The Historical Lens

There are so many potential topics to choose from when designing a history curriculum that it becomes intimidating for many heads of department. What do we do? How do we do it? What are we missing? What if we don’t cover x, y or z? The most important thing we can do, is take a step back, and decide upon the lens through which each topic should be viewed.

So, you know what topics you want to cover. You know you’ll look at the Normans, Tudors, World War One and so on… the classics right? But wait, some of those are pretty huge. The Tudors cover over a century, World War One covers several decades when you take causes into account, so we can’t possibly do it all justice. This is where the historical lens comes in.

When we have these topics selected, the next step is to decide upon the aspects of the unit to focus upon. Covering all aspects of the Tudors will likely mean you spend too long on it or that it loses focus and purpose. You can’t do justice to anything if you try to cover too much.

The historical lens, is essentially chosing exactly what aspect you are going to focus upon and why? This decision could be informed by what substantive concepts you want to weave throughout your curriculum or through the concepts woven throughout the National Curriculum. For a focus on the relationship between church and state, a religious lens on the Tudors would benefit being amplified. This would mean studying at religion at different points, looking at how it changed and swung back and forth over the period. This means you don’t need to pay attention to anything that isn’t relevant to religion. You may do some context setting, but portraits, poverty, exploration and what not, do not need to be covered. This is the benefit of the historical lens.

The topic that benefits the most from an explicit lens is World War One. Too often we expect ourselves to cover causes, trench life, recruitment, battles, weapons and consequences. This is simply unrealistic and means we don’t do justice to any one of those aspects. Does your Year 9 unit have another causation unit? If so, you don’t need to focus on the causes outside of the context setting. Perhaps look at the soldiers of World War One instead and use David Olusoga’s book, The Worlds War for that. This is also a great way of ensuring increased diversity in the curriculum and giving a voice to those that have been silent in our school curriculums for much too long.

On this last point, the enquiry question for the unit should focus explicitly on the lens we have chosen. We should reference it often and in depth. So, we should choose a topic, then a lens through which to view it and then create an enquiry question thay the study is fully based around.

This historical lens is absolutely paramount to a well sequenced and well purposed history curriculum. We need to come to terms with the fact we can’t cover everything, so let’s make sure what we do cover can be done in depth and be extremely purposeful.

Some questions we may ask in order to help us decide upon the lens through which to view a topic are;

  • What substantive knowledge from prior modules can this build upon?
  • What substantive knowledge from future modules can this set up or provide extra depth to?
  • What is missing from our curriculum that this unit could be added through this unit? This could be based on key concepts, national curriculum or anything else!
  • What questions do historians ask/answer about the topic? Can we use that as our enquiry question and lens for the unit?
  • Are there perspectives within this that have been under-represented that I can place in the spotlight?
  • Are there certain aspects of the topic that shaped the modern world?
  • Are there certain aspects within the topic that can help address questions/problems relevant to students at the moment?

Ask yourself, why are chosing to focus on the topics you have selected. If it is simply because they are “comfortable” topics you’ve always taught, it’s probably time for a change…

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