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?

5 thoughts on “The Golden Mean: Aristotle and KS3 History

  1. Really interested to read what you’ve been thinking, Jonathan. I feel like I’ve really nailed enquiry questions over the last couple of years (with the help of Michael Fordham), but there’s always room for improvement.


  2. A really interesting read, Jonathan.

    1) your post naturally hints at an enduring tension for those interested in curriculum design (particularly in history)- whether to teach broad overviews or more depth studies. Both, I feel, are mutually reinforcing and provide different shades of light on the other. Finding that ‘golden mean’ as you describe it is incredibly difficult and relies on teachers making careful choices about WHAT to teach as well as how to teach it- e.g. Should the reformation be included in year 7? In what way? Should broader European context be considered? does your post suggest you favour broad sweeping narratives earlier at key stage 3 as your means to help students acquire wide domain knowledge?

    2) to your point that enquiry questions distort the domain, I can see what you mean. But couldn’t you alternatively just see it as focusing students towards an aspect of the domain. The beauty of assessment at key stage 3 is that teachers have the freedom to choose what sample of substantive content they choose to teach and what conceptual focus drives analysis of this content. By having a driving enquiry question, students are given a motivation and rationale behind their lessons, making it clearer to see what is expected of them by the end of a lesson sequence. We can’t expect our students to cover all aspects of medieval history in our limited time frames- therefore selection of what should be taught and which second order concept it marries well with seems the best way to me to ‘get better at history’ without drowning in a sea of content that does not appear to lead somewhere meaningful…

    3) that links to those very difficult choices we make that impact on longer term retention of historical knowledge (both to GCSE and A-Level, but also beyond as your post argues). This is where I feel it is important that we consider what do we need to cover and when- should Y7 cover a broad sweep of the reformation in its European context in y7 so they can properly contemplate Henry’s break with Rome at GCSE and the English Civil War at A Level? Sometimes it might make more sense to start with a depth study and zoom out for an aerial view later on.

    You are raising very interesting points about long term acquisition and retention/ reorganisation of historical knowledge. I look forward to hearing how you are putting your ideas into practice in your next post


    • Thanks, Dan. Very helpful comments. And, yes, I think you’re absolutely right: this is partly a question about breadth and depth. But I think it is also – and this is something I’m going to try and explore in another blog – about the types of enquiry questions we choose. Some, clearly, allow us to cover more of the domain than others. The argument that I’m going to make later on is that, if subject expertise DOES depend on wide domain knowledge, then it’s really important that we set the right sort of enquiry questions at KS3. Particularly in KS3, I think we should be laying down that foundation so that perhaps later on we can ‘zoom in’. I worry that too much ‘zooming in’ in Year 7 is largely the product of a ‘skills-based’ attitude to the subject and does the pupils few favours in the long run.

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  3. Pingback: The Golden Mean Part 2: Sample and Domain | to learn is to follow

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