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23 November 2014

British history pre-1066... and all that

The context - Curriculum 2014

As historians and History teachers, we know all too well the furore which accompanied the initial publication of the 2014 National Curriculum.  Sharp criticisms focused on the overly-prescriptive nature of the new curriculum, the Anglo-centric focus of the content and the pre-occupation with providing students with a tidy historical narrative in which the complexity of the discipline might be lost.  To many, the revised document which arrived in September 2013 was a relief, with its broader, less-prescriptive, less Anglo-centric approach and its return to the key principles of history as a discipline.  However, there were still changes and challenges to be seized.  Tucked in among these changes was the requirement to teach some pre-1066 British history.

The rationale for British history pre-1066... and all that

The requirement to deliver British history pre-1066 represented an exciting opportunity for my department.  Technically, this requirement could have been met by tweaking our already tried-and-tested Roman history unit to make it fully-focused on Roman Britain.  This would have allowed us to go on avoiding the Anglo-Saxon period completely and making our annual jump at the start of January straight from Roman Britain to the Norman invasion, without giving students any broader sense of the bigger picture.  However, inspired by Byrom's advice to resist the temptation to bathe in the easy glow of continuity and to seize the opportunity to kick on and do something new that might enable students to understand the long arc of development, we set about planning a unit of work focusing on the period AD400 - AD1066.  In doing so, we hoped not only to give students a less disjointed historical narrative but to lay the foundation for students' later exploration of Viking claims to the throne in 1066.
Invasion, migration and settlement AD400 - AD1066

The period offered a rich and extensive source of material and inspiration for our new units of work.  Curriculum time constraints ensured there was a need to be discerning about exactly what was covered.  In the end, two opportunities were grasped for development.   The first was the opportunity to give students a chronological sense of the process of different waves of invasion, migration and settlement in Britain, considering some of the motives which underpinned these movements and developing an understanding of some of the difficulties which they faced.  The second was the opportunity offered by the new unit of work to tackle one of the more challenging historical concepts, that of historical interpretations.  To do this, it was decided that we would focus on the historiographical debate about the Vikings and their impact on Britain.

Building an overview of the bigger picture: With an Anglo-Saxon tapestry!

In the initial stages of the unit of work, I was keen to give students a framework to understand the period and upon which to hang subsequent investigation.  To achieve this goal, I decided to engage students in creating an Anglo-Saxon tapestry inspired by and in the style of the Norman Bayeux tapestry.  Students were given 'event cards', each with a notable development in the period AD400 - AD1066.  These were largely based on events depicted in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle.  As such, students required some support and guidance in understanding some of the names and terminology they encountered.  However, this also presented me with an ideal opportunity to introduce them to perhaps the most important source of evidence for the period.  Using their event cards, students then created a tapestry image in the style of the Bayeux tapestry, together with a museum caption for their scene.  When these were ready, students assembled their tapestry chronologically and glued it together to make one broad narrative.  The result was spectacular and is now hanging proudly above my classroom door.  The materials from this particular learning episode, including events cards, tapestry framework and lesson plan are available here in the resources section of my website.

Students working excitedly on their parts of the tapestry!

Assembly of the tapestry had to happen outside, due to the length!

Where to next?

The tapestry is already proving incredibly useful as a teaching tool.  As we move through the period in subsequent lessons, simply locating the relevant part of the tapestry has given my students a more secure sense of the bigger picture.  The tapestry has also provoked lively debate about its depiction of the Vikings, something which foreshadowed our later work on the historiographical debate about the Viking invasions.  In the coming weeks, I will blog here about my experiences working with students on historical interpretations of the Vikings.

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