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History Blog

The new Pearson Edexcel GCSE History Books: Why now?
By Ben Walsh
04 May

The origin of these books lies in work I have been doing for the last few years in supporting History teaching in a large Multi Academy Trust in which the schools all take the Pearson Edexcel GCSE in History. When the new GCSE specifications first landed in 2016, they brought with them enormous challenges:

  • There was a lot more content than the legacy GCSE History courses.
  • The content was very different – for most teachers the specifications meant more British History, more Medieval or Early Modern History, and a study of a historic environment.
  • The type of History was different, particularly the thematic study and the study of the historic environment.
  • There was a requirement to engage deeply with the concept of historical interpretations.

At the same time, some features remained but were still a challenge:

  • Wrestling with historical concepts such as cause, consequence, significance.
  • Extended written responses to different types of questions.
  • Effective use of documents and other original sources.

I was fortunate enough to be working alongside many great teachers and their enthusiastic students as the new GCSEs were introduced. There were textbooks for the new courses as well as many old favourites still knocking around. However, over time, the inevitable problems of content and approaches to questions began to raise their heads.

As the challenges became clearer, I worked with teachers and students to develop a range of materials to try to help them to tackle some of these problems. This work – developed, tried and tested in the classroom – is the foundation of my two new books, Ben Walsh History. It’s not really possible to set out all of the thinking in a short blog post like this, but here are the main challenges we saw, and the ways in which we tried to meet them.

Challenge 1: Content coverage

Most teachers of the new History GCSEs have reported that they find it difficult to cover the content range of the courses. This was certainly true in our case. Clearly, a textbook cannot do anything to reduce the scale and scope of the GCSE course. But a book can help teachers and students to manage content by setting out pathways through the content and making decisions about the extent of coverage.

It is tempting to fall into the trap of believing that less content is better. This is not necessarily the case. For example, in the early stage of the Superpower Relations unit we went into greater detail than required by the specification in order to really build students’ understanding of the issues and the key players. Thus, we cover the personal relations between the Big Three at the Teheran Conference because it is interesting and appealing, draws on the personal aspects of the story and provides a solid foundation to understand the pattern of international relations that flows. The anecdote of the presentation of the Sword of Stalingrad is a good example of this ‘unnecessary’ detail, which in fact is necessary because of the way it helps to secure knowledge.

In other instances, we took a leap of faith and reorganised and reduced the course content as much as possible to provide clarity. An example of this can be seen where we have used a combination of bold headings and text boxes to break down and summarise a major area of content.

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Another element of support is Retrieval Practice. This is a regular feature that is designed to help students to pick out and remember key information from the text and to build their own narrative of events. The Retrieval Practice questions are then re-visited in the Revision section as we challenge pupils to answer the Retrieval Practice questions without looking at the text. Even if they do have to look at the text, this is a useful exercise in knowing your own weaknesses and tackling them.

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Retrieval Practice is combined with, and supported by, another element – the use of combinations of visual and text material – inspired by the principles behind dual coding (information in two different forms). Almost every section in the book has an accompanying visual source, diagram, map or other visual. As well as helping with the course as students progress through it, the visual dimension is a key feature in the revision tasks.

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Challenge 2: Question types

The new GCSEs introduced a new range of question types that proved challenging. They also retained some of the old question types and these had not become any less challenging! After much discussion, we decided that rather than ask students to practise a lot of exam style questions, it would be more useful to break down the ideas and processes involved and get them to practise the individual components that would make them good at answering the questions. The key processes were identified as:

  • Acquisition – Building up a base of secure knowledge (through the Retrieval Practice).
  • Selection – Deciding which pieces of knowledge were relevant to particular questions (we used the analogy of the knowledge wardrobe here, i.e. treating your knowledge like a wardrobe where you select the right ‘outfit’ for the right occasion).
  • Organisation – Creating a structure that sets out a series of points, usually in short paragraphs, which build up together to form an argument that addresses the question.
  • Communication – Clear opening sentences that make relevant points, supported by relevant knowledge used as supporting evidence.

Narrative questions

This process was seen as incremental so, for example, we invested time and effort into the very first narrative task in order to get students familiar with the ideas and approaches.

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Consequences questions

In a similar way, we took the consequences question and broke down what historians mean by consequences. Students tend to think that all consequences are bad. We were trying to develop a more nuanced view that consequences can be good or bad for certain individuals or groups. They can be long-term or short-term. They can be political, economic, etc. 


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The groundwork on consequences in the main chapter was linked to the Revision tasks and these in turn were used as the platform from which to launch into practice exam questions.

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Sources and interpretations questions

As with the previous question types, there are some old challenges in the form of using sources effectively, and some new challenges with a new emphasis on the use of historical interpretations.

Sources

With sources, the approach we have taken is simply to be positive. All too often, students tie themselves in knots by speculating that a source might not be useful because of some aspect of bias or provenance. Such answers tend to be speculative and are certainly a far cry from what real historians actually do with sources. We took the line that students should start from the position that all sources are useful as evidence about some aspect of the topic. Even biased sources such as Nazi propaganda posters are extremely useful as evidence about Nazi beliefs and Nazi methods. To back up this positive message, we encourage students to use a checklist.

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This checklist was then referred back to again and again as students came across sources in the course of the section on Germany. Notice how in most cases the question asks students to explain how the source is useful as evidence about something.

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Interpretations

In a similar vein, the main body of the book aims to develop the elements that make students good at answering interpretation questions rather than throwing them in at the deep end with an exam-type question. In some cases, we ask students to analyse a single interpretation, in others we ask them to compare two interpretations. These tasks are designed to lay the foundations and build a mental routine for students to use when they come across an interpretation.

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So, we hope that you like the books and the thinking behind them. As always, we would value feedback and suggestions or, better still, some reports on classroom use and how students feel about the books. Whichever topics you tackle and whatever challenges you are overcoming, we wish you the best of luck!

The first book in the Ben Walsh History series publishes in May 2021 and the second book publishes in November 2021. Both books will be available in paperback and eBook formats. You can find out more about the series and view our sample booklet here.

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