History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

Don’t let the curriculum control your pedagogy


Some people say knowledge is power. Others say powerful knowledge is power. But that is another debate.

But how is the history teacher being controlled?

We know we are being controlled by Ofsted. SLTs react to what they think Ofsted are looking for.  This is then forced upon teachers through teaching policies and approaches – and these are sometimes linked to performance management targets.

The control by Ofsted also has many unintended and warped consequences, depending on the version of the Ofsted framework – obsessions with data and data input based on unreliable assessments, learning walks, the focus on ‘outstanding lessons’, ‘rapid progress’, formative and comment only marking, green/pink/ purple pens.

But who else is controlling classroom practice?

This is an interesting question. It obviously depends on the individual, the department and the school. The word control is too strong, but I think certain groups are being highly influential over policy and therefore practice. 

For example, in 2014, Civitas seems to have put pressure on Ofsted not to favour ‘trendy teaching styles’ and called for an end to the grading of lessons and end a focus on teaching. So did other bloggers and other right-leaning think tanks.

Fast forward five years and hey presto, the quality of teaching grading has gone from the proposed Ofsted framework. The pressure seem to have paid off.

There seems to be have been a general shift away from group work and talk and child led teaching methods, towards a more formal approach. I have blogged before about Ofsted, for the first time stating what they think learning is, and how problematic and narrow this definition is.

The shift away from ‘teaching’ appears to have happened.

The curriculum is now the focus. Pedagogy seems to be a dirty word presently. Great, some might be saying.  A refocusing on curriculum and knowledge is a good thing, isn’t it?  

Conflict between Intent and Implementation

Ofsted has stated that the curriculum should be seen in terms of ‘intent’, ‘implementation’ and ‘impact’.  This seems sensible.

But the history teacher needs to be aware of the conflict that can exist between ‘intent’ and ‘implementation’.  

For ‘intent’ we could use the word ‘purpose’ – what is the purpose of the curriculum?

For ‘implementation’ we need to think about how we teach the curriculum. And, we also should probably think about the learners best learn: a learning philosophy.  

This is where the tension lies – and if we are not careful, where the control lies.

Two extremes

If we take this to extremes, Moore (2015) argues that there are two models when it comes to curriculum design.

  1. Content-led, where knowing the right answer and retaining knowledge imparted from the teacher, are all important.  If the intent or purpose of the curriculum is objective led – to know lots of content, then this is going to have a massive impact on the teaching approach. This model suggests that learning is just ‘input-output’, ‘recall and remember these facts’, ‘a change in long term memory’. This could influence the way the curriculum is taught: didactically, direct instruction, rote learning…
  2. If the curriculum model is process led and the pupils are seen as co-learners then there will more collaboration, talk and discussion, assessment will be more formative, the process of learning is at the heart of the curriculum rather than the outcomes.

Now if we apply this model to the history curriculum and changes to GCSE you can see what has happened. Although not at the extremes, pre-2016 GCSE was slightly more process led than the 9-1 GCSEs. If we rewind further we can see that SHP GCSE courses in the early 1990s were much more process led.

The 9-1 GCSEs are heavier in content than ever before. This has led in some classrooms to less time for enquiry, discussion, debate, analysis and evaluation and more time spent on drilling and recall.  

We cannot control the content in the 9-1 GCSEs but the unintended (or intended?) consequences of the changes to heavier content has seen a shift in teaching approach in a number of classrooms. It seems to me to have coincided with a general shift in teaching circles towards the importance of substantive knowledge. A point of note here: no one before has ever stated that substantive knowledge wasn’t important in history – I love the substance of our great subject and I do know and realise that knowledge sticks to knowledge.

But with the influence of the new genericism ie cognitive science, Hirsch and his many influential backers and the notion of ‘powerful knowledge’ the focus of articles in Teaching History over the past few years have increasingly focused on the role and power or ‘fertility’ of substantive knowledge. And less on the process of history.

Allowing students to make meaning

For students to make meaning, they need time to know the substance of history AND then they need time to discuss and unlock the meaning and consider the disciplinary focus. This is where the card sorts, living graphs and discussions come in. This is where returning to the enquiry question again and again is hugely important.

When it comes to the tug of war between content led and process led curricula as outlined above, enquiry question led history teaching has helped us take a middle ground through these two extremes. The history teacher is of great importance but so are the learners. There is room for both direct instruction (teacher exposition in the form of story telling), discussion and debate and even role play.

Designing a Key Stage 3 Curriculum – a balancing act

So when it comes to designing a Key Stage 3 Curriculum,  you have control of the content. You and your colleagues decide what your departmental history teaching philosophy is. You know that you have to focus on the substantive (the what) and the disciplinary (the how). 

If you overburden the substantive there will no time for your students to think to make meaning, to understand. If you don’t include enough then they won’t be able to unlock their historical thinking. It really is a balancing act.


Moore, A 2015, Understanding the School Curriculum, Theory, Politics and Principles, Routledge, London.

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About the author
Richard McFahn
Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.

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