Avoid 'out of date' history teaching, warns Ofsted

The watchdog suggests key historical concepts must be taught using repeated, specific examples, in new subject review

Catherine Lough

What Ofsted says good history teaching looks like

Ofsted has set out what it thinks good history teaching looks like in a new research review.

It is the latest in a series of reviews and themed inspection reports that the watchdog has carried out, focusing on the way specific subjects are taught.

Ofsted guidance on good history teaching

Here are its key findings:

1. Freedom in curriculum design

Ofsted says that history teaching is "significantly shaped" by decisions made at school level.

It says that this has allowed history teachers to shape wider debates about the nature of the school curriculum through publications where they compare practice, but that there is also evidence that some history teachers "as a result of wider constraints and pressures, do not take effective advantage of this freedom and stay limited by narrow repertoires of content and out-of-date scholarship".

2. Curriculum decisions occur at different levels

The review says that schools choose broad topics to include in their teaching but that within this, teachers must select content out of an "extraordinary range of possible material" to create a route through particular topics. Teachers also make choices about the time and emphasis given to particular topics – for example, a teacher may choose to focus on the features of monasteries in a lesson on Anglo-Saxon England, perhaps to secure pupils' future knowledge.

A well-designed curriculum requires careful decisions about the topics, content and emphasis of particular content, says the regulator.

Teachers should have "regular opportunities to discuss content selection and its purposes, in order to support decisions about content selection and emphasis in teaching", it adds.

3. Pupils need to develop 'substantive' and 'disciplinary' knowledge

Progress in history relies on pupils developing knowledge about the past ("substantive" knowledge) and knowledge about how historians investigate the past and construct historical arguments ("disciplinary" knowledge).

Teaching must develop pupils' historical knowledge and their analytical skills as historians simultaneously, says Ofsted.

4. Teaching should cover 'core' knowledge and 'fingertip' knowledge 

Content that is prioritised is known as "core" knowledge, and "high-quality curriculum design is likely to be characterised by a strong and sophisticated rationale for emphasising particular content"; for example, if it will help pupils in their future learning.

Some knowledge should also be completely secure for pupils – "fingertip" knowledge of events and individuals that they need for the study of current topics or for an end-of-topic assessment. Pupils need to have this knowledge embedded as it will reduce demands on their working memory and enable their thinking and historical analysis.

"Fingertip" knowledge may only be needed while pupils study a particular topic, but pupils' in-depth knowledge of topics could leave a wider "residue" knowledge of particular concepts or chronology.

5. Pupils need to be secure in particular concepts 

A highly developed knowledge of particular abstract concepts can help pupils to progress. Some concepts occur frequently throughout historical studies – "invasion", "monarch", "empire" or "tax" would all be examples of "substantive" concepts.

Abstract concepts are best delivered through repeated encounters in their specific contexts. Ofsted's review says that these are not simply "definitions" and have particular meanings according to their context. For example, the word "revolutionary" will mean different things to different people throughout history.

"To learn about the past, pupils will often need knowledge of the particular meaning of some specific concepts in different time periods," the review says.

"For example, they might need to understand what ‘socialist’ specifically meant to people (even different groups of people) in Bismarck’s Germany in order to learn accurately about aspects of the period."

If pupils do not understand these concepts securely it can hinder their progress. Once pupils understand a particular concept, they will be able to access other concepts more readily – a pupil who understands the idea of a "kingdom" will grasp what an "empire" means more easily, for example.

Curriculum design should increase pupils' opportunities for incidental learning of these concepts through appropriately challenging texts.

It adds that pupils should learn through meaningful examples as abstract knowledge can be difficult to absorb. For instance, the abstract idea of social class will be easier for pupils to learn about if linked to specific historical examples. Repeated encounters with particular concepts are also likely to secure pupils' knowledge.

6. Pupils need secure chronology

Pupils need to develop a mental timeline of events and this makes their existing historical knowledge more secure and makes new knowledge easier 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 review says.

7. Pupils' prior knowledge helps them learn new material more easily

The review finds that prior knowledge makes abstract new content easier for pupils to learn, even if the prior knowledge is only indirectly related to the new topic.

"As an example, the concept of ‘taking power’ has complex connotations, including specific connotations when used in historical narratives," the review says.

"If a pupil does not have enough prior knowledge, they will struggle to understand this concept (another way of saying that it will be abstract). This may hinder their ability to make sense of a statement like ‘Saxons took power in England’. However, a pupil’s understanding of similar historical events from previous topics (such as the Roman invasion of Britain) might ensure that the concept of ‘taking power’ has some meaning for them."

It adds that, unlike in other subjects, where "core" knowledge is the focus of teaching and material that is not seen as "core" might be removed to reduce demands on pupils, in history this will be counterproductive, as pupils need lots of background and contextual knowledge to make sense of a topic.

8. Pupils need to be secure in their disciplinary knowledge

Pupils need to understand historical enquiry. The review notes that pupils bring misconceptions to their study of history, such as the idea that history is a form of "fact-finding".

One way to avoid such misconceptions is to ensure that approaches are not "generic" or "one size fits all". Heuristics such as the "5 Ws" of who, what, where, when and why may lead pupils to develop misconceptions about the relationship between sources, evidence and historical claims and accounts.

Pupils also need secure substantive knowledge to develop their disciplinary knowledge.

"They may, for example, claim that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the most important cause of the First World War because it was the closest in time to the outbreak of the events they have studied or because they have more secure knowledge of this specific event than of other aspects of the topic," the review says.

"In doing this, they are using analytical tools that are not appropriate in the disciplinary context."

9. Pupils should develop their historical thinking through disciplinary concepts

Pupils should be able to apply second-order concepts: cause, consequence, change and continuity, similarity and difference, historical significance, sources and evidence and historical interpretations.

The first five are "generally used by history teachers to classify types of historical argument taught to pupils; the latter [two] focus more on the processes by which evidence is established and accounts are constructed".

The review says that the curriculum must introduce pupils to diverse interpretations, not only academic ones, but also popular and public forms of history, so that pupils understand fully the complex social processes that cause certain stories to be told about the past and others not to be told".

10. Teaching should include breadth and diversity

The review says that the curriculum should "develop pupils’ understanding of a range of historical time periods. This is not done by rushing through them in outline, but through careful interplay of depth and overview studies", and that pupils should learn about a wide range of places, societies and cultures in the past.

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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