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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
[i] Retrieval Practice: Primary A guide for primary teachers and leaders by Kate Jones, John Catt – P22
[ii] https://www.history.org.uk/primary/resource/9016/ha-enquiry-toolkit (this is free to download from the HA website… I WOULD DO THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY!)
[iii] Emma Turner – dynamic deputies podcast – https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/emma-turner-the-interconnected-primary-curriculum/id1449384975?i=1000564994507
[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.
– 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:
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.
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 Study||This 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.|
|Aims||There 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 targets||One 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 Content||Broken 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.
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:
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:
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!
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.
The list below is my current outline in a very rough and early form. The final version may be somewhat different.
[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:
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:
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
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