Did it work? Year 8 history essays on medieval England

Essay title: What was the most significant challenge to the king’s power in medieval England?

Conditions: Exam conditions. 50 minutes. No notes. From memory. Pupils DO know the title of the essay in advance.

High ability paragraph on the Church.


Mid ability paragraph on the nobles


Low ability paragraph on the peasants


High ability conclusion (typed out verbatim)

‘In conclusion, the most significant challenge to the king’s power in the medieval period was the Church. It’s spiritual and temporal power, and the lasting grip it had on the population made it a clear rival to the State. The ‘Magna Carta’ was not a major challenge to the king’s power as even thought it restricted the king’s power for a very short amount of time, King John declared it invalid. The peasants were not a significant challenge to the king’s power in the medieval period as the rebellions such as ‘the Peasant’s Revolt’ were crushed by the king. The Church’s hegemonic influence made it a significant challenge to the king’s power’.


Strengths: knowledge and memory

One of the things I like about the way we assess at Michaela is our emphasis on memory. All our pupils (from top to bottom in ability range) do their assessments from memory. Almost all pupils wrote for the full 50 minutes and almost all wrote three paragraphs on each of the three challengers to the king’s power: the Church, the nobles and the peasants.

What I particularly like about the essays is their clear command of the facts. They have used dates, people and concepts to support their judgement. The high ability pupil has remembered that Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. Specific people such Thomas Becket, John ‘Softsword’, Richard ‘Lionheart’, William de Braose. And specific places such as Runnymede, Brittany, Normandy and Anjou. Most pleasingly, the pupils seem to be using challenging conceptual vocabulary such as ‘spiritual’, ‘temporal’, ‘independent’, ‘authority’, ‘tyrannical’, ‘clergy’, ‘lenient’, ‘rivalry’ and ‘hegemony’. All of these were taught explicitly and the pupils have used them, with reasonable accuracy, in their assessment.

One of our less able pupils even managed to remember that pesky apostrophe in ‘the Peasants’ Revolt’ – my favourite thing of all!

Improvements: explanation and judgement

However, I want to see more sophisticated explanation in future. The high ability paragraph on the Church is good, but I don’t think it is as well developed as it could be. There is also some speculation in her explanation: ‘This was a significant challenge to the king’s power and authority because the peasants would have judged the king when he was in the streets and, ultimately, threatened his status in the social society.’ How can we support our pupils to make more incisive comments about the significance of this event and what it tells us about the power of the Church in the period? How can we support them also to ‘zoom out’ and see the bigger picture?

I also want pupils at the bottom end starting to see their essay more as a single articulation rather the sum of three discrete paragraphs. You can see that quite clearly in the high ability conclusion in which the pupils weighs up the challengers to form an independent judgement. But it isn’t there in the low ability paragraph: the pupil simply introduced ‘another significant challenge to the king’s power’. 

If you think you have what it takes to help us to improve our pupils’ work and take them to the next level, you should apply to teach with us. Follow this link for more information: http://mcsbrent.co.uk/vacancy-humanities-teacher/





The Golden Mean Part 2: Sample and Domain

In my last blog I spoke about the ‘Golden Mean’. This is the Aristotelian principle that what is virtuous is always between two states: one of absolute excess, the other of absolute deficiency. I suggested that this could be quite a helpful way of thinking of teaching and curriculum design. I said that over the next few posts I would try and explain how this insight has informed my thinking on teaching and assessment in KS3 history. Here are three questions that came to mind:

  1. How do I strike the right balance between the sample (the end of unit test) and the domain (in this case, the period of history in question)?
  2. How do I help my pupils remember what they need to remember for the assessment, as well as helping them to remember what I think is just important for them to remember?
  3. And how do I guide them towards an answer without answering for them?

Sample and domain

 In my last blog, I explained why I think the sample/domain issue is one that particularly afflicts the teaching of history at KS3. The more our assessment system leverages the assessment, the more tempting it is for the teacher to narrow the domain and teach to the test. This is particularly so in schools like my own where pupils, even in Year 7, do all assessments without notes and from memory. The alternative, however, is arguably just as bad: unpredictable tests sprung on new arrivals to the school, which help us to norm-reference one pupil against another, but potentially crush a child’s confidence in the process.

For this reason, I am in favour of giving younger pupils the question in advance. But only if the question itself avoids the sort of ‘narrowing’ I’ve described. An example of this sort of narrowing might be a very specific question about the significance of the Magna Carta or the ‘greatness’ of Alfred the Great rather than a broader question that aims to assess whether pupils have retained a good knowledge and understanding of the period in question. Alfred the Great is perfectly interesting, but I don’t want my pupils’ appreciation of Anglo-Saxon history totally dictated by what could become both a semantic and substantive discussion of his ‘greatness’.

In part, as was put to me, this is just the age-old question of breadth vs. depth. In the case of history, we often choose to sacrifice breadth over depth. With a limited amount of time, we cannot possibly cover everything that happened in, say, Anglo-Saxon or medieval England. We also want to ‘scale-switch’ and to help our pupils see continuity and change in the short, medium and long-term. I think this is true.

But I think what we’re also seeing is some of the effects of the ‘skills-centred’ attitude to the teaching of history. That is ‘We don’t need to worry about teaching a broad sweep of Anglo-Saxon history because it is learning to think about causality/significance/continuity/change that is most important.’ I think this is a mistake. Why? Because I think KS3 gives us a great opportunity to put in place the broad domain knowledge that we need for long-term expertise. In the long run, enquiry questions that are too narrow have the potential to erode the domain at exactly the point in a child’s development when, in my view, the domain should be most broad. With that in mind…

All enquiry questions are equal, but some are more equal than others.

 I think we can find a Golden Mean between the sample and the domain – between breadth and depth. I think we can have enquiry questions that ask our pupils to consider second-order concepts while also giving them the best possible opportunity to learn – and remember – as much as they can of the period in question.

Here is the question that we settled on for our unit of work on medieval England:

‘What was the most significant challenge to the King’s power in medieval England?’

 I expect a good response to include a paragraph on each of the three challengers (the Church, the nobles and the peasants) and top answers to include a fourth paragraph in conclusion. The pupils have 45-50 minutes and all pupils write from memory without notes or sentence starters. We try and achieve this through regular self-quizzing of both the upcoming ‘sample’ (What was the most significant challenge to the King’s power in medieval England?) and the broader domain (the chronology of medieval England). You can see that I’ve tried to place an equal emphasis on this on the pupils’ knowledge grid, which they use in weekly self-quizzing as well as in class.


My hope is that this strikes a ‘golden’ balance between the sample (right-hand side) and the domain (left-hand side). The pupils learn about, and have to remember, important events in medieval English history (The Battle of Hastings, the Anarchy and the Battle of Agincourt), which are not needed to do well in the end-of-unit assessment. At the same time, I hope I’ve also supported all pupils to learn the specific information that they’ll need to do well in the assessment.

Next time, I’ll write a little bit more about how we use these grids, low-stakes testing and songs to try and help pupils automate people, dates and concepts so that their working memory is focussed on the most challenging parts of the assessment.