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Ofsted Research Review of History – A Summary


Teaching supports pupil progress by embedding frameworks of content and concepts that enable pupils to access future material. Abstract concepts are best learned through meaningful examples and repeated encounters in different contexts.

Curriculum decisions occur at different levels

  • Curriculum decisions in history occur on many levels. Schools choose broad topics to teach in their history curriculum. Within these broad topics, teachers must select content from an extraordinary range of possible material to create ‘planned routes’ through particular topics.
  • ‘Live’ decision-making by individual teachers is likely to be better judged and managed when underlying rationales for content selection are fully understood and when teachers have had opportunities to regularly discuss content selection and its purposes, as well as the marriage of disciplinary and substantive content.

Progress in History

  • Existing knowledge is what allows pupils to understand and learn new material. Some knowledge is likely to be particularly important to future learning. Pupils are likely to benefit when curriculum design, teaching and assessment prioritise this knowledge.
  • Knowledge of the past must be shaped by disciplinary approaches in order to become historical knowledge. Similarly, acquiring disciplinary knowledge is made purposeful and meaningful to pupils when it is related to particular historical problems where pupils have sufficient knowledge of the period, setting and topic to reason, to make inferences and to grasp the terms that others are using in any debate.

Prioritising content in the curriculum

Generative knowledge and content emphasis

  • Core knowledge is the knowledge that, within a particular lesson or topic, curriculum designers and teachers deem most important for pupils to secure in their long-term memory. No particular content is innately or always ‘core’. ‘Core’ is merely a status conferred on content by curriculum designers and teachers.
  • High-quality curriculum design is likely to be characterised by a strong and sophisticated rationale for emphasising particular content.

Progress through substantive concepts

Substantive concepts occur frequently

  • Many of these concepts feature regularly throughout the study of history in a range of contexts. As a result, they are particularly important to pupils’ understanding of new material. A pupil might come across the terms ‘invasion’, ‘monarch’ or ‘tax’ in every year of school history. They will then be able to draw on their secure knowledge of these concepts repeatedly in a number of different contexts.

Substantive concepts must be put into a historic context

  • Substantive concepts are not simply ‘definitions’ of important terms. They have particular meanings in different contexts. First, they have a particular meaning when used in the context of a historical narrative or argument. Second, they often have meanings that are specific to particular periods or places.

Balancing incidental and directed learning of substantive concepts

  • Often, a lack of security in one of these concepts is a barrier to pupils’ comprehension of new material, and therefore limits the potential for further learning about both the wider context being studied and the concept itself.
  • Left unchecked, these gaps in pupils’ knowledge are amplified as this lack of enabling knowledge is compounded over time.
  • The importance of these concepts suggests that teaching should aim to explicitly develop knowledge of concepts that may be particularly important to support pupils to learn later content.
  • As pupils’ understanding of the past, and of other concepts, develops, so will their capacity to learn new concepts more readily.
    • A pupil who already knows of ‘kingdoms’ will have some of the knowledge structures in place to learn more readily about ‘empires’, for example.
  • Curriculum designers and teachers can increase these opportunities for incidental learning through selecting appropriately challenging vocabulary and texts.

Chronological knowledge

Chronological knowledge is also highly generative. Understanding the broad characteristics of historical periods gives context to what pupils learn and can increase pupils’ familiarity with new material.

Developing pupils’ mental timeline

  • 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.
  • A secure mental timeline makes pupils’ existing historical knowledge more secure, and therefore makes new knowledge easier to learn.
  • Understanding the broad features or characteristics of historical periods also establishes a meaningful context for what pupils will go on to learn.
  • When curriculum design does not take this chronological knowledge into consideration, pupils’ understanding of the past is likely to be disconnected or episodic.

The importance of context and repetition when learning new concepts

New knowledge is hard to learn when it is highly abstract or unfamiliar to pupils. Specific examples can make the unfamiliar elements of new material more meaningful.

Knowledge is generative

  • Curriculum content increases in range, depth and complexity as pupils move through their history curriculum.
  • Knowledge is generative: it enables further learning. Therefore, this expanding knowledge is progress, but it is also a driver of further progress.

The role of background content in developing knowledge and understanding

  • Pupils often need to encounter lots of contextual or background material (sometimes referred to as ‘hinterland’) in order to make sense of, and learn, core knowledge.
  • There are a number of reasons why teachers may choose to include such a range of background details in such a lesson, but chief among them is the fact that this extra detail is likely to help, not hinder, pupils’ learning of the core knowledge.
  • Hinterland information provides meaningful examples and secure contexts for learning
  • Hinterland information can connect and organise information into coherent narratives
    • New information is easier to comprehend and remember when organised as a story. Stories provide an organising framework for knowledge. They also give familiarity to the unfamiliar through features that are grounded in pupils’ lived experience and their knowledge from reading more widely – features such as agents, causation and conflict.
  • Hinterland information can develop familiarity or initial schemata for later learning
  • Hinterland information can broaden curriculum content and demonstrate the diversity of past experiences

Securing progress in disciplinary knowledge

Disciplinary knowledge in history

  • Disciplinary knowledge is knowledge of how historians investigate the past, and how they construct historical claims, arguments and accounts

Common misconceptions and learning disciplinary knowledge

  • A number of history teachers have highlighted significant preconceptions and misconceptions that pupils bring to their thinking about historical enquiry.
    • For example, pupils may perceive historical enquiry to be a form of ‘fact-finding’ in which historians are searching for a particular document or piece of evidence that will reveal or validate a singular truth about the past.

The interplay between substantive and disciplinary knowledge

  • Each is meaningless without the other.
  • It is through disciplinary methods, approaches and assumptions that pupils are able to construct substantive knowledge of the past. Although these disciplinary aspects may not always be explicitly taught, they underpin any knowledge of the past that is taught to pupils.
  • Substantive aspects of the past also shape these disciplinary tools, approaches and assumptions.

Some principles for developing pupils’ disciplinary knowledge

Avoiding generic approaches

  • Because the disciplinary approach is always shaped by the substantive context, it is often inaccurate or misleading to teach pupils that historical enquiry can be reduced to simple rules, tricks or heuristics.
  • Pupils will learn about historical enquiry most effectively through specific examples of how historians have approached this in particular contexts.

The importance of secure substantive knowledge

  • Pupils’ capacity to learn and use disciplinary knowledge, including in the construction of their own historical arguments and accounts, is highly dependent on the depth and security of their substantive knowledge of the period or events being analysed.

Developing disciplinary knowledge over time

  • Pupils develop their disciplinary knowledge in the same way as they build their knowledge of substantive concepts. Over time, they will develop increasingly secure and sophisticated schemata about complex disciplinary ideas such as ‘how historians construct claims from evidence’ or ‘how causal arguments are presented in narrative accounts’.

Developing disciplinary thinking through disciplinary concepts

The main second-order concepts in common use by history teachers in England, and which figure in England’s national curriculum for history, are:

  • Cause, consequence, change and continuity, similarity and difference, historical significance, sources and evidence, historical interpretations


  • Teaching pupils the art of causal reasoning and the shaping of arguments about causation relates to the way historians analyse how and why events or states of affairs occurred or emerged.
  • Teaching pupils about how historians construct causal arguments requires attention to the distinctive features of this type of historical argument.
  • In order to build effective causal arguments, pupils require secure substantive knowledge of the event or process before seeking to explain the causes of the event or process.
  • Without this, pupils’ own causal judgements will be ill-informed or might encourage misconceptions about the discipline. An effective causation enquiry is likely to develop rich and secure substantive knowledge of the specific event or process across a series of lessons.


  • For pupils to discern, summarise, characterise or classify consequences of an event or development is very challenging. This is unlikely to be worthwhile or successful unless pupils are working with broad, secure knowledge of pertinent developments in the period.

Change and continuity

  • The second-order concept of change and continuity relates to historical analysis of the pace, nature and extent of change, or characterisation of a process of change.
  • Enquiry questions are likely to be most effective when they clearly get pupils thinking and arguing about one aspect of change or continuity in a historical period.

Similarity and difference

  • The second-order concept of similarity and difference relates to historical analysis of the extent and type of difference between people, groups, experiences or places in the same historical period.
  • Learning about similarity and difference often involves detecting and analysing generalisations.

Historical significance

  • The second-order concept of historical significance focuses on how and why historical events, trends and individuals are ascribed historical significance.
  • Pupils require secure substantive knowledge in order to learn or understand disciplinary knowledge about significance. This includes knowledge about the event or period being studied and the period in which significance has been ascribed.

Sources and evidence

  • Pupils need to learn how historians use sources as evidence to construct, challenge or test claims about the past.
  • Pupils commonly hold misconceptions about sources and evidence. Effective curriculum design rests on clarity about sources and evidence and how these relate to historical enquiry and historical claims. Pupils must learn that historical sources provide evidence in relation to specific questions. One common misconception among pupils is that ‘bias’ in a source is necessarily bad and means that a source is not useful.
  • Some common approaches to teaching about sources and evidence are very likely to develop misconceptions. For example, explicitly teaching pupils to spot bias without showing the value of that bias or to make judgements about the inherent reliability of a particular source is likely to encourage these misconceptions. Any teaching approach that encourages pupils to make ‘claims greater than the evidence will bear’ is likely to encourage misconceptions about the relationship between claims and evidence.
  • Effective teaching about sources and evidence teaches pupils to use sources to establish evidence for a specific historical question. The breadth of pupils’ knowledge can be developed by encounters with a wide range of sources and source types, including objects, oral histories and artefacts, as well as written sources.

Historical interpretations

  • The study of historical interpretations relates to an understanding of how and why different accounts of the past are constructed.
  • Experience of working with a wide range of interpretations, and examining their construction, audience, purpose and form, can support pupils with other aspects of disciplinary thinking, for example by teaching them about the relationships between sources, evidence, context and interpretations.

Ensuring breadth of the cumulative curriculum offer

Breadth: studying a range of historical places and societies

  • In a 2016 survey of history teachers, a perceived lack of geographical breadth in schools’ history curriculums was a common concern. In history, this is likely to include the study of a wide range of historical places and societies.
  • A geographically broad curriculum explores local histories and the regional diversity of the British Isles, as well as the study of other places and societies beyond the British Isles.
  • It also allows pupils to engage with the past on different geographical scales, from local and regional to national and global perspectives.

Breadth: studying a range of historical fields of enquiry

  • The national curriculum makes it clear that pupils should learn about different fields of historical enquiry, such as political, economic and social history.
  • Political history narratives also form one common organising framework for knowledge of the past (through chronological arrangements of political or national events or through ways that periods are classified, such as ‘Elizabethan England’).
  • Social and cultural history are also likely to develop pupils’ sense of ‘period’, which assists with chronological security. Economic, religious and military history also offer unique opportunities to develop understanding of recurring terms as well as the expectation in pupils that these terms constantly shift their meaning in diverse contexts.
  • In key stage 2, pupils’ study of diverse civilisations such as the Indus Valley civilisation and the Mesopotamian civilisation allows primary teachers to lay the foundations for pupils to grasp how contrasting content and contrasting physical remains have fostered contrasting archaeological techniques and different kinds of accounts by historians.

Diversity and representativeness

  • The national curriculum highlights the importance of teaching pupils about the diversity of the past
  • Attending to diversity in curriculum design enhances pupils’ understanding of the past. It’s important that pupils learning about the richness of the past to overcome sweeping generalisations or misconceptions.
  • Pupils’ learning is likely to be most effective when these stories are connected to overview knowledge of the past. It is also important that representations of individuals or groups avoid tokenism.
  • From a qualitative research study into the experiences of Black pupils whose only experience of Black history was the transatlantic slave trade, Traille reported that these pupils experienced feelings of alienation and apathy.

Curriculum at different stages if education

Developing early historical knowledge

  • Children learn about the past throughout their education, and their understanding of new material about the past will be profoundly influenced by both their general vocabulary and their knowledge of historical concepts.
  • This suggests that an effective curriculum for younger children might develop their knowledge of a few concepts that are particularly important in their future learning in history.
  • Effective teaching at this stage can also begin to develop children’s chronological knowledge. Concepts such as ‘the past’ are highly abstract for young children. As such, knowledge of chronological concepts must be developed through repeated encounters with meaningful examples in familiar contexts.

History at KS2

  • Ultimately, the history curriculum should ensure that pupils progress towards constructing their own historical arguments and accounts. However, the extent of pupils’ prior knowledge needs to be taken into account so that disciplinary knowledge can build meaningfully on what pupils already know.
  • Teachers should carefully support pupils when they construct their own historical arguments, as doing this with limited knowledge can lead to misconceptions.

Effective Teaching in History

Pupils are more likely to retain knowledge when they have engaged analytically with the content they study.

Clear exposition that considers prior knowledge

  • Teachers’ exposition is likely to be most effective when it is clear and carefully designed to account for pupils’ existing knowledge.

Narrative and story

  • Storytelling is a powerful vehicle for learning. It is likely that historical stories are an effective way of teaching new content in history. Stories are likely to be particularly effective when teachers draw pupils’ attention to particularly important content within them.

Developing pupils’ knowledge of historical contexts

  • Pupils’ learning within a topic is heavily supported by their knowledge of the historical context.

Reading extended texts

  • Background knowledge is likely to be a major influence on pupils’ capacity to read and understand a text and so using texts effectively will depend on pupils’ knowledge.

Supporting pupils in history including SEND

  • All pupils are entitled to a broad history curriculum. Any adaptations made to support pupils’ learning in history usually should not be to the overall curriculum content but rather to how the content is taught.
  • Ensuring that all pupils otherwise encounter the same content is particularly important given the role that hinterland information has in facilitating learning in history.
  • t is likely that pupils will benefit most from support that combines extra attention to securing the most generative knowledge while ensuring that all pupils are able to learn about events and periods in a rich context and through meaningful examples.

Assessment in History

Formative Assessment

  • Given the importance of pupils’ knowledge in enabling progress, formative assessment is likely to be most effective when it prioritises assessing the range and security of pupils’ historical knowledge.
  • To be effective, formative assessment must allow teachers to draw valid inferences about pupils’ knowledge that they can act on.

Assessing disciplinary knowledge

  • Pupils’ disciplinary knowledge can also be assessed by their response to outcome tasks, such as writing an essay in response to a historical question. These tasks are a powerful learning tool: they require pupils to connect and transform knowledge to form arguments. This develops pupils’ substantive knowledge of a period but also their disciplinary knowledge of how arguments are constructed and communicated.

Systems at subject/school level

  • Adequate curriculum time is given to history to enable teachers to deliver a broad history curriculum that develops secure knowledge for pupils.
  • Senior leaders assure themselves of the quality and breadth of the history curriculum. They understand how pupils progress in history, which allows them to support and challenge decisions at a subject level.
  • Leaders are aware of and mitigate against the potential downsides of whole-school policies and their impact on the ability of teachers and departments to deliver a high-quality history education.
  • Teachers and curriculum designers have secure and wide-ranging knowledge of the past, of academic history and of how to teach history to pupils. This is likely to be supported by high-quality, subject-specific professional development.

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