Making History Stick Part 2: Switching the scale between overview and depth

Brown, Roediger and McDaniel clearly state that, even once some knowledge is mastered, it needs to be recalled periodically (every few weeks or months) under the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. In history, however, this is quite difficult: if we are studying history chronologically, then we move on from earlier periods and do not necessarily go back to these. In order to space retrieval, it is necessary to structure the curriculum in such a way that knowledge of the prior periods studied is recalled at a later point.

One powerful way of spacing retrieval practice in history teaching is by changing the scale of the period being studied, something that is increasingly being called ‘scale-switching’. Managing the relationship between overview and depth is an issue which has troubled history teachers for some time, and history teachers are not in agreement on the best way to approach it. Is, for example, it a good idea to start with the ‘big picture’, and then to gradually build up a more complex picture by adding in more detail? Or is it better to start with small depth examples, and then to allow the ‘overview to emerge from the depth’? These questions have received a lot of attention from history teachers, and it’s worth having a read of some of the references at the end of this post.

So what might the relationship be between ‘spaced retrieval’ and ‘scale-switching’? Here’s an example of a scheme of work on medieval England. Each question below would be studied over five or six lessons, so this is about half a year’s work.

  • Question 1 – How far did England change after the Norman Conquest?
  • Question 2 – Was England a ‘feudal society’ in the high middle ages?
  • Question 3 – Was Stephen’s reign a period of ‘anarchy’?
  • Question 4 – Why was there conflict between the church and the state?
  • Question 5 – What were the consequences of the Black Death?
  • Question 6 – Who challenged the power of kings in the middle ages?

How is retrieval spaced over time?

 If you look at the structure of the questions, later questions require pupils to draw on knowledge from studying earlier questions. For example, in answering Question 1, pupils would need to learn the ways in which the structure of English society changed after the Norman Conquest, including the relationship between king, lords and peasants in the 1070s and 1080s. In Question 2, we switch the scale and look at the structure of ‘feudal’ society from, say, 1000 through to 1300, with a focus on land tenure, food production and distribution, labour roles, military duties and so on. In doing this, of course, we would be asking pupils to recall what they had previously learnt from studying the Norman Conquest. This would include concepts they had previously mastered (‘peasant’, ‘lord’) but also specifics (how society changed after 1066).

In Question 3 we switch the scale again and zoom in to look at the reign of Stephen (see Hannah McDougall’s great work on this in Teaching History 150). Here pupils are encountering a new period in detail (Stephen’s reign from 1135 to 1154), looking at the extent to which society descended into ‘anarchy’. Of course, in order to understand the extent to which society was in anarchy, pupils would need to retrieve prior knowledge on what society was normally like in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which of course had been learnt in studying Questions 1 and 2.

And so it goes on. In order to understand the role played by religion in medieval society (Question 4) pupils need to retrieve prior knowledge on social structures (those who fight, those who work, those who pray, from Question 2), but they could also draw on specific examples from their previous study (Lanfranc as Archbishop under William I from Question 1, the role of the Pope in Stephen’s succession crisis from Question 3) and elaborate on these examples using the new knowledge they learn. Question 6 zooms right out to take in the big picture, and to answer that pupils clearly have to draw on what they had learnt in answering all of the previous questions.

Switching the scale here between the macro and the micro does, I think, offer one way in which we can space retrieval of historical knowledge, allowing pupils to go back to and draw upon prior knowledge: this either involves using knowledge of particular examples to make sense of bigger trends and developments, or the converse. In either case, this retrieval needs to be made explicit.

Scale-switching across the curriculum

In order for this to work across the whole curriculum, as pupils progress they need to be given opportunities as they go to retrieve prior knowledge from everything they have studied. This means that pupils would, for example, need to answer questions in Year 8 that asked them to retrieve knowledge from Year 7, and in Year 9 from Years 7 and 8. Here are some questions that might do that.

  • How did the power of Parliament change between 1300 and 1600/1800/2000?
  • How has the nature of conflict changed since the middle ages?
  • How has the purpose of the Tower of London changed since 1100?
  • How did Shakespeare interpret late medieval England?
  • Why were the Victorians so interested in medieval chivalry?
  • In what ways does the University of Oxford curriculum from 1200 to 2000 reflect changes in society?

In all of these questions, pupils have to draw on an increasingly large knowledge base from an increasingly large period of time studied. It would make sense, for example, having studied Elizabethan England in Year 8 to then ask how the period just studied looked back on the period studied in Year 7. In Year 9, knowledge of medieval England could be retrieved again by asking how Victorian culture looked back on the period. If we ask questions such as these systematically – scale switching as we go – then there is no reason why pupils at the end of Year 9 should not be able to sustain the knowledge they gained earlier in school.


  • Banham, D. (1998) ‘Getting ready for the Grand Prix: building a substantiated argument in Year 7, Teaching History, 92
  • Banham, D. (2000) ‘The return of King John: using depth to strengthen overview in the teaching of political change’, Teaching History, 99
  • Blow, F. (2011) ‘Everything flows and nothing stays: how students make sense of the historical concepts of change, continuity and development’, Teaching History, 145
  • Dawson, I. (2004) ‘Time for chronology? Ideas for developing chronological understanding’, Teaching History, 117
  • Dawson, I. (2007) ‘Thinking across time: planning and teaching the story of power and democracy at Key Stage 3’, Teaching History, 130
  • Gadd, S. (2009) ‘Building memory and meaning: supporting Year 8 in shaping their own big narratives’, Teaching History, 136
  • Howson, J. (2007) ‘ ‘‘Is it the Tuarts and then the Studors or the other way round?” the importance of developing a usable big picture of the past’, Teaching History, 127
  • Howson, J. (2009) ‘Potential and pitfalls in teaching “big pictures” of the past’ in Teaching History, 136
  • Howson, J. and Shemilt, D. (2011) ‘Frameworks of knowledge: dilemmas and debates’, in I. Davies 
(ed.) Debates in History Teaching, London: Routledge
  • Riley, M. (1997) ‘Big stories and big pictures, making outlines and overviews interesting’, Teaching History, 88

1 Comment on Making History Stick Part 2: Switching the scale between overview and depth

  1. Christine Counsell // 6 August 2014 at 23:33 // Reply

    Thanks Michael. One for our Cambridge mentors and trainees I think (especially after the mentors voted, in June, for Making It Stick as the new compulsory reading for our history trainees in third week of Feb!!). Until now, I certainly hadn’t thought enough about how this kind of embedded retrieval inherent in ‘scale-switching’ could play a crucial part in converting ‘fingertip’ knowledge into ‘residue’ knowledge. I’m sure that if we all did more to operationalise it systematically, it would transform our expectations of Year 9. (Better still Years 10 and 11, but…oh dear. Oh for GCSE awarding bodies finally to catch up with KS3.)

    To add to your list, it occurs to me that another reading some history colleagues may find helpful in navigating these debates and making comparisons with their own practical, curricular thinking is Rogers, R. (2008) ‘Raising the bar: developing meaningful historical consciousness at Key Stage 3’, Teaching History, 133.

    The way Rick Rogers gets his students to look at Magna Carta again, and again, and again… and yet again, has interesting points of convergence with some of the above, and some very important divergences also. And I don’t mean the obvious convergences (e.g. Howson and Shemilt). For example, Rogers certainly doesn’t frame his work in terms of the NC tradition of ‘interpretations of history’ (which your own practical work suggests is powerful for reinforcing chronology), but it nonetheless does have strong connection with your EQ above on ‘How did Shakespeare interpret late medieval England?’ in the sense of subsequent periods construing earlier ones (Rogers uses the example of the Americans using Magna Carta to inform their constitution). Rogers’ emphasis, of course, coming as it does from the ‘big history’ and ‘Frameworks’ tradition, is much more about seeing the past ‘as a whole’ but it is quite fascinating to see how some aspects of his classroom practice end up in the same curricular place as aspects of the above that don’t emerge from that tradition. I particularly like the rigour with which he gets his Year 7 students, when charting the story of Magna Carta right up to 1837, to distinguish clearly between the practical and legal aspects of MC and the symbolic role of MC. Imagine doing that in Year 9, once those intervening periods had been thoroughly studied. At that point (to use a slightly heretical inversion of ‘big history’ theory) they really would be able to use high resolution history to modify a low resolution framework.

    (For those history teachers who don’t know Rogers’ work, it’s worth a look. He teaches in a comp in Leeds.)

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