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Teaching Upper KS2 History – Part 2

This is part 2 of this blog series. If you haven’t read part 1, please do read it first as this both references and builds on it.

Continuing to establish historical context

Establishing a rich and in-depth context is not something which can be accomplished from one exposure at the start of the unit. It requires repeated meaningful exposures to ensure children continuously develop a sense of period.[i] As such, the worldbuilding for this unit continued in every lesson of the unit. It was the first time I have planned and taught history to this year 5/6 class therefore it was something they hadn’t encountered in as explicit detail before. In addition, the nature of this unit means that the impact effects the world of the 19th century on many fronts (more on that later).

Invention and expansion

The invention and development of railway locomotives is a proverbial rabbit hole to get lost down. The key story in lesson 2 was to provide an overview of some key inventors and victories in the early 19th century. Specifically, Richard Trevithick’s unsuccessful locomotive, then George Stephenson’s victory at the Rainhill Trials. Maintaining a clear balance between complexity and manageable cognitive load was a fine line.[ii] This simple video from Cambridge University was the perfect way to convey the expansion as a short and effective source. With liberal application of a snipping tool, it allowed the children to focus on extracting ideas and then, under guidance thinking about so what… (e.g. impact).

Alongside this clear focus from extracting evidence and moving to interpreting the findings, the lesson ensured children were introduced to how we ‘know’ about the history in question. Given the range of 19th century documents that survived, and the breadth of statistical evidence, this was easier than in other units that are from the early medieval or ancient worlds. In this case, the fact that railway expansion was part of wider industrialisation and the Rainhill Trial was a competition to find suitable technology instead of something that merely happened. The children studied it to identify both the strict rules and why the specification would be key for the technology.

This small exposure to some of the other developments that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries made it easier to explain that many changes occurred concurrently, and we were choosing to focus on some. It is key to remember that rarely does a single change happen in isolation. when studying the source material, the children found some of the language difficult to understand which is why it was delivered in the manner they are used to for whole class reading. The mode of delivery enabled success in history; it was NOT merely stealth English. Disciplinary knowledge is a key area for development highlighted in the recent Ofsted subject report which highlighted: “The scope of this disciplinary knowledge may be more limited for younger pupils. However, it must avoid misconceptions and unhelpful oversimplifications about the processes of historical enquiry.”[iii] The emphasis here, therefore, was to ensure children were beginning to develop their understanding of how historians study the past and the breadth of source material they consult.

As the unit progressed, it was key to link the new knowledge into the period in which it took place. The children needed explicit scaffolding and guided navigation to ensure they only went where the evidence took them… quite frequently, they were taking giant leaps beyond!

A Contextual Framework

I am a huge fan of Inspire Education’s platform (full disclosure – I receive free access and if schools sign up from my recommendation, I receive a referral fee.) and wanted to use it in this unit to provide an engaging introduction to the sights and sounds that formed the backdrop of people’s lives in the new towns and cities like Leeds. When we moved the emphasis onto the role of the railways, it was the logical start point. To ensure the children understood the scenes were fictional but based on the historical reality, they were carefully explored and built upon with future tasks. has many scenes for history and a section for English. If you would like to book a free trial, you can do so by clicking here:

For the first few minutes, I just let children enjoy making broad observations about what they could see, hear etc. Then, added a simple focus by asking them to explain to their partner what role the railways played to support the steel factory and textile mill. The discussion enabled them to focus attention on the previous lesson using the expansion of the railways to create an interconnected network for trade. The scene was one we came back to at the start of lesson 3, 4 and 5 to reaffirm the connections to this ‘world’.

Connecting local to national

Aim 6 of the National Curriculum focuses on connecting knowledge. It states, “gain historical perspective by placing their growing knowledge into different contexts, understanding the connections between local, regional, national and international history; between cultural, economic, military, political, religious and social history; and between short- and long-term timescales.”[iv] This unit was the perfect example to study industrialisation across the country.

First, what did it look like in Leeds? The children have studied Leeds’ history in other units and most will have visited the centre on a number of occasions. As such, they have a foundational understanding of the layout of the city and some of the buildings will be similar to what is introduced in the lessons. This was supported by the use of a range of maps which are freely available from the National Library of Scotland website[v] and artworks found online. The emphasis was on what industry took place around the city centre and how could this benefit or be benefited by the railways. The emphasis was economic history with careful narration of just who in society would likely benefit from the flourishing mills, etc.

When studying source material, it is important to prompt children to consider which part of the narrative this helps us to understand and which it does not. The lived experiences of different social classes were not part of this lesson… that was to follow! It had to follow as, even with the careful narration as the owners being the beneficiaries, the children held onto the misconception that everyone got rich together in some kind of egalitarian way.

Lesson 5 built on this by asking, how did this compare to elsewhere?

Using a local example to teach a bigger picture is an approach that is valuable across the history curriculum where it offers value!

Part 3 focuses on why and how I changed the planning because of the misconception mentioned above, the branches of history the children were discussion and final thoughts…

[i] Ian Dawson, Historical Association’s Teaching History 135, P. 50




[v] Immense thanks to Chris Trevor who introduced me to this brilliant resource several years ago. The full collection can be accessed here:

This half-term (Autumn two, 23) I am teaching history to my mixed Year 5/6 class in Leeds. We’re focusing on the railway revolution under the enquiry question: How did the railways benefit Britain? This focuses on the economic and societal impact brought about because of the expansion of the network including the railway revolution of the 1840s. Whilst not explicitly stated in the EQ, this unit includes a strong element of locality as there were immense benefits brought to Leeds by the arrival of the railways.

It is broken into four sub-enquiries across the half-term:

  1. How did people transport things before railways?
  2. How quickly did the railways expand?
  3. What benefits did it bring to Leeds?
  4. Was this the same across the country?

Before Starting:

As a school, we use knowledge organisers therefore I spent time considering the layout and core content in order to allow the children, as Mary Myatt calls it, to “master the minimum.”[i] The layout and content aim to be deliberate and simple – cognitive load and efficient navigation are primary concerns throughout after all. My key principles are below having re-read pieces from Jon Hutchinson and Bev Forrest.

The vocabulary table was a careful balance of vocabulary quantity and importance to the enquiry. In subsequent lessons, the vocabulary will be embedded directly into the teaching and what I want the children to include in both their discussions and answers. As such, I’ll ensure I model how and when to use them at various stages.

I have divided the core knowledge to mirror the sequence of enquiry sub-questions. Whilst there is a case to be made about whether or not to give children the knowledge before starting, the school does and I can see the merit. In future teaching, this ‘minimum to be mastered’ will be reinforced, depth added and the stories connected to form a clear narrative.

The two images act as a reference point to what the children will be studying but, at the right time, a bit of a hint at the benefits the railways brought to Leeds economically and the wider industrial revolution shaping the city’s skyline. One thing I was keen to avoid was stereotypical illustration images sometimes found in resources to ensure the reality is front and centre.

The timeline highlights two things:

  • The narrative of history the children have learned in order to act as a retrieval mechanism to consider the concept of the industrial revolution fundamentally changing life in Britain. A way to navigate prior history learning to consider where the children have encountered societies and economics in Britain and the wider world.
  • A way to consider the relative duration of the industrial revolution and its transformative effect on the country societally and economically.

The sequence of sub-questions is done in line with what I advocate for in my book so please do consider buying a copy if you would like to know more. Broadly speaking, questions 1 and 2 above encompass worldbuilding and setting out the early narrative arc of railway expansion. This vital background (hinterland) definitely supports Christine Counsell’s assertion that “the hinterland is as important as what is deemed core.”[ii] Within these lessons, the children start by thinking about the abstract world they will be learning about and precisely how it differs from their lives in specific ways. Then, introducing the railways and expansion of the network in the early half of the 19th century. Lesson 3 and 4 provide specific depth studies to consider the societal and economic benefit that came as a result.

Activating relevant prior knowledge:

The children had encountered the concepts of the different people may have moved/migrated or traded in the past across various units of history studied. Therefore to activate relevant prior knowledge, I focused this chronologically to prompt children to think about technological trends over time. The green box is to prompt lines of thinking by starting with a heavily ‘hinted’ example of the Vikings and then a scaffolded cloze procedure. This ensured children understood most people (if they did travel distance) would have used boats and horses/carts.

This was was followed by the first introduction to direct vocabulary instruction which is a big emphasis for the unit. The fact they linked to economic history and it is a key focus throughout the unit was explained… may have even offered some class dojo bribery to get them using it! My use of icons is to help children identify concepts they have encountered before to strengthen connections and facilitate comparisons. It is not, however, dual coding as some people asked. For clarity, “According to dual coding theory, if the same information is properly offered to you in two different ways, it enables you to access more working memory capacity. This means that you can benefit from access to both visual and verbal memory capacity. It’s known as the working memory model from Baddeley and Hitch.”[iii] The role I use it for is to deliberately target the concepts I wish to emphasise to strengthen understanding over the course of the curriculum. The emphasis being on trade meant some children were connecting this concept to the previous half-term’s geography unit in which it played a role.

Sub-question 1 – How did people transport things before railways?

The aim of this question is to immerse the children in the abstract nature of the past using Mike Hill’s brilliant worldbuilding blog by focusing on modes of transport but also the challenges that this presented into the lives of people. This includes the retrieval outlined above but also emphasised the role of making the children focus their attention on ‘so what?’ in order to consider this aspect of teaching history. It is deliberately embedded throughout the lesson to allow me to model how it is a natural and continuous part of the historical discipline. It also was an area to develop mentioned in Summer 2023’s Ofsted subject report: Rich encounters with the past (an apt title as I always aim to facilitate this when teaching). It said: “In most schools, the disciplinary knowledge that pupils learned focused on sources and evidence. To some extent, this is a helpful approach. Knowledge of how historians use sources to construct accounts can help pupils to learn other aspects of disciplinary knowledge, such as how and why historians form different interpretations of the past.”[iv] As such, throughout the blog, you will hopefully notice repeated references to gathering relevant evidence and then utilising it. The example image below highlights the prompt to consider facts and instantly focus on the ‘so what?’

In this lesson, the children learned about pre-industrial transport to establish that in most cases you could travel relatively quickly (by the standards of the day) or transport a large quantity of cargo. A range of source material was used deliberately to subtly introduce the fact that different types of source contribute different aspects of the answer.

The logistics of the lesson were relatively straightforward and, if you have joined me for any CPD sessions, not surprising. I do, we do, you do and carefully scaffolded in order to obtain a high success rate and work in small steps. The lesson may have appeared collaborative but in reality I was guiding them through the unknown world and prompting them to reflect at various points with ‘so what?’ to think about the implications of what they had just learned. In short, I knew where the lesson was taking us and what the outcome needed to be. Instead of one long task or children focusing on different areas of the study then sharing outcomes, they worked in small steps to ensure a clearer picture (see above).

The earned of the lesson was the first time this class had encountered my use of a summary of learning. A simple question used to clarify core knowledge to remember: what have you learned today that could be useful for our final answer? In this case, I scaffolded using a combination of a cloze procedure and sentence stems. This level of scaffolding will be required in subsequent lessons to ensure the children are clear about how to structure short-form answers in history.  

What did I want to accomplish here?

First, it was bloomin’ lovely to be teaching history again! I have missed it and am totally aware that makes me sad haha. The knowledge outcomes were as follows:

  1. There was a time before highspeed transport and it meant people lived very different lives.
  2. Transport of goods and people was usually via road, canal, river or a combination of them. The majority of people would have just walked locally and not travelled as widely as is normal today.
  3. Technology developed in order to improve the road, river and pure canal infrastructure.
  4. Broadly speaking, transport could either be quick or have a large capacity. No mode of transport had managed to accomplish both.
  5. History isn’t merely a case of gathering facts; we must do something with the facts in order to think about what they mean in that context.

Which of those are core and which are hinterland? Odds and events… the odds are important background that help the core (evens) to function in the context the children encounter them. For the children, that is the knowledge they encountered in the lesson. The purpose of the summary of learning is to ensure they would prioritise the importance of the evens… In a story, the narrator guides the narrative. That’s what I seek to accomplish when teaching.

Where next?

The arrival of the railways of course. With the broad intention of tapping into Daniel Willingham’s work: “From a cognitive perspective, an important factor (on whether children like school) is whether or not a student consistently experiences the pleasurable rush of solving a problem.”[v] This lesson will introduce the success of Stephenson’s rocket at the Rainhill trials (1829) and subsequent expansion of the network including railway mania in the 1840s.



[iii] Dual Coding with Teachers by Oliver Caviglioli, P20


[v] Why don’t students like school? By Daniel Willingham, PP10-11

I’m often asked about learning activities for various history topics and it’s something I always respond to in a similar manner, “What do you want them to learn?” Without that clear purpose as to where the activity leads the learning to, selecting the right one is somewhat harder… ok, much harder. This blog is an attempt to provide some examples of lesson activities I use and their connection to knowledge acquisition, knowledge interpretation and use/or application of skills from various subjects. It is not an exhaustive list or an exploration of sequencing activities across a unit but merely some of my favourites.

Certain key underpinnings:

The subsequent paragraphs are aspects of teaching history that need to be considered alongside activity selection… without them, history is a smattering of stuff which has a limited impact in impacting children’s understanding of the past.

It’s important that we don’t see activities in isolation so that they offer value to a greater sense of history. To that end, my forthcoming book (this isn’t a sales pitch BUT you can buy it here…) follows a consistent model in order to support children in seeing lessons as helping them gain a better understanding of a wider narrative arc. The visual that I use is below and this blog’s focus is within what I have titled historical enquiry lessons to differentiate it from the initial context and the final answer to the enquiry question(s). Each activity adds value to the lesson’s question and therefore the overarching question.

There is a lot of nuance in each stage of this model. Please don’t share this model in isolation without either watching the relevant CPD session or reading the book because it could misrepresent the teaching process and cause misconceptions.

If we aren’t careful, lessons can appear to depict isolated events or individuals. Whilst there is an element of truth to this, a more accurate idea is that attributed to Mark Twain when he allegedly said: “History doesn’t often repeat itself but it often rhymes.” This is one of the reasons that careful and deliberate retrieval practice is so powerful in order to support children in both identifying the concepts they repeatedly examine but also beginning to consider common patterns in concepts such as government, reasons for invasion and conquest etc. As such, before the activity is introduced, activating relevant memories has an important role to play. As Kate Jones writes, “Understanding of memory, such as an awareness of the limitations of working memory and harnessing the power of long-term memory, is absolutely essential for any educator.”[i] So, what am I building on and what does this add is a consideration.

Probably an obvious one but, just in case, when we break history into enquiries with questions and then enquiries into sub-questions, one activity is not going to produce the definitive answer to the question. Remember, in history our understanding is constructed using a number of sources in order to get an understanding which is evidence-led and supportable from a number of sources. The Historical Association’s Enquiry Toolkit suggests, “It is important in any enquiry to try to get pupils to use primary historical sources – e.g. things that were produced at the time. These might be documents, artefacts, buildings, pictures/paintings, film. It is also well worth checking local museums for any collections or workshops they might be able to offer. “[ii] So, think carefully about how multiple activities using a range of source material build a deeper understanding over time. Moreover, does your curriculum facilitate sufficient ‘wiggle room’ or as Emma Turner called it, the 80:20 rule of planning for 80% of the time to leave time to revisit and clarify learning.[iii]

If we don’t do anything with the knowledge, how likely is it to be transferred from the working memory into the long-term memory? As Willingham states, “Whatever you think about, that’s what you remember. Memory is the residue of thought. Once stated, this conclusion seems impossibly obvious.”[iv] As such, what will be the ‘thing’ your children think about because of the activity. Will it be that they had a lovely time making something OR what it adds to their knowledge base?

In addition, when we view history as a narrative subject (which it is!), we need to think about which parts of that ‘story’ we are choosing to emphasise hence the important role enquiry questions provide. The role of the question is to provide absolute clarity as to which part of the story is core to our understanding and which is the hinterland or background which ensures the story functions and makes sense. It’s important to consistently renew the connection between individual lessons and the wider enquiry in order to provide a consistent sense of why this knowledge matters in its own right and to the wider topic at hand… you can’t teach all of it! 

Pre-requisites to the lesson:
These conditions are different as they are not unique to history and the manner in which it is taught. It combines thinking about the logistics of the classroom setup and the inevitable overlaps of children’s developing understanding of skills and knowledge from elsewhere in the curriculum.

What are the practicalities of the lesson? Now, some of my favourite lessons have been really hands on… I’m sure you know the ones! A trip, handling artefacts in the classroom, or conducting a mock archaeological dig. However, these need so much careful planning in order to gain lots from them. Connect them up with other source material and think about their role in the overall enquiry process. Alongside this, it is unrealistic for such lessons to be the mainstay of our teaching because there are 11 other subjects to consider. Also, can the activity be run in the classroom effectively? It’s important to consider the potential carnage which can erupt from a surprise ‘wow’ without sufficient expectation setting. Teacher workload is something to be taken very seriously! Do you have the capacity to run this lesson in terms of prep and the nature of the lesson being implemented in the classroom itself?

How are the children going to engage with the activities? This consideration is inevitably going to vary from classroom to classroom and year group to year group. Some key considerations to think about include:

  1. Activating relevant prior knowledge. Whilst I briefly mentioned retrieval before, it’s important for two regards. First, it allows children to constantly activate and then utilise knowledge from prior lessons within the unit to see how events are connected when it is relevant to connect the wider narrative. Secondly, it allows them to look further back to prior units and year groups then make connections in order to “Cumulatively, pupils’ knowledge of periods and events will form a network of knowledge that might be conceptualised as a ‘mental timeline’. This is an example of a complex schema…”.[v] This needs to be deliberately and explicitly taught so it becomes a normal part of the teaching sequence. In addition, “Progress, therefore, means knowing more (including knowing how to do more) and remembering more. When new knowledge and existing knowledge connect in pupils’ minds, this gives rise to understanding.”[vi] So it’s doubly important this is facilitated.
  2. What pre-requisite skills and knowledge do the children need to have to engage with the task, record observations/thoughts and discuss their findings? Children need to have a certain level of experience and fluency with an activity in so that they can both take part and learn from it. Emma Turner discusses this with reference to knowledge organisers and booklets with the key point – what do children need to have in their toolkit in order for it to be purposeful?[vii]
  3. Recording observations and answering questions doesn’t need to include extensive writing. In the 2023 Ofsted subject curriculum insight video for history, HMI Tim Jenner explains that extended writing is a useful endeavour and has lots of value (not an exact quote) BUT, it is not always the best way to ascertain what children know. Therefore, think carefully alongside point 2 as to whether the activity includes effective ways to discuss, record and think deeply about what knowledge they have gained. Scaffold carefully and then withdraw it as and when children are able to make a more independent role.

Finally (and sorry it took so long!) where is it going and how do you know if it has been accomplished?

Examples of activities:

Below, I’ll share some of my favourite activities when teaching and endeavour to place them within the context explained above. I have tried to show how it forms part of a wider lesson by including the introductory instruction alongside where it sits within the wider unit. Models of teaching such as the core subject mainstay of ‘I do, we do, you do’ and then included screenshots of relevant slides of activity sheets (Because of the tight turn around, I do not have the chance to use children’s actual work because of permissions, etc). Therefore, please, take the use of sheets with a pinch of salt as many can be done in books.

Narrating timelines like a story:

A history timeline has a similar function to a story mountain in a narrative unit of English. Reif (2008) wrote: “Poorly organised knowledge cannot be readily remembered or used. But students don’t know how to organise their knowledge effectively.”[viii] The implication here is that when thinking about the story of Amelia Earhart’s life (pictured below), we can support children’s understanding by telling the story as we might with a fictional book. After all, stories are psychologically privileged.[ix] This lesson is early in the sequence if not the initial one; its purpose is to set out the narrative children will learn more about through the unit and is a heavily guided and scaffolded lesson.

  1. Introduce where Amelia’s life is on the overall narrative timeline in relation to what else has been taught.
  2. Narrate Amelia’s life story where the teacher provides the context for vocabulary children will encounter, begins to link the timeline to the enquiry question etc. For example, she first saw an aeroplane as a teenager. This is so different to today and therefore by narrating the story, children can be introduced to why this is the case (it wasn’t invented until she was 6).
  3. Children interact with the timeline to build investment as to who she was, what she did and any event which, after being explored in more detail, makes them go WOW! What an achievement! Distinguish between these facts and those that are surprising in order to narrow down the field of enquiry.
  4. Subsequent lessons focus in on the WOW moments from her timeline and add depth to the children’s understanding. This lesson serves as an initial hook to excite them about this remarkable lady.
This timeline would follow the use of an overall narrative timeline (please see my chronology blogs for further information on this).

What goes in books? This is a question I am often asked and my initial response is… does anything have to? In an ideal world, no! Let’s keep this paced, practical and purposeful. I absolutely understand that in some schools, evidence of work in children’s books is a non-negotiable so for this lesson, I would focus on understanding and developing “botheredness” as Hywel Roberts calls it![x] So this could involve a series of freezeframes depicting the key events in her life that will be built upon in subsequent lessons or produce a cartoon strip depicting them. The end point is knowing the story to be delved into and beginning to understand her significance.

Use of videos:

Videos are great to support children who find reading difficult (although this doesn’t mean they should never do it in history…) and can be used as a hook to captivate them within the abstract world they are delving into. I will regularly use them when teaching or planning units as an introductory way to begin to help children construct a sense of period as Dawson described it.[xi] BBC Bitesize, BBC Teach etc are great to tap into but have you used them to help connect pieces of the historical puzzle? This is when we can return to them pre and post-lesson to make connections and build a more detailed picture of the past.

  1. Play the video for the first time and let the children enjoy it. I’m a big advocate of moments of awe and wonder – this quite often being one of those with many cohorts…
  2. Then, introduce the context and purpose of the lesson. A sub-question of the overall enquiry and relate it to the timeline and maps as relevant. Re-watch the video in full or snippets as relevant and children will now watch with a sense of purpose. Using it to inform their understanding to specific historical questions.
  3. For the remainder of the lesson, additional sources such as books, internet sites, archaeology adds a greater breadth of understanding to what the video introduces. Use questions so as: how does this add to our understanding of x? Does this tell us something new or different? In history, we attempt to build as clear an image as possible but be mindful the children will not prove anything therefore model how to both collate answers and write conclusions.

In the children’s books, consider using snipping tool to take a screenshot of a key part of the video to annotate in relation to specific questions. Then, build a clearer picture of the past by starting with that annotated pictured and adding further images, website research (used sparingly and carefully guided!), interactives such as inspire education, Mozaik 3D and Sketchfab etc depending on what is available.

This may take more than one lesson but is a key part of the historical discipline as it ensures children in KS1 “should ask and answer questions, choosing and using parts of stories and other sources to show that they know and understand key features of events. They should understand some of the ways in which we find out about the past and identify different ways in which it is represented.” And then, in KS2, “They should regularly address and sometimes devise historically valid questions about change, cause, similarity and difference, and significance. They should construct informed responses that involve thoughtful selection and organisation of relevant historical information. They should understand how our knowledge of the past is constructed from a range of sources.”[xii] This is the bread and butter of historical enquiry so should be evident in every unit. The final example in the blog for KS1 uses a similar approach for that very reason. 

BBC Teach videos are available on the BBC Teach website or on YouTube.

Analysing testimonial sources of evidence:

Testimonial sources such as diaries, newspapers, letters etc are different to archaeology because they offer a “conscious commentary” on what they record.[xiii] As such, they need to be treated carefully and children guided through both WHAT it says but also WHO wrote it and HOW that shaped their particular world view. Without such introductory instruction, children may get a hugely over-simplified perspective of an event or have a misplaced understanding of bias (the class… which source is more reliable? Who can we trust more on this?).

This can be introduced early in Key Stage 1 when children speak to grandparents or community members about what their toys or homes were like when they were equivalent to Year 1/2 now. Oral history offers lots of relevant evidence towards the overall enquiry question but… by simply asking do we think everybody had the same childhood? We can begin the process of identifying that such sources offer a snapshot which is useful but is one of many. Then, when they encounter the Great Fire of London example below, they can activate that understanding and be supported to guide it into a new context.

One of my favourite enquiries for KS2 challenges the perception that the Vikings were merely vicious barbarian raiders… The extract below comes from lesson 1 of the series and looking at where that perception may have arisen from at the time.

  1. The children are aware of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England at this time; the fact they were NOT a singular nation and lived in small farming communities isolated from one another.
  2. It deliberately uses the subsequent extract of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle because it is provocative.
  3. Subsequent lessons which are not included challenge this perspective by highlighting other aspects of their culture such as the rich culture, trade routes and exploration.

In the children’s books, they analyse and annotate the extract of the chronicle and then add to this via subsequent discussion and teacher guided thinking towards not only WHAT it says by WHY this is said. It includes the use of language and how singular the message depicted is.

Building a clearer picture of the past by collating source material:

I deliberately placed this example last because it makes use of many of the examples above. It is a way in which many sources can be applied in order to build a clearer picture of the past than each snapshot in isolation.

Once again, it’s important that each source is contextualised in order to highlight both what it depicts but also how it was constructed (where relevant and possible).

Source 1 – The Great Fire of London: An Illustrated History of the Great Fire of 1666 by Emma Adams and James Weston Lewis

Source 2 – Painting by unknown, produced 1675

Source 3 – Samuel Pepys’ diary (available free online)

Source 1 – Story

The joy of using this story is that it is structured to tell the story of the fire in chronological order. It taps into stories being psychologically privileged and can run effectively alongside the teaching sequence. This is more challenging in Key Stage 2 where books are often longer and it is unrealistic to deliver this approach in every unit… but where it does, it’s a good one!

The story is analysed like the source A/S chronicle above to describe what it says and how the author may have found that out (a core part of the enquiry process).

Source 2 – Painting

When looking at the painting, start by ensuring the children understand it is a valuable source of evidence because there is so much depicted within it. Looking carefully is a must and often needs to be explicitly taught. It could be broken into different frames by using a grid overlay or another approach. I tend to do this in two stages:

First, let the children look and enjoy it! What can they see happening? Listen out for children naturally linking to the story they have encountered so far and any other relevant links. If that doesn’t happen, prompt the children to make comparisons and connections. They are, after all, trying to build a firmer sense of what happened during the fire by using two sources of evidence.  

Source 3 – Pepys’ diary

Begin by contextualising Pepys’ diary in order to ensure children understand his writing is one example that we use (not the only one – John Evelyn offers another account). It is important the children know it was rare to be able to read and write in the 17th century as free education like today didn’t exist. Then, narrate extracts of the diary and create meaning (see Amelia Earhart timeline example).

Highlight that it is telling a similar story to the painting and the story book but in a different way. In the children’s books, they can annotate the source material and draw pictures or dramatise the depictions. The key is to ensure children are clear about how each source of evidence contributes to our understanding. Once we have the information, we can look across it to draw a more concrete perspective (as far as is possible anyway…).

A pinch of salt:

Every school is different and has different expectations as to what is recorded, how it is recorded etc. These suggestions are ones I make use of and can be adapted to other units. Please remember the early paragraphs as activities in isolation aren’t inherently going to add huge amounts.

I’ve endeavoured to be as clear as possible with the ideas BUT it’s easier said than done. Please do drop me an email with questions OR tell me how the ideas went for you!  

Activities aren’t tasks in isolation. Make sure they add to children’s understanding and are connected to the wider narrative to be encountered. What will they learn is, and should always be, central to thinking about activities.

Relevant CPD and Resources:

I don’t write these blogs as a sales pitch so I hope it doesn’t come across that way. The ideas I have used are ones from my units of work and CPD sessions for obvious reasons. If you would like to see those sessions or resources in their entirety, you can on the links below BUT I have added the relevant context to the blog so this isn’t something you need to do (apart from the unit of work model outlined at the start).
Mr T does Primary History by Stuart Tiffany

Building a Great Unit of History

Teaching Chronology from EYFS to Year 6

Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to Iron Age Unit of Work

The Anglo-Saxon and Viking Struggle for the Kingdom of England Unit of Work

[i] Retrieval Practice: Primary A guide for primary teachers and leaders by Kate Jones, John Catt – P22

[ii] (this is free to download from the HA website… I WOULD DO THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY!)

[iii] Emma Turner – dynamic deputies podcast –

[iv] Why Don’t Students Like School? By Daniel Willingham, Jossey-Bass, P61



[vii] Simplicitus: The Interconnected Primary Curriculum & Effective Subject Leadership by Emma Turner, John Catt PP73-75

[viii] Organise ideas: Thinking by Hand, Extending the Mind by Oliver Caviglioli and David Goodwin, John Cattm, P28

[ix] Why Don’t Students Like School? By Daniel Willingham, Jossey-Bass, P69

[x] Botheredness®: Stories, stance and pedagogy by Hywel Roberts, Independent Thinking Press

[xi] ‘What time does the tune start?: From thinking about “sense of period” to modelling history at Key Stage 3’. Teaching History, 135: 50–7



There have been a number of teachers asking on social media about what to do for their next history topic. I thought I’d collate some ideas I tend to suggest and some choices I tend to avoid. In no way shape or form is this an attempt to denigrate those that approach history differently so please see this as one of many possible guides – there is no singular way to teach history.

The sequence of thinking I tend to work through when planning a new sequence. The * steps are ones that may or may not be possible, workable depending on school context.

First, panic! Then, focus on deliberate choices to be made! A scattergun approach leads to isolated episodes and less of a coherent sequence.

What does my school’s LTP say? Many schools have spent enormous amounts of time developing their curriculum over the previous few years and it is more prescribed than once was the case. If there is existing planning in place, read it through and consider what it emphasises and the knowledge to be taught. At this stage, resist the urge to focus in on activities. Let’s first emphasise what the children will learn.

What does the National Curriculum say? Read the objective carefully then read it again. What is the nuanced detail? This is key because most objectives offer a clearer starting point than we may imagine. My response to this twitter post followed this line of thinking. NB – check existing planning fulfils this NC specification. It’s important either way!

The wider NC document is something to read when planning. The wider document offers support in terms of the breadth of what is to be covered. The paragraph below is above the bullet point and includes the range of processes and skills children should encounter, develop as they progress through the Key Stage.

Read around to get a feel for the nature of what life was like at the time or what could be learned. BBC Bitesize (KS3 and GCSE are often helpful for teacher knowledge), BBC history, Michael Tidd’s history cheat sheets, Historical Association website including magazine etc. The purpose here isn’t to specify exactly what will be emphasised yet but rather to dip a toe into possibilities. Often, things have caught my attention at this stage and something I’ve developed further when constructing subsequent enquiries or as sources of evidence within one stage of an enquiry.

Construct an enquiry question. This is a historically valid question which guides a sequence of lessons with a clear focus on adding lots of knowledge in order to be able to genuinely answer the question at the end. In addition, it will emphasise the discipline of history so lessons include an aspect of thinking or working like a historian (aims 4 and 5 of the National Curriculum).[i]

For the topic on toys, I’d start with:
a) How have toys changed in the last century?
b) What do those changes tell us about the way people live?

Here, enquiry a is going to be longer than b. It will do more of the heavy lifting in terms of knowledge acquisition. B focuses on drawing conclusions and adding breadth to what enquiry A has done.

For more information on this, download the Historical Association’s enquiry toolkit which is free access with website signup (no payment needed).

This is useful because it enables teachers to distinguish between core knowledge and that which adds little value. Everything children will learn adds value to enquiry a, b or both.

Presenting what is to be learned on a relevant timeline. I’ve written on chronology a number of times, which can be found here on my blog and teachwire. There are a number of explanatory videos on my Youtube channel too.

Have the children encountered these concepts or ideas before?* It’s important to think about the knowledge children will arrive with based on the taught curriculum from EYFS etc. This will be broadened by experiences some children will have from home but this can’t be guaranteed for many.

Now, think about which toys are going to be studied. The enquiry question mentions change but implied is studying some which remain relatively unchanged since they were first launched. A mixture is important so as not to misrepresent the past. I’d personally choose toys that will capture the interest of children and that they can interact with.

My choices:
– teddy bears/dolls
– construction toys like lego
– computer game consoles

The risk here could be to overload the children with too many options. This could so easily make it harder for them to spend sufficient time learning about the story of each of the toys and reduce the likelihood of them remembering more of the substantive knowledge about them.

Substantive knowledge – Ofsted defined this as “their knowledge about the past” in the recent research review[ii]. This is where teachers must make choices! Define the knowledge you want children to know and remember from this unit of history.

How will they learn it? Now the knowledge is clear, think about how the children will acquire it. For KS1, the children may still be based predominantly in areas of provision which impacts the nature of the task. At the end of each stage of the enquiry, bring the children together and ask them what they have learned in relation to the enquiry question. It’s what the knowledge is going to be hung onto. Be careful though, focus on what has been learned and not on what they did.

I call these summaries of learning and find them useful as a formative assessment tool. Children may discuss them collaboratively and produced a word or sentence level answer. This could be spoken or written as either medium is totally valid. A summary picture is a useful cue for further conversation…

What conclusions will they draw? Once again, the role of the enquiry question(s) is key. The children should, to quote the NC2014, “use a wide vocabulary of everyday historical terms. They should ask and answer questions, choosing and using parts of stories and other sources to show that they know and understand key features of events.” To me, this is not an over-scaffolded essay which essentially recites everything the child has learned. Rather, a carefully considered selection of evidence that illustrates the point with a clear conclusion.

In the particular toys enquiry, it could be something like this for enquiry a:

Some toys have changed a lot in the last century and some have not. Computer games were only invented in 1972 when my Grandad was a boy and have changed a lot since then. Other toys have not changed much at all. I have a teddy and it looks the same as the first one.

This highlights the child has learned there are examples of continuities and changes. As a source of evidence for teaching, the child has chosen relevant examples and used them carefully. This could be built on for enquiry b by focusing on examples which reveal technological and societal changes.

The example I have in mind is changes in computer games consoles. The child could compare the quality of the technology by thinking about the graphics, range of actions etc. In a societal sense, they could look at the number of people who have access to them now compared to when they were first launched. A caveat though – be mindful of children’s home experiences as some children may have access to very little and focusing on this is not a pleasant experience for them.

This is an introductory guide that I put together for newer teachers. The structure hopefully guides them in thinking about a sequence of thinking. In no way, shape or form, is this a definitive list (see below) of implications that can affect what is chosen to be taught. Any questions, please do drop me a tweet, Facebook message or email and I’ll happily chat further.

What I didn’t include but would think about as a more experienced teacher:

  1. Which substantive concepts are run through the curriculum.
  2. Is this a diverse and representative unit of work that shows a range of stories and experiences (think ethnicity, social class, gender roles, disability, LGBT etc).
  3. Inter-disciplinary links I can make that add valuable hinterland breadth to the children’s understanding.
  4. How specific sources of evidence can act as a core depth study within an overall enquiry.



This probably won’t surprise you but history is my favourite subject! I love it for so many reasons which is why I do this for a living. It’s why I love(d) leading it across a number of schools; why I’ll always be a passionate advocate for it being so much more than just an agreed sequence of facts to learn. In history, it is rare to say something is universally agreed and/or objectively true which is why it can be a challenge to lead in an ever-changing world. As emerging historians, the children must learn not only the nature of the past but also the rigorous process by which claims are constructed, argued and developed by those looking back at what already happened. A reason why I believe it’s so key to learn about the past is that it helps the children begin to understand why aspects of the world around them exist as they do but also individuals, events etc that shaped them for the good, bad or ‘ugly’ reasons.

My aim across this two-part blog is to hopefully provide some clarity and thoughts on how to begin your journey as a history subject lead. As with anything history related, there is no singular pathway from novice so see this as a possible plan. It is the one I tend to use when thinking about history but am always open to other approaches and ideas.  

The Curriculum

When you first read the National Curriculum for history 2014, it’s so easy to become overwhelmed by what it says but what it doesn’t say. When it was first launched, Alf Wilkinson of the Historical Association described the changes and what it offers history leaders[i]. It’s important to remember that it is NOT a complete curriculum but rather provides a framework that schools can use as a start point. See the curriculum as a minimum expectation of what must be included and not an ambition to aspire toward.

Before you go any further, please make sure you’ve read all of it as each element offers something different. Teachers have huge workloads so part of the role to develop as a subject leader is to provide that overall understanding of the big picture and vision for the subject – this takes time so don’t worry if it seems like a mountain to climb at the start! Below is a very brief summary of what each part includes:

Purpose of StudyThis paragraph is the ultimate end point for the curriculum. It is identical for Key Stage 1, 2 and 3. It sets out what children should be able to do by the end of it so every time children learn about history, it should contribute to this ambition.  
AimsThere are 6 aims for the NC (6 is on the top of page 2 and easily missed). Each of them adds to depth to what the children should know, gain or understand. It’s easy to try and use these as a tick box that should be met in every unit but this would miss the point.  
1) The role of chronology in the curriculum.
2) What to select when teaching world history.
3) Teaching vocabulary/abstract concepts to ensure they are understood for that historical period.[ii]
4) Second-order concepts for history which are used to frame conclusions and historicise knowledge. They set the way in which knowledge is analysed, discussed, and debated etc.
5) Understand how we learn about the past through historical enquiry. It is a process which is used to analyse the available evidence about the past to construct claims.
6) The breadth of the curriculum to be taught and ensuring connections are made between branches of history and across periods of time. In particular, connecting local history to the region, nation and beyond; the types of history that can be stressed (social, military etc) and the importance of understanding short and long-term timescales.
Attainment targetsOne sentence, which at first glance looks less than helpful. However, it sets out the importance of having a clearly defined curriculum for both skills and knowledge. There isn’t a pre-determined list of what must be taught where – that’s for schools to decide upon. It is in line with the idea that the curriculum itself is the progression model.[iii]
Subject ContentBroken into two sections:
a) Processes which should be embedded across every unit of history where they are relevant. This works in conjunction with the above-mentioned curriculum areas.
b) Individual bullet points. This is the section teachers most often consider when planning but take some time to think about the nature of the statement itself. They aren’t just a study of the Great Fire of London or the Romans in Britain.

Most offer more guidance about where to add greater emphasis in terms of teaching time. 

Ask yourself:

  • Is your curriculum facilitating all of this? (Don’t feel you need to know this after one read through as I’ve broken it down into a number of stages you may wish to consider.)

Does your predecessor still work there?

In my mind, I have fingers crossed that they do… it would make things so much simpler if you can have a handover meeting with them and begin to understand what is in place. Think carefully about what would be important to know about their role (three suggestions below) and what their vision would have been should they have continued to develop it further.

However, it isn’t the end of the world if they have left or the meeting can’t take place. Take time to read what the schools’ curriculum includes. Knowing what has been done so far will help make sense of the curriculum as it currently stands.

Questions to ask:

  • What has been done so far in terms of curriculum sequencing?
  • Have there been any developments as a focus?
  • What plans did they have in place for where next?
  • Does anything have a particular emphasis across the curriculum?

Reviewing what is currently in place?

Once you feel that you have a greater sense of clarity over what the NC14 includes, start to reflect on the current curriculum provision. I’d always suggest looking at this in a number of ways to ensure you have covered not only the required subject content but also the underlying intentions of the PoS and Aims. The way in which you do this is, of course, based upon your experience of subject leadership but also confidence with the discipline of history. The list could be done in a day, across a half-term or progressively throughout the year:

  1. Are you meeting the subject content bullet points?
  2. Does the sequence look logical (see endnote for more detailed explanation of what this could look like[iv])?
  3. In how much depth is your curriculum defined and is it clearly prescribed enough to ensure subsequent teachers know what they are building on[v]?
  4. Is it a representative curriculum for your school in terms of diversity and role models?

Do you have plans in mind?

If you’re anything like I was as a new subject leader, I dived in like Scrooge McDuck (Google it if you’re too young to remember). I had so many ideas without a clear picture of what it would mean across the school. It meant I was charging around like a headless chicken, trying to get everyone as keen and excited as me – unsurprisingly, it didn’t work! That’s why the first parts to this blog look at what’s currently in place. I definitely fell into that trap! Being excited and energetic is great… being purposeful and taking people with you is infinitely better!

Ask yourself:

  • What do you want your curriculum to say about your school?
  • What does the school ethos and values add to how, what and why we make certain choices?
  • What do you believe in as a teacher and how can that intertwine with school ethos?
  • What is the school pedagogy and is there an agreed approach?

This isn’t complete! This is part 1 of 2 but I wanted to get it up quickly to give people a useful starting point… hopefully. If you have any questions or requests for part 2, please tweet, message or email me so I can try and build them into it with a Q and A section.

Part 2:

The list below is my current outline in a very rough and early form. The final version may be somewhat different.

  • What is the purpose of teaching history?
  • The discipline of history.
  • Where to look for support?
  • Order of operations?
  • What next?




[iv] When we talk about logical sequencing, there are many possible thought processes to consider. Think about the age of the children, prior experiences and the complexity of what is to be taught – can they actually comprehend WHAT is being taught in sufficient depth to avoid trivialising it. Content does not have to be taught in chronological order but do consider how children will build on what is learned based on what they learn next. Why this? Why now? In a nutshell.

[v] This is where the PoS and Aims are useful to scaffold the nature of what is going to be taught. Is it broad and ambitious as Tim Jenner (OFSTED HMI for history asked in his 2021 HA keynote talk)?

As you may or may not know, I’m quite nerdy about timelines! This is the third piece on chronology that I’ve produced so do take a look at the others because they cover different ground to this one. Displaying a timeline in your classroom would seem to have some obvious benefits such as exposing children to the big picture of history; then setting out the narrative of what is to be taught for the internal narratives. However, children aren’t going to understand and embrace the complexity and nuance of historical narratives without explicit teaching. An analogy I often use when working with teachers is can you imagine counting in 3’s once and saying, “we’ve done it once so you’ve got it!” That would be the dream wouldn’t it.

I wrote about the role chronology plays in the curriculum in my previous blogs on Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 so shan’t be going over that again here more than a summary. First, chronology is a key concept within the NC2014 in part because of Ofsted’s report History for All, 2011. Second, it is described extensively across each key stage. Please make sure you’re aware of that and consider the role your teaching plays in its continued development.   

After getting to a stage where I was happy with how timelines looked, my focus has shifted more toward how we can teach chronology explicitly to ensure children can see the timeline as more than just a sequence of events they were going to be taught about. Willingham’s point that ‘memory is the residue of thought’[i] comes front and centre. Children need to think about the meaning… the implications… the importance of what they are taught – our role as a teacher is not just to scaffold the construction of timelines but rather to ensure that we are the narrator to the historical narrative. Can you imagine a story without a narrator? No, me either…

I broke this down in my May 2022 HA conference talk in Bristol. This is just a summary to provoke thought processes and pose questions for teachers to consider within their own classroom settings. Before diving in any further, it’s important to consider the following points for your own school:

  1. What do the children already know in a chronological sense?
  2. Do they have the mathematical underpinning needed to access the timeline you wish to use?
  3. Is this an overview of a long arc of time or depth study?
  4. Are we focusing in on any aspects in particular (military, political etc)?

All of those points help to focus attention on how the timeline will be constructed and then narrated. Considering them carefully before starting makes the implementation simpler. In Oliver Lovell’s book on CLT in action, he writes ‘working memory is the bottleneck of our thinking’[ii] and the implication for teaching timeline is not to overload it. From this I created some principles which I adhere to:

  1. Visual simplicity
    The logic here is that the simpler an activity or model is to navigate, the easier it is for the children to successfully construct and more importantly, navigate the timeline. The more complex it is as a visual, the harder this becomes. Tom Sherrington’s piece on a model for learning has influenced my thinking on this including the excellent images by Oliver Caviglioli.

  2. Mathematically underpinned
    Chronology is mathematically underpinned in so many regards and therefore we can make our timelines more precise with a mathematical scale. This is key to unlocking the fact that timelines do not depict a complete linear sequence. Rather, they contain selected parts of that period we are choosing to focus on. The scale highlights the varied intervals between events which form part of the teaching sequence when we narrate the timeline post-construction. Children can struggle with the place value knowledge needed to understand what 1666 refers to for the Great Fire of London in Year 1/2 or the fact that there is almost a century between Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain and the successful conquest by Claudius. The teacher constructing an accurate timeline allows children to identify the varied intervals because the physical gap between them varies.

    This is also key when describing timelines using chronological language: a decade is ten years, a century is a hundred years, etc. A quick reminder, there is no year 0 in history – 1BC to AD1!

  3. Both types are used consistently alongside maps
    I use the terms overall and internal narratives to describe the different types of timeline. They were included in my previous blogs on chronology so do look at the differences.

  4. Key concepts are stressed and built on
    Over time, I have refined the names of the chronological concepts I embed through my teaching and resources. They are not listed in the curriculum but allow me to explicitly teach what is happening or being depicted. Chronology is more complex than an arbitrary sequence. By considering scales, intervals and duration, concurrence and interactions between groups, the richness of history is easier to put across. I produced short YouTube videos on these which can be found here.

  5. Narrate, interpret and link after it’s constructed
    First, we build the timeline and then we make use of it. As mentioned in Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, ‘present new material in small steps with student practice after each step.’ [iii] This is important as constructing a timeline is a multi-step process as I suggest in the previous paragraph. I have multiple groups producing timelines in chronology lessons; they have clear instructions to guide what they are doing. In addition, while constructing timelines, I provide a completed example as a model and scaffold to provide a greater chance of success (they are free to check it as they please or I can guide them to use it if I identify it would be beneficial).

    Narration and linking, this is key! If you construct a timeline but don’t use it for any great reason… have you actually done any history? Possibly, but it’s more likely the children have practised their ordering of 2, 3 and 4-digit numbers.

    When teaching chronology, narration and linking is what should be prioritised if time is limited. Understanding the narrative of what is to be learned adds meaning and purpose to the timeline. Willingham’s observation that I used before is why this is key. Mary Myatt talks about using stories and high-quality texts in the curriculum[iv]. I agree wholeheartedly as they add richness to the knowledge contained within the timeline. However, let’s use the language of story and narrative to make the children ‘bothered’ about the curriculum as Hywell Roberts would say.

    There are several ways this can be done effectively. Susan Townsend of Roehampton University showcased several at the HA conference I mentioned, that captured my interest based on how we can interact with timelines. I am not doing them justice but the example below gives a flavour. Use a human timeline where everyone holds a picture of something pertinent. The teacher can say step forward if your picture shows… power, culture, religion, etc. so simple and so clever. Making connections across periods of history is both powerful and specified as part of the KS2 curriculum – using a purposeful timeline supports this!


Please don’t see this as a complete guide on how to teach chronology – it’s more than this blog could ever provide. Hopefully it’s started your own thinking on how you can refine your chronology teaching to add clarity of thought and purpose.

Once you have that, think about what’s next. First, make sure there is a timeline displayed throughout the topic that you can refer to and add depth to. If possible, have maps to highlight the interdisciplinary links between history and geography – where AND when did these things happen? How did the geography play a role in events and developments… it invariably did and still does in events today.

Don’t presume children will read the information on timelines unless you explicitly direct them to it. Many teachers don’t when I deliver CPD as specific instructions matter. That’s why small steps under direct instruction is my go to approach – it is efficient and supports success.

What interests me now is how timelines look across schools and the varied ways in which teachers use them! Drop me an email or message about how you use them because I’d genuinely love to know.

[i] Daniel T. Willingham – Why Don’t Students Like School PP60-62

[ii] Oliver Lovell – Sweller’s cognitive load theory in action P19



I just wanted to send a quick email to say how fantastic the resources and planning are for your recent unit on Ancient Greece. So far, I have only done the first session, but have prepared/read through the second session and it is so pleasing that I have very little to do for it!! The kids loved the lesson style - so much time to chat and dig deep into proper history talk and I feel their learning will progress so much more satisfactorily because of all this.

A. Amos – Teacher, Leeds

Your visit was really inspiring, and having a pair of impartial eyes to look over our curriculum and books is just what we needed. We have really clear points going forward on how we can improve. Staff were so positive about the training too, something for everyone to take away. I'll be doing a follow up staff meeting in a few weeks.   You are genuinely brilliant at what you do and it was great to chat with a fellow history nerd! Really appreciate the documents you have sent over too, very generous.

N. Evans – History Lead

Really informative, great ideas, helpful advise and some fab resources. Thank you so much

C. Fielder, Curriculum Lead, Milton Keynes

We had a training day today; it was both fun and very inspirational. Lots of sensible and clear ideas to make History more engaging and purposeful for pupils.

A. Wells, Deputy Headteacher, Lincolnshire

I can’t recommend Mr T does Primary History enough. I am new to leading this particular subject and I left his training today feeling completely inspired. Thanks again Mr T

Louise Hill, History Subject Lead

Just purchased the Ancient Greek unit plan for 3/4 and its excellent! Certainly made my planning a lot easier! Many thanks, look forward to buying other units throughout the year!

I. Fern, Teacher

Awesome day spent with Mr T today going through our books and curriculum with a fine tooth comb. Great to know we were on the right track and to get clarity and direction on what we weren't sure about. Great staff meeting about how to use historical sources in a range of ways across the year groups.

H. Doust, History Subject Lead, Kirton Lindsey School