“What is history?” Should we teach it?

On balance, I don’t think KS3 history should begin with a “What is History?” skills unit.  History ‘skills’ (chronology, timelines, spotting bias and the like) do not exist independently of content and need to be illustrated with historical examples to assume meaning.  Not doing so is akin to studying a human by looking at their clothes. “What is History?” units often do this haphazardly, using de-contextualised aspects of history to illustrate skills.  These ‘nuggets’ are confusing and make history seem incoherent.  Some such units do not teach any history at all, instead requiring children to demonstrate their mastery of ‘skills’ by using examples from their own lives. In one department I worked in children were expected to complete a timeline of what they did during their summer holidays, which created misconceptions and confusion around what history at secondary school actually was.

“What is History” units often fail to achieve their aims because frontloading ‘skills’ and not revisiting them means that children quickly forget what they’ve learned.  For example, some curriculums require the drawing of detailed BC/AD timelines as part of this unit but never demand children do so again.  This means few remember the lesson, making the task a waste of time for most students.

These units take up time and curriculum space better spent studying more content, are confusing and often tediously contrived.  A better approach is to start at the beginning of the content and explicitly teach historical skills using chronologically appropriate history.  For example, if a department feels that a thorough grasps of timelines is really necessary, it could plan for children to complete one on Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Vikings as part of a lesson on England prior to the Norman Invasion.  Similarly, departments could teach interpretations through looking at the contenders to the English throne in 1066 instead of, for example, different views of a modern day football game.

Before dismissing “What is History” skills units completely it is worth considering the context in which they were conceived.  The thinking behind them was done in the 1970s by the Schools History Project and such units were intended to take place in Year 9 before children began the old SHP ‘O’ Level and CSE courses.  It was assumed that these children would already have studied a classic knowledge based curriculum for almost three years and would need this introduction to concepts and skills ahead of the very different SHP course.  The “What is History” unit was never meant to be an introduction to history for eleven-year-olds.  It was misapplied because it was misunderstood. This misunderstanding calcified and became an unquestioned staple of Year 7.  Many departments still teaching this unit do so mainly because it’s what they’ve always done and most teachers are understandably relieved when it’s over.

There is, of course, value in teaching what history is and how it works before starting content but this can be done explicitly in one lesson.  It is probably wise to ensure that children know history is the study of people in the past for which there is written evidence, and that historians arrive at their opinions by looking carefully at evidence. At my school we make sure this is clearly and directly articulated in their books.  Then we rule off and crack straight on.


8 thoughts on ““What is history?” Should we teach it?

  1. I really like this. Not being a secondary teacher does give my view a limited amount of credibility, however, it seems to me to be entirely sensible to teach the ‘skills’ of the historian through the content itself. Why on Earth you wouldn’t want to ‘double up’ on the learning I have no idea.

    The other thing I like is that you are looking specifically at the needs of Y7-9, who, as a parent I am coming to realise, are still quite young. They haven’t had enough time to learn enough to analyse it yet – if that makes sense.


  2. Chris says:

    Do you produce a baseline assessment in the first lesson or two? This is something required by our school and we are under pressure to produce something ‘skills’ based despite my warnings about junk data.


    • I sympathise. I would politely and relentlessly point them in direction of work of leading influential history teachers and experts to demonstrate the purely skills based view of history is becoming discredited. Michael Fordham is a good person to start with.


  3. Kate says:

    Totally agree!! I do skeletons in the field as source skills but it is about the battle of Stamford Bridge. Timeliness on 1066 the year of 3 kings and then a castles time line. Makes sense and reinforcesee.


  4. Ashley Bartlett says:

    Interesting, as ever, Ben. What you say about the SHP derived origins of these “skills” units is quite correct. That reminded me of an episode very early on in my career. Clearing out my “new” classroom, I happened upon a stash of booklets at the back of a cupboard entitled, “Yr9 Skills Unit”. They had been left by the recently-retired incumbent. “How foolish!”, thought naive, young Me! Fresh out of PGCE even I knew such resources were the stuff of Year 7 lessons! Which is exactly where I moved them to once Head of Subject and where they remain long since I have passed that baton on.

    Of course I now understand entirely why my wise predecessor had developed this Unit for Year 9, it was, as you suggest to prepare students for O-Level / GCSE History after a diet of narrative at KS3.

    So does it no longer have a place? I agree with the need to interweave skills into historical content. (Second order concepts via William’s win at Hastings / Inference and interpretation via the Bayeux Tapestry). Although with students having had such varying experiences of “History” in Primary Schools (Topic Work, Narratives, Skills based evaluative discussion) I am happy enough to see our (short) unit remain, for now! It is only addressing what it was always designed to do – introducing necessary skills for analysis and evaluation required of a suitably challenging curriculum, following a narrative diet. (Thabkfully we no longer wait until Yr9 to get to this stuff, only Yr7!)

    That’s not to say a narrative diet is all that’s fed to Primary Historians. Within our MAT there is some fantastic practice that would remove the need for such a skills unit. Once all our feeder Primaries model this best practice in History, then we can devote the six hours of the Skills Unit to “proper History”, introducing it with little more than Gustave Flaubert’s assertion that good History is “drinking an ocean but peeing a cupful”. Until then I’d rather establish the ground rules before “ruling off and cracking on”.


    • Thanks as always for your thoughts, Ash. I do think the way history ‘works’ is important for children to know but think this can be made clear through thoughtful delivery of content. Accept healthy disagreement though! Thanks to Ian Dawson for the SHP context. He looked at a draft of this and his insights were fascinating. He’s a goldmine.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Teaching KS3: Telling the story. | bennewmark

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