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What is History? What should students take away from KS3 about the process of doing history?

About 40 years ago SHP published its first What is History? package. I use the word ‘package’ because, wow!, it came in a box containing a variety of booklets and leaflet-style resources plus filmstrips with high-quality colour images  not that common in the mid-70s. Unpacking those boxes was a bit like Christmas – we were on the brink of a new era! It’s impossible to convey the sense of excitement that came with the idea of teaching about how we study the past when my own 1960s history lessons had consisted of five years of dictated notes and two years of lectures. I hadn’t met a source until my second year of university, a few weeks before I was introduced to the idea that historians don’t always agree with each other. Who said the 60s were revolutionary?

So what did that What is History? package lead to? It took us into a series of lessons on chronology, types of sources, how we use sources as evidence, how certain we can be about the past because of the limitations of those sources and finally, having spent 90% of our time on ‘evidence’ there was a one-off booklet at the end on causation that I think most people forgot about because it didn’t seem to link in with the rest.

How far have we come since I excitedly emptied those first boxes? A long way – but maybe not very far at all. I wonder whether much of the ‘progress’ has had the paradoxical effect of obscuring for students the overall pattern of how the past is studied. Today’s 14 year olds (unlike my contemporaries in the 60s) know there are such things as sources, have gained practice in using them and have been introduced to other concepts central to ‘doing history’ – but can they explain in a few sentences what historians do and how they themselves undertake their work in history?

[As an aside – this isn’t about making children into historians – that’s always sounded terribly grand and ambitious – I’ve opted for the more modest aim of giving them a sense of what doing history involves, starting along the road to being able to study independently as part of A level.]


You can download a pdf of this discussion here …

And the diagrams on a PowerPoint here …

So what, in brief, has been that progress since the 70s?

Firstly we’ve moved beyond that almost-exclusive focus on sources to introducing children to a wider range of what are now called second-order concepts – causation, change and continuity, consequence, significance, interpretations. There have been many articles analysing how children interpret these concepts, offering ideas about teaching activities and, probably most numerous of all, how to assess them. For good and ill they became enshrined in the NC Attainment Target.

Secondly there are more and more examples of KS3 students being introduced directly to the work of historians. This can produce greater depth of knowledge and understanding, some awareness of what historians do and an appreciation that debates and arguments do take place – all contributing to the sense that history as a discipline is alive and bubbling, not a done and dusted catalogue on which everyone agrees.

Those two paragraphs have encapsulated about forty years of work (and missed a lot else out too!) – but has all this analysis and thought enabled KS3 students to develop an overall sense of what ‘doing history’ amounts to – how it all fits together? Can they explain in a few sentences (oral or written) how we get from knowing little or nothing about, say, the Norman Conquest, to knowing a substantial amount more about 1066 and its effects?

Of course, this may well happen in your school. In which case, stop reading here and go and do something useful. But if that concern rings bells ….. What may be the crucial missing elements of the picture are the beginning and end of the process. Here’s my very un-theoretical sense of what goes on when we explore a new topic and spend some time on it:

Diagram 1

To explain in outline – we begin with little or no knowledge (a few shards of information or a vague understanding of why the topic was important) and by the end of the study (a few lessons, a term, an A level course, a PhD) we have become a great deal more knowledgeable – we hold far more information in our heads and in our files and we can use it to explain what happened and why, what the consequences were, the significance etc.

But how do we get from A to B, from left to right? Back in the spring and summer of 2014 I went through this process in relation to the Battle of Bannockburn in preparing for my Saturday evening plenary at the SHP Conference. Over a few months of intermittent (and, latterly, frenzied) reading I went from possessing some fragments of information (1314, Bruce, Edward II, Scots won) and a sense that Bannockburn was a significant turning point in Anglo-Scottish relations because it ended a series of wars to much fuller knowledge and understanding. I can now explain at length (and will, if provoked) the course of the battle, why it took place, its consequences and significance and why my first thoughts about its significance were way off-beam. And I can tell you how we know and what problems are created by the sources and in many and varied ways historians have interpreted these events – and place 1314 in the bigger picture of Anglo-Scottish relations c1200-1603. What a clever clogs.

So, to repeat my question, how did I get from A to B? Very simply I acquired more knowledge and understanding by investigating my own questions using three things:

  • sources from the time or soon afterwards
  • historians’ writings
  • my understanding of concepts – concepts which shaped my questions and structured my answers.

Diagram 2

I could have put a lot more detail into the diagram above but decided not to in order to focus on the 3 areas (concepts, sources, historians) rather than providing examples of each which would lead to the wood being obscured by the trees. However here’s that detailed diagram with examples – though there’s obviously other examples you could add:

Diagram 3

Before going any further it’s IMPORTANT to say, hence the capitals, that this is NOT a ROUTE MAP defining the way from A to B or setting out a sequence of activities. Instead it’s a RESOURCE MAP showing the various resources (sources, writings and concepts) you can use on the various routes from A to B. For example I could have started with sources, I could have started with books by historians – there isn’t one right way to start or continue an enquiry.

So what’s the purpose of these diagrams? How do they relate to the KS3 classroom?

What I think these diagrams do for teachers and students is:

  • define the historical process quite simply AND make it visual and concrete. Its message is that we build up greater knowledge through enquiries. We answer them using sources and historians’ products as evidence and we use concepts to prompt questions and structure thinking.
  • give due weight to the product – developing greater knowledge and understanding – and so shows the purpose of all that work on, for example, analysing evidence or the work of historians.

[Another aside – you might not like or agree with the details of these diagrams – in which case draw your own that fits with your understanding. I’m not concerned here about the detail but about the overall shape – the communication to students of roughly what’s involved in doing history. As will be obvious, these diagrams are not based on reading about the philosophy of history. It’s a quick outline, a ‘don’t worry about the theory’ approach to ‘doing history’. I’m sure there’ll be people who’ll enjoy picking holes in it but for KS3 purposes I think it’s ‘near enough’. Save nuances for Philosophy of History courses at university – not that I ever wanted to do one!]

Now back to the main story. What I’m wondering is –

Do students leave Y9 or Y11 with a big picture of the process, akin to the diagrams above? Or is the situation more that they know that history involves working with the components but not how they fit together? [And looking ahead - how can they gain independence by A level if they don’t have a model to work with?]

So – some questions:

1. What do students actually think happens when historians ‘do history?’ Is that an important question to ask and find answers to at intervals during the course?

2. How can we build students’ understanding of this overall sense of what ‘doing history’ involves?
This obviously involves more than doing individual enquiries about causes, consequences etc – it requires keeping that bigger picture in diagrams 2 and 3 in view so that students can see progress. It therefore also means taking a moment or five at the beginning of an enquiry to find out what children think they know about a topic and what their ‘starter answer’ to an enquiry question might be – if you don’t find out at the beginning what they know how can they measure how far they’ve come by the end of the enquiry? And realising they’ve learned a great deal is wonderful for confidence – one of the most important things that can be taken into the following enquiries.

3. Is this important for helping students see the value of what they’ve learned in History lessons beyond the classroom?

It’s that process that’s so transferable and valuable – research, enquiry, communicating clearly, supporting your conclusions with evidence, being able to follow this through independently and knowing the degree of certainty of your conclusions. Amongst the conclusions of the research of Terry Haydn and Richard Harris from a few years ago was that ‘large numbers of [pupils] have a limited grasp of the intended purposes of a historical education.’ Is this partly because students don’t see what all the individualized work on sources, significance etc add up to? You can read that important research here:

Pupil perceptions of history at Key Stage 3: Final Report, October 2005

Factors influencing pupil take-up of History post Key Stage 3, Final Report September 2007

4. Should you assess understanding of the whole process or just of the components such as understanding of causation? Assessing students’ ability to understand and use the whole process is a good way of showing its importance and ensuring it’s not forgotten BUT if you do – do you risk losing lose flexibility and variety and turn this from an outline, variable model into a set of IKEA instructions? Maybe it’s better not to assess formally than end up with the latter?

So what do you do?

Simply embed the rough ‘definition’ of doing history into the warp and weft of your existing work. For example when students have done their work on the Norman Conquest give them a copy of Diagram 3 (or you own version thereof) and ask them to use it to create their own version based on their work on 1066 and its impact. For example:

On the left they could note what they knew at the beginning (this could have been done at the outset?)

Across the middle (linking left to right) write out the enquiry questions they’ve investigated

Around those questions jot down the resources and concepts that have been relevant – and maybe even what they learned about them.

On the right summarise very briefly what they now know – maybe what’s changed in their understanding.

This can be done in conjunction with making sure that the enquiry process is explicit and not hidden behind the material. It’s probably enough to show the pattern that will become increasingly familiar and prevent detailed work on individual concepts or sources becoming isolated and lacking in overall purpose. By way of support here are some important words from Dale Banham who develops this point very helpfully:

The focus on the process is crucial - too often pupils/parents/teachers become obsessed with outcomes. However, the key for me is metacognition - pupils being able to transfer what they have learnt from one learning situation new a new one with different content. That means pupils need to see enquiry as messy, dirty and challenging ... and with massive potential for differing interpretations. We do not do enough to make this explicit and instead present history as a neat package produced by historians who effortlessly come up with definitive conclusions. Once we make the enquiry process explicit it is important to combine this with arming pupils with the language to express the tentative nature of the conclusions they will often reach as a result of an enquiry.

And finally …

None of the above means that you shouldn’t do challenging, demanding, detailed work on individual concepts or on the work of individual historians. My message is different if very simple – whatever is done we must always make clear that its purpose is to build greater knowledge and understanding. If that wider context of the start and end points (my skulls in diagram 1) disappears then much of the value may well be lost. As with so much else it’s vital to keep the Big Picture clear and to keep an eye on what the students actually think is happening – not what we hope is happening. If students can’t transfer what they’ve learned about how to learn to a new topic or the next step up (KS3 to GCSE to A level to university) then all we’ve done is the bits of the diagram, not the whole.

And for a lot more on enquiry see …

… the enquiry section on this website here …

[Please note that any failures of logic, grammatical errors and other defects are attributable to writing this while watching Lancashire trying to beat Middlesex and so avoid relegation from Division 1 of the County Championship. We failed gallantly but fingers crossed for promotion next year!]

Planning & Teaching KS3 History


What is history?

Frameworks, Themes & What's in it for Students?

Planning Issues

Integrating depth studies and outlines

Everyday Life




England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales

Power and Democracy