Curriculum musings

I am taking the opportunity during the long weeks of the summer holiday to refine the KS1/KS2 history curriculum for my school which I had mapped out earlier in the year. I also want to ensure there are high quality resources ready for each year group come September – mostly in the form of booklets (of which I am a big fan). Away from the hustle and bustle of daily teaching, I can finally find the time to immerse myself in my favourite subject: history.

I thought I would write a blog to share my thought processes along the way. Before I go any further though, I should warn that I have no ready answers for others also in the throes of curricular planning. The curriculum is never done, so what I am sharing is a snapshot of where I am at the moment rather than a finished product.

Of course, I am not planning a history curriculum in a vacuum. Firstly, there is the National Curriculum, which I am duty bound to follow. This in itself is not a problem, as the NC provides a solid foundation to build upon. Then there are the current “market trends” that I need to consider. For instance, there is much talk these days about “decolonising the curriculum”. This can mean different things to different people. Nevertheless, it is clearly no longer acceptable to have a curriculum that does not reflect the diverse society we live in and the common values that we share. How do I reflect this diversity without falling prey to tokenism or presenting a skewed version of history? There are no easy answers.

Then there is the assumption that a good curriculum needs to be a “knowledge curriculum”. For some, this means cramming as much historical knowledge into our pupils as possible in the time available each term. I do like the idea of pumping my pupils with knowledge, who doesn’t? However, once again, it’s not as simple as that. History is such a vast subject. I studied it all through school and 3 years of university, yet there is still so much history that I do not know or have very cursory knowledge of. There is no way we can teach our pupils all the history there is in the time they have in school.

Furthermore, I am only planning the curriculum for part of that school journey – from Years 1 to 6 – and I have to take into account what pupils are likely to be taught in KS3 so that there is no unnecessary duplication. The curriculum that was handed down to me when I was first given the job of history co-ordinator at my school last September was based on resources we had access to from a renowned free school known for its knowledge-rich approach. While the scope of that curriculum was admirable, I started to have questions about it. Do we really need to study the Tudors at KS2 when the pupils are likely to learn about them in KS3? Do we really need them to learn about each of the world wars in depth when again, this will be covered in KS3? What could our pupils be studying instead?

And then of course, there is the recent publication of Ofsted’s research review of history, a good summary of which can be found on this blog. There is so much to take in from that research review that my head would explode if I attempted to juggle all of it at once. All I can do at the moment is take away the most salient points and go back to that document at regular intervals in the foreseeable future as I continue to refine our curriculum and resources. I’m also very aware that while I have a background in history, most of the other primary teachers at my school do not have the same level of expertise in the subject. Hence why I think booklets are so useful. Through the booklets, I can exert a level of quality control on the knowledge being taught throughout KS1 and KS2. By curating the enquiries, the text to be read, the vocabulary to be learned, the source evidence and the questions for pupils to answer, I can ensure that pupils learn history in as meaningful a way as possible.

I thought it would be useful to list the key approaches I want to follow when planning and teaching history at my school. Here is what I have come up with so far.

  • Disciplinary and substantive knowledge are inextricably linked and must be interwoven into the teaching of history. On a practical level, this means designing enquiries that attempt to answer disciplinary questions on cause and consequence, change and continuity, similarity and difference, historical significance and historical interpretations, while ensuring that pupils understand how our knowledge of the past is constructed with the judicious use of sources. Within these enquiries, pupils need to build their substantive knowledge of historical concepts such as monarchy, empire, invasion, taxation etc. Ideally, pupils should encounter these historical concepts repeatedly over the course of their time in school so as to deepen their understanding of them. I have written a list of the substantive knowledge I would like my pupils to know by the end of KS2 (available here), which was inspired by and loosely based on the one written by Michael Fordham here.
  • Pupils learn by building upon prior knowledge, so it is important to map this progression of knowledge carefully from year to year.
  • When teaching any historical topic, it is important to identify the core knowledge that we want pupils to commit to long-term memory. This can be summarised on knowledge organisers.
  • Contextual information and background material (sometimes known as “hinterland”) help pupils to make sense of the core knowledge to be learned. This is why narrative and the use of story are integral to the teaching of history.
  • Although it is hard to plan a strictly chronological curriculum (especially in my school which has split year groups which has meant our curriculum is mapped over 2 years), pupils need to build an understanding of chronology. At the start of every history topic, the period being studied is placed within a historical timeline framed within 5 distinctive historical eras (Prehistoric, Classical, Middle Ages, Early Modern and Modern). The historical timeline (available here) helps pupils to place the new topic they are learning within the context of prior learning. For example, at the start of learning about the Shang dynasty, pupils will see on the timeline that it occurred during the Bronze Age at around the same time as Ancient Egypt (topics they have learned previously). Pupils are taught that the year 0 on our calendar marks the birth of Jesus Christ, that the years before 0 are noted as BC and the years after 0 are AD (I am still not sold on the new terms BCE and CE but I am open to convincing).
  • In addition to this, I have included some overview topics within the curriculum that help build a sense of chronology, such as a local history study of London that charts the history of the city from its inception as Londinium under the Romans, through to the modern period. Similarly, I have included a depth study on the evolution of parliament, which travels in time from the Witan in Anglo-Saxon England, through to the Civil War, the gunpowder plot, the Glorious Revolution and then on to suffrage reform in the 19th and 20th centuries. KS1 also have a local history study of Crystal Palace which gives pupils a basic sense of chronology, starting with how the area was known as the Great North Wood (Norwood), through to the building of the Crystal Palace, its eventual destruction and what the area looks like now.

Based on the above principles, I am mapping out our new curriculum. I think it’s an improvement on what we had before, but it’s not perfect. It probably never will be. In the next blog post (coming I don’t know when), I will outline the history curriculum I have mapped out for KS1 and then there will hopefully be another blog post covering my curriculum plan for KS2. If you have managed to get through to the end of this long blog, thank you for reading.