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An Introductory Guide to Leading History

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?

[i] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLhnL5Fc2wY

[ii] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-history/research-review-series-history

[iii] https://clioetcetera.com/2020/02/08/what-did-i-mean-by-the-curriculum-is-the-progression-model/

[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!

Summary

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

[iii] https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf

[iv] https://www.marymyatt.com/blog/how-stories-help-pupils-learn-the-curriculum

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