This blog builds upon previous blogs by Mike Goddard, focusing on one particular skill, synthesis, vital for the thematic aspect of Unit 3. Synthesis is defined in the dictionary as: “the combination of components or elements to form a connected whole”.
Unit 3 of the A Level requires students to answer two thematic questions from a choice of three. The course is arranged thematically, and as a result we expect answers to be thematic in nature. It’s really important to distinguish this from period study essays, though many of the skills are similar. A period study essay, say, from example:
‘The growth of the police state was the most important reason why Stalin was able to consolidate his power.’ How far do you agree?
On the face of it doesn’t look massively different to:
‘The Western Rebellion, more than any other rebellion, presented the most serious threat to Tudor government.’ How far do you agree?
Ok – the topic is different and I could easily have used a Russia and its Rulers question, but the question stem is the same.
The key is, though, with the first you could conceivably provide a paragraph on why the growth of the police state was the most important and then some further paragraphs on other factors, like Stalin’s political skills or economic policies, and then a conclusion.
For the Western Rebellion, what we wouldn’t expect to see would be ways in which the Western Rebellion was the most serious threat to the Tudor government and then a chronological run through of all the other rebellions that were either a greater, or lesser, threat.
We are not looking for a chronological run through of important events from X to Y. We are looking for responses where the learner shows the ability to draw out and use evidence from over the period to support an argument. There should be regular comparisons and links throughout the answer as well as explanations of the ways in which the events are similar/different. Each paragraph should deal with a theme related to the issue in the question, within each paragraph, higher-level answers will display synthesis - the bringing together of material from across the period.
The following paragraph makes comparisons and links between the rebellions (some could argue that these rebellions were not religious and that is fine) and similarities and differences are explained. We would consider this a good example of synthesis in action!
Religion was important as a cause of rebellion in the period between 1536 and 1569. The three major religious rebellions were all attempts to return England to its religious past and restore some form of Catholicism, seen most clearly in that the Pilgrims, the Western rebels and the Northern Earls all carried the banner of the five wounds of Christ. However, although they all wanted to restore the catholic faith, there was some difference in their causes with the Pilgrimage of Grace a response to the dissolution of the smaller monasteries, whilst the Western rebels wanted the 1549 Prayer book abandoned and traditional services restored which was very similar to the Northern Earls who re-established mass in Durham cathedral and burnt English service books and bibles.
The next paragraph has examples from across the period when religious rebellions took place BUT there is no attempt to make any links between the rebellions and to explain the similarities and differences. It is just a list of religious rebellions.
The main cause of the Pilgrimage of Grace was religious. The Pilgrims wanted monasteries restored and attacked many Protestant writers and complained about men such as Cromwell and Cranmer who had brought in the religious changes in the 1530s. The Western rebellion was also about religion. The rebels wanted the abolition of the new prayer book and the restoration of the religious position as it was at the death of Henry VIII. The rebellion of the Northern Earls was also religious; the rebels restored mass in Durham Cathedral and destroyed the new prayer books.
It is important to remember that the depth of synthesis in the new A Level is not the same as on the old. It is, however, vital for the higher levels. A lot of the skills and approaches acquired on the previous specification are, of course, the same. It is also worth noting that the new A Level allows 45 minutes for each thematic answer, whereas the old provided 60.
Overall, we’re looking for answers that are focussed on the demands of the question, supported by accurate and relevant factual knowledge, that reach a supported judgement about the issue in the question and demonstrate evidence of well-developed synthesis from across the whole period.
In essence, learners should be making comparisons across the period and providing explanation of the comparison. It is not enough to simply say something is similar or different. Learners need to able to demonstrate in what ways and why they are similar or different. There must be explanation, this is synthesis, and this is crucial for success in this assessment.
Submit your comments below and if you have any questions then you can get in touch with us via email on firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @OCR_History.
Grant Robertson - Subject Specialist - History and Citizenship
Grant started working at OCR in February 2014 as a subject specialist in history and citizenship. His degree is in History and Politics, with a focus on modern European and African history and 19th century political thought. Previously, Grant was a Head of Politics, Law and Humanities in schools in Kent and Kingston upon Thames. Since working with OCR Grant has developed a growing interest in later medieval history, particularly the Mongols and pre-Tudor England. Outside of work he is an F1 junkie and a passionate Charlton Athletic fan, and a lover of long walks in the Norfolk countryside with his family.