Substantive concepts: ‘Left-wing? Right-wing? Do you mean like in hockey, miss?’

This week a post to help teach tricky concepts at GCSE…

Left-wing and right-wing are not easy concepts for GCSE students. Every year I make my students laugh by pacing from side-to-side of my classroom being the political positions on an imaginary political line from left to right. I am not good at impersonations, but I try to put politicians on the line in a memorable way too. While I am at it, I explain where the modern British parties are on the line as well. (Never miss a chance to increase cultural capital!) I walk to the extreme right of the front of the class and talk about fascism, then to the extreme left for communism. I put Friedrich Ebert of the SPD in his place, and Stresemann, and the Kaiser. It is very visual and I walk about every time left-wing and right-wing are relevant. Soon I don’t have to walk up and down before students’ eyes travel to the right of the room when they talk about Hitler, or to the left for Luxemburg. They know that towards the middle of the line is where people supporting representative liberal democracy hang out. It’s simple, it’s effective and they understand a complex substantive concept well enough for GCSE.

Of course, this is a quick fix to one part of a much bigger pedagogical issue. We are aware that we need to help our students to understand and confidently use complex substantive concepts (such as empire, parliament, civil war…). We don’t think that they will make progress with their historical thinking unless they understand them.  Our GCSE students have to compare the development of Parliament over time for their thematic study, so we need to make sure that they understand what Parliament is. We have identified all the key substantive concepts in our GCSE course and we are making sure that we introduce these at Key Stage 3. The history classrooms have a concept corner and we regularly refer to them; making acquiring conceptual understanding a fun challenge.

We think that is important to think carefully about how to teach substantive concepts. If you want to take your thinking further on this, then there is more to read in the ‘Substantive Knowledge’ Section Guide of the Historical Association website at Do follow the HA on Twitter @histassoc for more updates, to send comments and to share ideas.


Thanks to Helen Snelson, Head of History at The Mount School, for this post. 


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