Developing substantive thinking: a project to create connections through a KS3 curriculum

Thank you to Sarah Jackson, Head of History at Sawston Village College in Cambridgeshire, for this blogpost sharing some more of the work of the department…

As a department we have often talked about the huge impact that cultural literacy has on the achievement of our pupils. Students who don’t have ‘pictures of the past’ find it hard to understand new content as it doesn’t connect to their previous learning.

As Michael Fordham has said: “As a history teacher, however, historical concepts necessarily provide for me both an opportunity and a challenge. Linguistic ability empowers: those of my pupils who can use concepts such as ‘middle class’ and ‘conservative’ are normally better able to make meaning of the past. Yet, viciously, I find in my practice too that a greater grasp of concepts depends on my pupils having sufficient pictures of the past with which they can render a concept meaningful.”[1]

This issue reflects with our wider whole-school learning on the need for concrete examples to understand abstract ideas[2]. My own experience in the classroom certainly concurs with this: if a student has a lack of tangible examples or pictures in their head, then a pupil’s ability to understand a concept like ‘Revolution’ is limited. We decided as a department we wanted to do something about this problem and I saw a great opportunity in coherent curriculum design to achieve this. If we can make repeated reference to first order concepts across our curriculum and build on previous encounters of each first order concept, our students’ understanding would ultimately been improved.

This thinking is far from ‘new’: Will Bailey-Watson has suggested the value of this in his talk at the WLFS in March 2019 on ‘What did ‘revolution’ mean in the Age of Revolution?’[3] In Bailey-Watson’s scheme of work he showed how using different examples of Revolutions – from the American Revolution to the Haitian Revolution – could develop understanding and complexity of thinking about the phrase Revolution itself. However, clearly across a curriculum it would be impossible to dedicate a whole enquiry to unpick all of the key first-order concepts to this level of detail. Our aim was to develop this improved understanding within tighter time constraints. This meant a more radical solution.

However, in other periods…

The inspiration for the solution to the problem came from Will Bailey-Watson (clearly, somewhat of an inspiration here!) and Richard Kennett and their amazing meanwhile, elsewhere project.[4] When choosing meanwhile, elsewhere homework sheets for our students to complete I always tried to think about using ones which could not only diversify their understanding of history, but also improve their understanding of the topic they were studying in class, for example looking at suffrage in New Zealand homework sheet, while completing a scheme of work on suffrage in Britain. While these topics were from the same period, it proved that it was helpful for students’ understanding of suffrage as a concept looking at more than one example was helpful.

I’d always found meanwhile, elsewhere to be an efficient way of getting across a lot of new knowledge. And so, the practical solution to the issue of first order concepts I developed ‘However, in other periods’: a sheet that students could use as a homework task that would enable students to engage more deeply with the first order concept.

Within the sheet (shown below) We integrated the Frayer model to help students develop a basic understanding of the concept itself[5], before using the different historical case studies as the concrete examples. We thought it would be worth focussing on what the concept was: in the case below, what Revolution meant at the time of the Industrial Revolution. We made the decision to also use this as an opportunity to reflect on examples from previous enquiries as an opportunity to support knowledge recall, but also give students a sense of what topics lay ahead, as a ‘feed forward’ activity. See an example of this below:

Curriculum thinking

While trying to create some mock-ups of these sheets to share with our department it became clear that I needed to think carefully about which enquiries we should produce one of these sheets for and also which first order concepts we should prioritise. We couldn’t possibly think about completing one for each of the concepts we want students to encounter across the KS3 curriculum, so which ones could we choose?

We started as a department by consulting Michael Fordham’s list of first order concepts for KS3 and thought about which of these concepts were [6]. It became clear from this exploration of first order concepts, that while there was an immense body of first order concepts we could teach, we felt it was important to prioritise the ones that we felt could apply across time periods and had more changeable meanings, rather than being discrete to a time period. James Woodcock (I am exceptionally lucky to have him in my team!) came up with this really interesting diagram – which we found helpful in deciding on which concepts we would focus on.

We decided that we would focus on which words would fit in that more ‘general, possibly universal’ category as we could build these across our curriculum, and therefore add layers or complexity and depth each time our pupils encountered them. In our department we started with a range of first order concepts, and over a couple of meetings we agreed on a set of 8 agreed first order concepts, ensuring we paid particular attention to what was in our curriculum, but also in some cases (e.g. gender) revealing to us some holes that needed addressing in our curriculum. This list is far from perfect as we acknowledge, but we felt it covered a wide range of important concepts to our curriculum.


First order concepts tying the curriculum together

During the first lockdown, I was fortunate enough to have the time to engage with lots of CPD. Tom Allen’s curricularium talk provided an idea for a model through which we could tie our thinking about first order concepts together[7]. We decided to recreate his model of overarching enquiry questions, but decided to ensure that our key first order concepts were the driver behind them. This meant, as students encountered different enquiries across the year, they would encounter these first order concepts multiple times, reflecting on them at the end of each enquiry and also allowing us to assess students’ understanding of first order concepts in an end of Year 7 assessment, when we ask students to answer the overarching question. We agreed that it was really important that we didn’t want individual enquiries to be dictated entirely by the overarching question though – we accepted that there would be ‘lead enquiries’, where the concepts might be more obviously linked and ‘reinforcing’ enquiries where the concepts might be more subtle. We tried to integrate this, at least partially, into our Year 7 and 8 curriculum last academic year (2020-21), as we were doing significant curriculum reform in these year groups. See the example of our Year 7 curriculum below.

Year 7 curriculum 2020-21

2020-2021 Year 7 curriculum: What did it mean to have authority, status and freedom in the Medieval world?
Enquiry 1: What can studying Pompeii tell us about the work of historians?
Enquiry 2: Who were the Romans?
Enquiry 3: What kind of change did England see 400-1066?
Enquiry 4: Did the Normans bring a truckload of trouble to England?
Enquiry 5: What can the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine reveal about the High Middle Ages?
Enquiry 6: What was the most important impact of the Silk Roads?
Enquiry 7: Why was it possible for there to be so much learning at ‘the end of the earth’?
Enquiry 8: What can the story of Denny Abbey tell us about life in Medieval England?
Enquiry 9: Why have historians disagreed so much about the Peasants’ Revolt?
Enquiry 10: How did the Renaissance change the world?

However, it was also clear that to really develop an understanding of these first order concepts, encountering them had to be done frequently. In Sawston’s History department, we have highly detailed centralised shared schemes of work and every member of the department is given responsibilities for certain enquiries. As a department therefore, we agreed that when planning enquiries, teachers will explicitly plan for specific questions and thinking points that try to assess and improve students’ substantive thinking. This is often just one question integrated into a task, to check students’ understanding and increasingly, as shown at the end of this blog post, to develop it further.

I also thought it was important to map when students were explicitly coming across first order concepts, so that teachers are aware of in what context students have come across concepts before. Below is an example of some of the first order concept mapping we have done in Year 7 – me and my colleague sat down and thought of all the concepts that might come up within the different enquiries and then the teacher who was responsible for that enquiry then highlighted in blue which ones they have created as explicit discussion points within lessons. As you can see this started well and as the year got more chaotic (the bane of TAGs set in), our ability to keep on top of this went down…

First order thinking leading staff CPD

As we decided to tie our curriculum together with a set of 8 core concepts, it only made sense that staff CPD also had these key concepts front and central. This year I chose for us to focus on race, as this fitted in with our wider department plans for decolonising and diversifying the curriculum. This has proved a really fruitful focus for the department as in subject meeting time we have had (admittedly not as much as we would have like since January) we were able to engage with reading on the chosen topic. We read a Very Short Introduction to Race and fleshed out in our department meeting how and where we were going to embed key principles within our curriculum. We also read Kerry Apps’ blog on race to particularly think about how we would flesh this out within a new Year 8 unit on Early Empire. Even though these explorations were cut short by TAGs it did provide us with a common and shared understanding of key developments in race and how this was going to be presented in our KS3 curriculum. We have, as a result, integrated into many of our Key Stage 3 enquiries issues of race. I’m not sure this would have happened if we hadn’t discussed exactly when and how this would take place in the department meeting. I really like this model moving forwards, and am going to be focussing on reading around a specific concept next year (I plan for us to look at Empire).

Reflections on my first year of trying to embed first-order concepts in a curriculum

Unfortunately, due to TAGs and lockdown taking over, we never got students to complete the end of year question. However, we did do a ‘mid-way’ lesson where we got students to plan and collate ideas for the question from what they had studied already this year. We also got students to complete several ‘However, in other periods’ sheets (though not as many we hoped!) Please see a selection of work produced below.

‘However, in other period’ sheets (Year 7 and 8)

Reflections and generating higher level thinking

At a basic level, I did find some ‘in another period’ worked better than others. Over time I felt like ‘recap’ tasks were generally more useful than feed forward tasks, as they served the dual purpose of developing first order thinking and recapping previous content. I also think by choosing topics students have already studied, we might allow more space for more sophisticated thinking about pre-existing topics, rather than a somewhat superficial understanding of a new topic (see more detailed thinking in the box below). I also am not sure how well the Frayer Model section worked for some of our first order concepts – for example for gender, I think the antonyms served only to confuse students. My plan this year is to try and use the power of etymology to help students understand the concepts better (as suggested by @mrwmhistory). See the comparison below.

However, it is clear we did find some success in this project. From reading students’ responses to these ‘mid-way’ lesson and students’ responses to the “in another period” the higher-level thinking that students were developing included:

  • Understanding that what these first order concepts ‘looked like’ in different periods changed
  • Understanding that what these first order concepts ‘looked like’ could vary within each period
  • Understanding that the meaning of the concept within the period could be different from meanings later on

I was pleased with my students’ responses but also couldn’t help feeling they could have been more developed. I felt while students could exemplify what status, for example, might have presented as at the time, we had created very limited opportunity for students to really develop a more nuanced understanding of the words themselves. As Jacob Olivey recently suggested in his Teaching History article on Chartism, when unpicking the concept of class:

“If we want to ask pupils about the changing meaning of these words, we have to ask ourselves – meaning to whom? Are we asking pupils about what these words mean to historians describing the past, or what they meant to people who lived in the period being studied?”[8] Our sheets and thinking points haven’t served to unpick this subtle but important difference at all. Similarly, the perspective work done by Alex Benger also offers up an even more simple suggestion of how we might go about developing our students’ thinking. He has argued in his article in Teaching History TH179[9] that we should consider introducing historical perspective into school history. He suggests that historical perspective attempts ‘to construct the perspectives of people (individuals or groups) from the past. This involves analysing historical sources to try to work out what their world meant to them.’ This has shown me the importance of putting source work, and interpretations, front and central to our students’ encounters with these first order concepts.

As a result of my reflections from student work and the ideas from these articles, I’ve summarised below some changes that we are currently considering for next year to move the project forwards:

Aim for higher level thinkingSuggestion for how we might move this forward next year
Enabling students to think about first order concepts through different perspectives or lensesRather than the ‘however, in another period’ sheets be simply research or recap tasks using websites/ notes in books where students look up examples of each first order concept in action, we should integrate more source material to enable student students to reflect on how the word has been used and reflected on in the past (where possible). This might help students to understand values and attitudes of the society at the time better.
Embedding a greater sense of how a concept developed over time e.g. raceI feel like classic change and continuity pedagogy e.g. roadmaps, graphs, charts could really embed a greater sense of clarity for how the nature of the concept specifically developed over time. Tables were helpful in laying the foundations, but a more visual method of tracking change might be beneficial in supporting students’ conception of change,
Ask more challenging questions of our students within lessons about first order conceptsRather than simply ask students give an example of the treatment of women at a certain time period to explore the concept of gender we could ask more interesting questions through second order concepts such as ‘why did witchcraft become an issue of gender? This might develop more interesting thinking about the nature of the concept itself.

Furthermore, we have actually decided to change one of our first order concepts itself. The OFSTED research review published recently suggest that pupils’ understanding of specific concepts will aid students’ “capacity to learn new concepts more readily”[10]. As a result, we are thinking about in department what concepts we teach might support and develop later thinking. For example, identity, as a concept, although tricky to Year 7, might also help students to understand the concepts of race, nation and gender better in Year 9. As a result, we are going to trial an amended version of our Year 7 curriculum with identity replacing authority as one of our key first order concepts.

Outline of changes to the Year 7 curriculum

2021-2022 Year 7 curriculum: How did identity, status and freedom shape people’s lives in the Medieval World?
Enquiry 1: What can studying Pompeii tell us about the work of historians?
Enquiry 2: Who were the Romans?
Enquiry 3: How was a kingdom of the English created?
Enquiry 4: DId the Normans change what it meant to be English?
Enquiry 5: What can the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine reveal about the High Middle Ages?
Enquiry 6: What was the most important impact of the Silk Roads by 1450?
Enquiry 7: Why did Timbuktu become a centre of learning?
Enquiry 8: What can the story of Denny Abbey tell us about life in Medieval England?
Enquiry 9: Why have historians disagreed so much about the Peasants’ Revolt?
Enquiry 10: Changing ideas in the Medieval World

We have also started to work on this at a more individual level too, identifying which first order concepts or words outside our key 8 first order concepts might support students understanding of our key concepts better. The table below was completed in a department meeting at the start of this year, and really helped us reflect on which words would support our students understanding of the first order concepts better (and therefore which we should include in our schemes of work).

While the project perhaps has not gone as far as we hoped in our first year, I am so grateful for the support and ideas of all the Sawston History Department, whose ideas and contributions have moved this project in. Thanks in particular to James Woodcock who has been working with me closely on this particular project – I am heavily indebted! Many thanks also to Will Bailey-Watson for meeting me to discuss the however, in another period concept and being its inspiration in so many ways!

[1] P44, Michael Fordham, ‘Knowledge and Language: Being Historical with Substantive Concepts” in Masterclass in History Education

[2] – ‘Concrete Examples’ – as a teaching body we have engaged heavily in whole school CPD with learning scientists

[3] Will Bailey-Watson presented his research into the ‘flexibility, fluidity and fertility of “revolution”’ at the West London Free School History Conference in March 2019 and at the 31st Schools Council History Project Conference in July 2019

[4] Will Bailey-Watson and Richard Kennett, ‘meanwhile, elsewhere…’: harnessing the power of community to expand students’ historical horizons, Teaching History 176

[5] Frayer model blog


[7] Tom Allen, Asking Big questions: making a case for overarching enquiry questions, Curricularium

[8] P70, Jacob Olivey, ‘What did class mean to a Chartist?’, Teaching History 176

[9] P31, Alex Benger, Teaching Year 9 to argue like cultural historians, Teaching History 179


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