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Letters to a New History Teacher: No. 4

How hard can Hastings be?

If, like me, you’re in the throes of your NQT (well, mine is my second time around, having had a year off as a new mum, so returning feels like my NQT again), you might be finding that those kids just don’t seem to get it! I’ve been battling (no pun intended) with the Norman Conquest. Something that I thought would be so accessible thanks to many great ideas in the history world about how to teach this topic, not to mention the blood and gore factor within what is a great story (check out the brilliant Battlefield Britain episode with Dan and Peter Snow if you haven’t already). But I’m facing some difficulties.

Firstly, the children are so fascinated by the story that trying to get them to DO something with that story (like consider the causation question on why William won), is like pulling teeth. My students just want to know more, rather than think about it per se. This leads to me to my second issue: now I’m in the midst of it, I’m not actually sure this should be taught as a causation enquiry. It feels rather woolly, debating why William won – by which I mean that it seems to be ungrounding the children because there appear to be so many possible valid arguments. This is unnerving for these young 11 year olds. They are adrift in a sea of historical possibility – and that makes it all seem too conceptual, too mind bending, too big. They are dealing with their own big sea of uncertainty (new secondary school) and I feel they don’t need another. So now I’m wondering whether I should have approached this as an interpretation enquiry (have you seen the SHP Year 7 book which has an enquiry on who told the truth about 1066?)

This might have allowed me to indulge the children in their desire to know more, and I could have gently steered them toward the idea of ‘whose knowledge, whose story, are we knowing here? We could have got into a fascinating consideration of fact and opinion, and perhaps even on to opinion versus interpretation.

So already in my NQT 2, I’m thinking about how I will do this the second time around. Thinking to the future and how to do it makes me excited at the possibility. But I’ve one slight (large?) problem: I’ve got a class of 31 here and now, immersed in the story but lost in the concept. What am I going to do? How will I rescue them? My medium term plan hasn’t gone to plan.

I’ve decided that I need to pause – and show the children how to pause and reflect. Reflection is a big word in those NQT profiles of ours. But why not for our students too? Every lesson needn’t be a romp through time at a pace to rival William’s charging horses. So I’m going to ask the students these questions: in relation to our big question (why did William win the battle) –

  1. What are we certain about?
  2. What are we reasonably confident about?
  3. What are we unsure about?

I’m going to give them all post it notes and get them to write one item per note and to stick them into their exercise books on different pages. They can work in pairs because I want them to talk about their responses as I think that the talking will help them to reflect. My hope for what this will achieve is as follows. In answer to the first question I think I will find lots of historical facts (e.g. William had knights on horseback, archers and foot soldiers, Harold had a shield wall). In answer to the second question I think I will find points relating to the events of the battle (e.g. Some soldiers thought Harold was dead and so morale dipped). In answer to the third question I suspect I will find questions about whether it is possible to know the ‘real’ reason William won, and questions about if one reason is more important than another.

So if I know the answers I am going to get, why am I doing this exercise? My belief is that the children need to see for themselves their certainties and uncertainties. If they can identify what we need to focus on (rather than me saying “you’re just not getting it!”), I am hoping it gives them a sense of ownership. My subsequent question is going to be ‘what shall we do about the things we are unsure about?’ At this point I fully expect them to be look blank and say ‘ask for your help Miss’ but that’s great and exactly what I need – by realising together that we are a bit adrift and that the question feels too big and scary, we can begin to use our certainties to shore up our uncertainties. For example: imagine this exchange…

Teacher: if one of your certain post it notes is that Harold had a shield wall, why did William win eventually?

Student: The shield wall must have given way.

Teacher: Ok so what does that tell us about why William won?

Student: Because Harold and his men were weaker?

Teacher: What made them weaker do you think?

Student: They had already fought a battle in the north. And didn’t some of them think they had won and so they ran down the hill?

Teacher: There are two things there. Are they both about weaknesses?

Student: Sort of. Running down the hill is a bit about poor discipline or organisation. And fighting another battle is about following orders so that’s Harold’s leadership. Actually maybe running down the hill is leadership too.

So this conversation is totally made up, but I’m doing it to anticipate (and show) what I hope this reflective lesson will achieve. By relating each certainty post it note to the enquiry question I aim to help the children to get talking about why William won. By intervening with my own questions I am hoping to help the children to relate their certainties to factors or causes of William’s success. And there we have the beginnings of getting back on track. Using what they feel certain about to tether to the things they don’t (causation). The joy of post it notes is that we can restick them into a new formation – certainties notes will, I hope, become groups of causes with certainties in each. And as for those reasonably confident notes – the magic there is that they will most likely become points of debate (e.g. what does morale dipping tell us about why William won?) This will be important because it will mean that rather than the children’s answers being simplistic factor A + factor B lead to outcome X, they might begin to understand that factor A + factor B were essential up to a point, but that at various stages in the battle, different factors played a role.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Wish me luck (no broken shield walls).


Letters to a New History Teacher …

… is a series of blogs by Esther Arnott as she experiences “NQT2” – a return to teaching after a year being a new mum. Her return has given her similar feelings to those she had as an NQT, but this time around she has a bit of experience to share with herself and you, so these blogs are offered in the hope they support those of you setting out on your own new history teaching journeys – whether as NQTs or trainees on PGCE courses or other schemes. The blog will run through the year as ideas – and reality – strike Esther (and as motherhood allows!). She’d love to hear from you if you have particular questions, issues or features you’d like addressed.


About Esther

Esther qualified to teach in 2005 and took up a post at Lampton School in west London. She became head of department in 2008 – and this was swiftly followed by an Ofsted subject visit where she and her team achieved Outstanding in all categories. She works with a wide number of beginner teacher groups – including Roehampton University and Teach First – and she set up the London History Network to help share good practice. She became an SHP Fellow in 2009. When her school became one of the first Teaching Schools she applied to be a Specialist Leader of Education for history and has since worked with London schools to support heads of department and other middle leaders to achieve excellence. In 2012 she was promoted to leadership with responsibility for Literacy – and of course still teaching history! In 2013 she had baby Samuel, taking a year out …to now return as NQT 2!!



  1. My first reaction was to think that next time you could start with a ‘better’ enquiry question such as ‘How certain can we be about why William won at Hastings?’ but ten seconds later I realised that wouldn’t be as productive. Yes, it’s a sounder historical question but it takes out the puzzle that your approach now leads to, of students realizing that the question they began with is misleading (because it infers we can be much more certain about the answer than is possible) and then having the chance to suggest a better question themselves. So maybe the most important part of the new sequence is asking the children what they think of the enquiry question ‘why did William win … ?’ and can they come up with a better one? This would link strongly into that difficult but deeply important part of enquiry – getting children to ask their own questions. If all they ever do is answer the teacher’s enquiry questions then they’ll never really be undertaking enquiry because they’ll never be puzzling over what questions to ask. So there’s a big place at KS3 for questions that aren’t quite good enough and for the students to have the chance to come up with stronger ones.

  2. This is a great blog post Esther. One other possibility to consider is to just embrace the narrative. If your students love the story (who wouldn’t) you could use this to your advantage. Instead of doing the traditional analytical route toward a ‘why did William win?’ essay why not do your Post it note exercise then get them to write the narrative in their own words. Firstly this is far harder than they’d imagine and second the process will naturally get them to emphasise the bits they think are important and not important. Finally this is often the way professional historians do history and by showing them a Schama extract could be great inspiration.

    • Great post Esther. I agree with Richard. Embrace the narrative, and in every way – both telling it for them to enjoy it (or acting it out or give them good version to read or however you like story telling) AND letting them write it up as narrative at some point.

      I don’t see a conceptually driven EQ and narrative as mutually exclusive though. Various possibilities arise:

      i) I’ve long thought (and taught trainees) that a measure of how well they can tackle – and get fascinated by – the causation problem is how well they know the narrative in the first place. So the art of ‘lacing in’ or portending the emergent EQ, with hints and teasers, as the narrative is told/re-told/reinforced, really comes into its own. Then they already have an (inferentially gained) sense of the question at the point where you suddenly fling it at them (say in lesson 3 of a five-lesson enquiry). The imaginary sequence of questions you outline above sounds like a superb part of that journey, with pupils gradually realising that ‘weakness’ is an insufficiently powerful causal category and so wanting/needing/desiring some better lingo.

      ii) Ditch causation. Causation can work brilliantly on this one, but I reckon change/continuity is by far the more important and interesting problem around the conquest. Read Marc Morris on this and you’ll see what I mean! Then the battle is just a stage in a wider story, one of a number of narratives that cumulatively lead to a real puzzle that they can get their teeth into via much more period knowledge (inc. sense of period) as they wrestle with how far what we call ‘Norman England’ really is a break with ‘Anglo-Saxon England’.

      iii) Equally, if you’d rather stay with the battle and its lead-up, I reckon a pure evidential enquiry can be very powerful and allow for optimum interplay of secure narrative and historical thinking, but with an elementary evidential spin (workable for Y7 at this early stage). I think this is what your sub-questions seem to me to be leading to and I share your instincts here. “How much do we know about the Battle of Hastings?” allows pupils to break it into a continuum of claims from stuff we’re really certain about through to various degrees of uncertainty (see Wiltshire in TH 100 on this, and see the brilliant letter by Jim Carlisle in TH 102 which critiques and improves on Wiltshire). In my experience (watching many others as well as my own experiments), their passion for narrative finds a natural home in this because having enjoyed the story they are then intrigued to know which bits we can be sure about and which bits we glean by inference and which bits we really haven’t a clue other than using intelligent historical imagination. I have found that the abstraction of such an enquiry is much easier to move Y7 into than the abstraction of a cause or change problem. In my experience, departments that launch causation with causes of the Stephen/Matilda clash or causes of Henry/Becket quarrel find that they can get pupils (a) understanding causal explanation as an idea; (b) seeing principles that recur in causation questions; (c) working with enough knowledge to do causation properly!

      Of course, the decision also needs to rest on long-term planning – ie (a) what/how much knowledge you want them to have of 11th century at this stage as prep for next stage of medieval work; b) which s-o concepts you think it best to kick off with at start of Y7.

      Thanks for making my brain work on this!



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