History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

How to plan a broad and balanced curriculum 4: What about substantive knowledge?


Thanks to the changes proposed by Ofsted to their framework and handbook, the history teacher should be thinking hard about curriculum planning.

To be honest, the history department should always be thinking about curriculum planning as curriculum intent, implementation and evaluation as this is their core business.

One essential aspect of departmental curriculum planning has got to be collaborative planning. We think collaborative planning is so crucial. Something really special happens during the process that means the outcome is always more than the sum of the parts.

In fact, we think its so important that we have written this blog outlining two alternative pathways to collaborative planning. Its a guide to those who need a framework or two.

Previously we have discussed the following fundamental questions to consider when planning your history curriculum:

In this blog the discussion is based around:

What take-away knowledge do we want our students to have at different points of the curriculum?

knowledge As I have said previously, Ian Dawson really helped move on my thinking in terms of curriculum planning. Working with Ian on planning the series of textbooks: Making Sense of History was revelationary.

Ian adapted his thinking from an article he wrote in Teaching History 130. We wanted (and still do want) one of the end results of our history curriculum to help provide a mental map of the past to our students. We realised they needed a framework to hang their knowledge on.

This means that we need to plan our curriculum around key themes, that will each be re-visited as we chronologically teach the historical content in the National Curriculum.

It is important that we also teach the concept of time in general (an often neglected area of thinking ie different aspects of chronological understanding). This is why we recommend showing how historians have divided up the past into ‘time periods’ and given each time period a name.  In this way, we can focus on each time period and ensure we teach then re-visit the key themes below

So what are the key themes?

For us HRC teachers there is common agreement on what the themes are:

  • Beliefs – how can you really understand how people behaved and why without a knowledge of this?
  • Power – if we are to understand and make sense of political power today we need to know how we got here over the last thousand years or so.
  • ‘Ordinary’ lives – it is important to know about this aspect of social history AND to know about the diversity that existed in this area.
  • International encounters – this, after the Medieval period could and should begin to include empire but we felt ‘International encounters’ was a better heading.

What residue or ‘takeaway knowledge’ do we want our students to have for each time period?

Counsell talked about residue knowledge way back in 2000, Dawson discussed takeaway knowledge in 2008(?) and then again in his brilliant recent free HA resource.

Residue or ‘takeaway knowledge’ is the stuff that you hope is left over after teaching the topic.  These are like little hooks that you hang knowledge on. In this way, when you return to the theme of say, Beliefs, you can go back to Medieval belief ‘hook’, re-introduce it ‘remember when we looked at beliefs in this time period?’ ‘What did we discover?’

Recently, Marc and I sat down over coffee and came up with our own knowledge takeaway for the Medieval Period. We consulted what historians said should be included (thanks to Ian’s HA research document above) and tweaked our plan accordingly. You can download our knowledge take-away document in full at the end of this blog post

So for Beliefs in this time period, this is what we want students to know and hold onto.


B1. The afterlife was more important than living – there was little option to not be religious.

B2. Like today people then were superstitious, including astrology.

B3. Religion continued to be of central importance, dominating many aspects of lives, courts, holidays, church ales etc.

B4. English church part of wider Christendom, under Pope – grew more political, wealthy and separate from ‘the mud of the world’.

This is really helpful to use. It focuses our planning. If this is the vital core knowledge we want our students to take away then we need to ensure that our curriculum actually delivers this core knowledge. B1 and B2  can be delivered through looking at the role of and importance of the Church in this period. This should include the role of doom paintings…

What substantive concepts (key terms) do we want our students to have?

Having established what take-away knowledge we want, we then started to consider what tricky words /substantive/first order concepts we wanted our students to know and use about beliefs in the Medieval Period.

As I have said before, the past isn’t just a foreign country, it is actually a foreign language to many of our students. And part of our job is to teach this new language.

So, looking at our core ‘beliefs’ knowledge, we started to think about the key terms that students will need to be able to grasp.

Here is our starting point – I am sure we will add to it in the future…

Key Terms:

Church, purgatory, superstition, Christendom, Pope, Archbishop, sanctuary, relics, monks, monastery, tithe, excommunicate, dissolution, absolved, alms, penance, alter, astrology, doom (judgement)…

We can then consider how to ensure our students grasp this language over the course of our teaching.  To give a leg up here are ten tips for teaching key terms.

The rest of this content is for members only. Please Register or login.

follow us in feedly

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

History Resource Cupboard


Receive details of our latest courses, new lesson downloads, exclusive discounts and the latest articles with ideas to help you enliven your classroom teaching.