The Golden Mean: Aristotle and KS3 History


One of the most attractive principles in Aristotle’s philosophy is the Doctrine of the Mean. Aristotle says that what is virtuous is always between two states: one of absolute excess and the other of absolute deficiency. A good soldier, for example, is neither totally cowardly nor totally rash: he uses his reason to find a mid-point between the two – the ‘Golden Mean’. I think this is something that the best teachers do very well: they aim to be strict, without being austere, and kind, without being soft.

I think it’s also a principle that can very well be applied to curriculum design. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced this year is striking the right balance between the sample and the domain. Greg Ashman and Daisy Christodoulou have written persuasively about how bad assessment (and notice I do not say ‘all’ assessment) leads to a situation where the sample BECOMES the domain. Greg has produced a really helpful diagram, which I hope he won’t mind me reproducing here:

Greg Ashman pic

But it is highly problematic, particularly for those who believe that the expert performance – in the long run – depends on wide domain knowledge. Over a long period of time, teaching to the test in this way erodes the domain so that our pupils only learn (and remember) the red dots (the sample), rather than blue shaded area (the domain). Clearly, this affects all subjects, but I think its impact has been keenly felt in the teaching of history.

History teachers are used to creating enquiry questions that act as lenses through which they view a period of history: What was the significance of the Magna Carta? What were the causes of the French Revolution? To what extent was Alfred the Great ‘great’? These questions are designed to assess the pupils’ understanding of significance, causality, continuity and change. They encourage the pupils to see history vertically as well as horizontally; because it is only through these sorts of questions that pupils can learn about the nature of ‘power’, ‘democracy’ and ‘tyranny’, and how these initially inflexible concepts bend and flex over time. Without them, history would just be ‘one damn thing after another’.

However, as important as I think enquiry questions are, I do think they present historians with a significant challenge, particularly at KS3. The reason for this is because, in effect, enquiry questions at KS3 often become the sample. In order to help our pupils write complex end-of-unit essays we provide our pupils, and our teachers, with the enquiry question weeks in advance. And, as such, the enquiry question will always inflect and distort the domain. If my enquiry question were ‘To what extent was Alfred the Great ‘great’?’ huge amounts of my teaching time will be devoted to the question of Alfred’s success as a king, rather than other significant features of Anglo-Saxon history. If my enquiry question were ‘How significant was the Magna Carta?’ much of my teaching, particularly toward the assessment, could centre on quite a narrow discussion of the events pertaining to that document, rather than other significant events in the period – the Peasants’ Revolt, the Anarchy or the story of Thomas Becket.

I want my pupils to learn as much as possible about medieval England, not because I want them to do well in their assessment (I do), but because I believe that, in the long run, their success in history will partly depend on broad domain knowledge. But also because learning about these events, and remembering them for years to come, has educational worth over and above my end of unit assessment. To defer to Aristotle again, I believe that such knowledge, combined with virtue, leads them to eudemonia – a state of human flourishing.

Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to write about how I’ve tried to find the ‘Golden Mean’ when it comes to curriculum design. How do I help my pupils to remember what I’ve taught them for years to come? How can I guide them to write complex answers without answering for them? And how do I strike the right balance between the sample and the domain?