History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

8 examples of big picture​ overviews

History teachers in England seem to agree that planning and teaching is best achieved through the Enquiry Question. And they are right to. A Rileyesque enquiry works (Riley 2000). Full stop!

It is all very well to be looking for that killer enquiry question. But if you never show your students the long view or overview, your course will lack perspective and meaning.

Why use overviews?

For a long time, I have been a fan of the big picture overview. ‘Scale switching allows your students to see the whole of what you are teaching over a course. It gives perspective.

Mary Myatt, curriculum theorist, argues that when pupils begin each unit they need to be able to see where it fits into wider whole so they can learn the particular by locating it in the general (Myatt 2018). Sound advice!

Others before her have berated schools history that just teaches topics, for providing pupils with a ‘bits and pieces’ knowledge of the past, that adds up to very little (Shemilt 2009 p142)

But in reality…

But if we are honest with ourselves, how often do you allow your students to see the big picture overview like this?

This year I have been working with a group of teachers helping them think more deeply about their history curriculum. Over 50 teachers kindly filled in a questionnaire for me. Most agreed that it was important to get a good balance of overview and depth at KS3.

As you can see many also agreed that a key curriculum aim was to develop a big picture of the past.

However, in practice, how often do you do this? I know that I seldom see big picture overview lessons being taught. I also know that when I have analysed different department SOW, it isn’t that often that I come across a big picture overview lesson, covering a time period, a depth study or a thematic study.

Start this year from up high

So why don’t you start this year from up high. Show your classes the whole picture of what you are teaching before and after you dive into the depth. It will give them a better sense of perspective.

How? Well, there are lots of ways to do this, but we like to give out a bunch of pictures for kids to ponder over and move around on the desk. Those who say that card sorts don’t work are wrong. Not their fault but they simply haven’t ever seen them planned and delivered properly.

A whole host of overview lessons

Views from the Reichstag

Marc Scruby from Priory School has just planned this brilliant overview lesson. A view from the top of the Reichstag building. It gets his students to take in the view at a number of different points between 1880-2004. They are given a bunch of images which they match to captions to show them the view. This allows them to see what has changed and see what Germany looked like at different points in time. It covers the AQA Germany and Cold War course in one go!

A Crime Classic

If you teach Crime and Punishment, here is a classic where your students see the whole course in one lesson. They look at images and work out how the course is structured. You can read more about this lesson here.

Locate the Cold War geographically

If you wanted to get your students to see the big picture of the Cold War you could use this enquiry which gives a geographical perspective and shows when and where the key events of the Cold War took place. Use it before you dive into the detail.

An American West show down

If you teach the American West, Elena Stevens from St Philip Howard School created this overview. It allows your class to begin to work out the big stories by looking at a set of images. Your students will see things from the Native Americans, the homesteaders / migrants and the cowboys / ranchers perspective. Their big stories are told in this big picture lesson. By the way, we will soon publish an entire Edexcel AW package…

The big view of an entire KS3

For Key Stage 3 how often do you show your class British History from 1000 – 1900 in one go and pull out three hugely important themes then you could use this enquiry. Here is how it could be done.

Horrible Histories

Or, if you just wanted to cement a chronological framework in your students’ minds more regularly, why not get them to tidy up a set of Horrible Histories – this classic always works well. You can download the book covers for free from the lesson page.

The Revolting French

For those of you who love the French Revolution, the intriguing starting point for this overview is to ask your class when do they think this gruesome image was drawn?

Having established the overview for the course during the lesson, they will confidently be able to date the picture by the end. They will also be able to see what the course is all about.

Locating the Industrial Revolution

For a different style of overview, ask you students to decide which town should host the museum to the industrial revolution. They can read about a number of different sites before deciding, against a criteria where the museum should be.

So there you have 8 examples of big picture overviews – I hope they inspire you to allow your students to take in the view.


Myatt, M (2018) The curriculum, Gallimaufry to coherence, Woodbridge, John Catt Educational LTD

Riley, M (2000), Into the Key Stage 3 History Garden, Teaching History 99, London, Historical Association.

Shemilt, D. (2009). Drinking an ocean and pissing a cupful: how adolescents make sense of history. In L. Symcox & A. Wilschut (eds.) National History Standards: the problem of the canon and the future of teaching history(pp.141-210). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing 

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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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