tank convenor was Christine Counsell,  senior lecturer in education at Cambridge University, specialising in history at secondary level and editor of Teaching History magazine.

Christine posed two key questions to the group:

  • ‘What are, or could be, the characteristics of the highest achievement in history?’
  • ‘How can secondary school history teachers nurture that achievement?’

What is ‘high achievement’ in history?

Effective learning in history, and high achievement in particular, depends upon clear and rigorous pedagogic thinking about history as a discipline.

Pupils need to achieve a developed grasp of the discipline of history (in the sense of a systematic process of analysis and enquiry) through teaching and learning that stresses and builds upon the development of core disciplinary concepts.

As teachers we seek to encourage our pupils to think in these ways to develop their understanding of the human past and, equally, develop their understanding of the complex, and often contested, processes of making claims about the past.

We know that a disciplinary approach to history can achieve outstanding results in terms of pupils’ achievement and motivation. We also have numerous examples of approaches to teaching and learning across the full range of secondary history that show us what a rigorous disciplinary approach looks like, and demonstrates how we can aspire to high achievement in historical thinking for all our pupils.

High achievement in history is characterised by, and developed through, the acquisition of extensive subject knowledge: you cannot develop as a historian without knowledge of the past. Developing historical literacy is about developing a path of knowledge, reference and example, as well as about increasing conceptual and disciplinary grasp.

High achievement involves an increasing ability to abstract and compare and to think analogically. We therefore advance pupil achievement by setting tasks that explicitly make links between what pupils have been taught in their studies and ask pupils to generalise on the basis of these comparisons and contrasts. We can then ask them to debate these new and generalised understandings.

As in many other areas, high achievement in history is characterised by, and developed through, complex engagement with language. Historical study promotes this, as the past speaks differently to the present and studying the past is about understanding different conceptual and linguistic worlds.

Do you teach gifted historians?

Giftedness, as we know, is a complex issue. But how do you know if you have gifted historians in your class? Below are some of the characteristic attitudes and attributes, as listed by our think tank, which could be used to identify your gifted historians.

Gifted historians may display:

  • the ability to develop their own ‘archive’ of knowledge and concepts and the ability to use this to frame and develop questions
  • an awareness of the nature of historical interpretation and the ability to historicise representations and constructions of the past, in the light of a range of considerations (such as purpose, provenance, audience, context)
  • an understanding of ‘presentism’ – the inevitable human tendency to see the past in terms of the present – and of the problems and opportunities that this creates
  • the ability to cope with the unfamiliar (contexts, periods, cultures) and the ability to use historical imagination to engage with, and attempt to understand, it
  • the ability to read actively and critically – to read for purpose and to consider the purposes of the authors and documents that they read
  • a willingness to hypothesise, to test and develop ideas and to take risks
  • the ability to master, to develop and to experiment with analytical and historical vocabularies and the enjoyment of communicating historical ideas and theories.

How do we nurture high achievement?

Working with gifted pupils obviously makes demands on educators – after all it is about testing and stretching existing ways of thinking – so what essential characteristics do history teachers need to work successfully with this group of learners?

  • Teachers must be confident in their subject knowledge – in both its factual and first order senses (such as revolution, power and so on), and in the conceptual, disciplinary and second-order sense of understanding how history works (eg evidence and enquiry, interpretations and cause and effect).
  • Teachers must be prepared to take risks and to design challenging, innovative experiences and tasks.
  • Teachers must have a passion for history and be able to inspire pupils, not least by modelling critical and challenging historical thinking.

If we are aiming to raise or nurture pupil achievement in history then, as teachers, we should develop and refine their grasp of analytical terminology, concepts and logic. Achievement is best enhanced when language and historical thinking develop together.

So how do we nurture high achievement? Above all, we must encourage a sense of playfulness and experimentation with sources: if we want our learners to appreciate the ways in which sources can be used and interrogated, we need to allow our students the space and licence to think in a number of ways.

We need to encourage open-ended tasks in which pupils can devise and develop enquiries from materials. We need to encourage tasks in which pupils start with an enquiry and make judgements about the kind of archive that they will need to move their enquiry forward. We should also give pupils the opportunity to see the historians behind the texts, and foreground the differing ways in which a variety of traditions and historians have posed questions and used materials, to allow pupils to understand the decisions, judgements and thinking that historical investigation depends upon.

But it is not all about big ideas and big changes; much can be achieved by tinkering and thinking small. Much may be gained if we seek to encourage creativity and innovative thinking by simply taking away the contextualising information. Removing labels/dates/origins from sources, or partially revealing some and not others, can allow the learner to think innovatively about the details of texts, their origins, purposes and the kinds of enquiry that the material might support or allow. 

What can I do to enrich the work of my gifted historians?

To develop pupils’ grasp of causal analysis and provide learners with ways of deepening and developing their understanding of the substantive historical materials they are working with, we suggest that you:

  • ask pupils to construct models and diagrams that call for visualisations of chains of causality, their inter-linkages and outcomes
  • give lists of causes (or cause cards) and ask them to provide and write up their associated actual and probable consequences
  • give pupils a narrative to turn into an explanation of why one element took place, by cutting, pasting and reorganising elements
  • ask pupils to take the role of key decision-makers in past situations by working with simulations and ask pupils to predict the probable effects of those decisions
  • vary the questions you ask pupils about the same issues in the past (for example, taking the abolition of slavery, ask pupils about the role of economic factors in abolition, about ideological or cultural causes, or the role of slave insurrection)
  • ask pupils to engage in counterfactual analysis in order to test and firm-up their understanding of how the various elements of the situations they study are inter-related (eg ‘What if there had been no grain shortages in 1789?’, ‘What if Gorbachev had died in a plane crash in 1986?’).

These activities should also develop pupils’ understandings of interpretation and evidence: varying questions, for example, is one way to explore the origins of alternative interpretations and demonstrates the relationships between the questions asked and the relevant evidence.

Where do we go from here?

A history working group will develop the think tank’s work. The group’s current work includes:

  • recommending areas for curriculum review
  • resources to support teachers, including a special ‘Giftedness’ edition of Teaching History (Sept 2006) and web materials to support achievement in history
  • new forms of enrichment, including linking pupils in different schools and linking pupils with researchers and academics in universities through direct contacts, e-debates and computer conferencing
  • history-specific CPD opportunities for teachers.

Questions that would raise over-arching and meta-historical issues

  • Can we learn from the past?
  • Is the truth out there?
  • Can history tell us who we are?
  • What is a period, what is an era, what is an epoch and what is an event?
  • Why do things happen?
  • Is significance only in the eye of the beholder?
  • What is an empire?
  • Who are ‘the people’?
  • What is a revolution?
  • What is kingship?
  • Are power and money the same thing?