What does an expert teacher need to know?

In my last post I suggested that teaching needs to be understood as being derivative of a particular subject specialism. I argued that ‘teaching’ – like ‘research’ or ‘writing’ – means something only in the context of what is being taught. I take the arguments some have put forward that there might be some gains to be made from cross-subject collaboration, but I’ve argued in this blog for some time now that the lion’s share of training and professional development need to be subject-specific.

At times, however, I recognise that I might well be misunderstood. My argument has always been that subject specificity ought to be at the heart of training and development, but this is sometimes misinterpreted by others to mean that the only thing I think that matters is subject knowledge, such as my knowledge of particular historical periods. I want to use this post to make my notion of subject specificity more clear, and I am going to do it by examining what kinds of knowledge I would expect an expert history teacher to have. Teachers of other subjects will, I am sure, be able to see how this converts to their own subject.

I have divided the knowledge base of the expert history teacher into six categories, all of which are subject-specific:

  • Knowledge of historical periods
  • Knowledge of development of school subject and academic discipline
  • Subject curricular knowledge
  • Knowledge of how pupils progress in history
  • Knowledge of assessment models in history
  • Knowledge of research-based approaches to pedagogy

I am going to set out in detail what kinds of knowledge I would expect an expert teacher to have: I have in mind people like Heads of Departments, mentors of trainee teachers, ‘Specialist Leaders of Education’, principal examiners and certainly anyone offering their services as a consultant!

Here we go.

 1. Knowledge of historical periods

The difference between an expert history teacher and an academic historian is analogous to the difference between a GP and a Consultant: the former specialises in breadth, and the latter in depth.

An expert history teacher (in the UK) needs to know

  • an overview of British history from the pre-Roman era through to the present, an overview of European history (particular the histories of France, Germany and Russia), and a broader chronological framework in which knowledge of particular regions at particular times (e.g. 18th-century American history) are situated,
  • examples of stories from particular periods that are commonly taught at school that can be the basis of a sequence of lessons,
  • different ways in which the past might meaningfully be divided and what historical rationales there might be for doing this and
  • appropriate historical questions that can be asked of particular periods that are derived from historical scholarship.

An expert history teacher needs to know this in order

  • to form historically valid and rigorous questions that address historical problems,
  • to design lessons using appropriate and meaningful depth studies of particular times and places for the purpose of illustrating wider issues across a period,
  • to make meaningful choices about where medium-term plans should begin and end (chronologically, thematically, conceptually) and how a medium-term plans fit into a wider chronological framework and
  • to provide examples of appropriate and age-appropriate historical scholarship that can be used to develop pupil extended reading in history.

2. Knowledge of how the school subject and academic discipline developed over time

Expert history teachers need to know

  • how history developed as a school subject, particularly from the early 1970s, including the Schools Council History Project, how its model became embedded in the NC and GCSE, and what the weaknesses of this approach were,
  • the development of the History National Curriculum from 1991 to 2014 and how its structures and demands changed over time, in terms of curriculum scope and assessment demands,
  • the different ways in which the school subject is related to the academic discipline and how changes in the latter (such as a shift towards social and then cultural history in the late twentieth century) had an impact on the teaching of history in schools,
  • the international context and how ideas about history education (such as in Canada and Singapore) have influenced, and been influenced by, developments in England and
  • how history teachers in the UK – particularly since the 1990s – have developed a body of professional knowledge about issues to do with curriculum, pedagogy and assessment in history.

Expert history teachers need to be fully abreast of recent and longer-term developments in history education in order

  • to help place curriculum development in the context of national and international changes in history education,
  • to compare current curricula to earlier models, using the strengths and weaknesses of earlier approaches to evaluate a current curriculum,
  • to show what legacies earlier models of school history have and how these have influenced current history curricula and
  • to situate the work of history departments in relation to a wider professional discourse that has been extant since the 1990s.

3. Subject curricular knowledge

Expert history teachers need to know

  • different approaches to history curriculum design, particularly in terms of medium- and long-term planning, and the different ways in which historical knowledge can be structured over time,
  • how historical questions can be used to structure medium-term planning, what appropriate questions look like, what poor questions look like, and how a good question unlocks knowledge complexity over a sequence of lessons,
  • different models of how ‘overview’ and ‘depth’ can be managed in curriculum design, including how ‘scale switching’ between different resolutions of historical knowledge (e.g. from the micro to the macro) can be encompassed in curriculum design,
  • different ways in which lesson introductions and conclusions serve a historical purpose by situating particular lessons within wider medium- and long-term plans and
  • ways in which curricular questions (such as these outlined above) have been addressed by history teachers through their published works.

Expert history teachers need to have a firm grasp of subject curricular knowledge in order

  • to support their own and other departments in medium- and long-term planning,
  • to help departments understand the requirements of the National Curriculum (or how to develop a school curriculum that exceeds it), and developments in exam specifications,
  • to situate the approaches adopted by particular departments in a wider context of professional knowledge about planning, partly to avoid re-inventing round and square wheels and
  • to support departments in designing their curricula in ways which support transition from primary school to secondary school, and from secondary school to further and higher education.

 4. Knowledge of research into pupil progression in history

 An expert history teacher needs to know

  • different research-based progression models that describe the ways in which pupils develop in their knowledge of the past (e.g. ESRC-funded studies such as Project CHATA and Usable Historical Pasts) and what the weaknesses of these conceptual models are,
  • the kinds of progression model that underpin assessment structures such as the 1995-2014 National Curriculum Levels and research-based critiques of these models,
  • models of pupil progression in substantive historical knowledge, particularly research in the late 1960s and the problems inherent in these models and
  • progression models based on teacher research, such as small-scale studies into pupil progression in addressing causal questions.

Expert history teachers need knowledge of research into pupil progression in order

  • to explain the progression model on which their curriculum and assessment model is based, including what weaknesses this entails,
  • to support their own and other departments in developing new curriculum and assessment structures that draw on research into pupil progression in the subject and
  • to help departments – particularly heads of history and senior managers – understand what certain assessment models can and cannot tell us about pupil progression in history.

5. Knowledge of assessment models in history

 An expert history teacher needs to know

  • different approaches that have been used to assess historical knowledge, and what the strengths and weaknesses of these models are,
  • different measures of success and accomplishment in history and how these can be assessed and
  • opportunities and challenges presented by whole-school assessment models, and how history teachers (e.g. Burnham & Brown) have sought to meet senior management requirements without abandoning historical rigour.

Expert history teachers need this knowledge in order to

  • reveal the underlying principles of the assessment model they have been using, and what its strengths and weaknesses are,
  • help other history teachers have meaningful discussions with senior managers regarding the challenges involved in fitting history under a whole-school assessment model and
  • advise history departments on what assessment models they might use, 

6. Knowledge of research-based approaches to pedagogy

Expert history teachers cannot be expected to be cognitive psychologists, but they can be expected to know about recent developments that inform pedagogical practice. In particular, they should know

  • research on memory, including the implications of ‘cognitive load’, ‘working memory’ and ‘long-term memory’ for teaching.
  • approaches to pedagogy informed by psychological research, including techniques such as ‘interleaving’ and the role of regular ‘quizzing’ in knowledge retention.
  • the relationship between historical knowledge and the reading of works of history, and how mastery over one supports fluency in the other.

A good expert history teacher should be able to provide his or her department – and perhaps other departments through collaboration – with the knowledge they need in order to make informed decisions about pedagogy, particularly in order to address how particular insights into how children learn might lead us to adopt certain teaching strategies.



This post is based on a document Christine Counsell and I produced for the DfE on the kinds of knowledge that a History Specialist Leader of Education (SLE) might need to know. With a few modifications, it applies to expert teachers more generally.

2 Comments on What does an expert teacher need to know?

  1. Tom Burkard // 23 December 2014 at 14:02 // Reply

    I am surprised that you omit knowledge of the low countries. They were not only a crucial market fo our exports, but Holland provided us with the models for finance and governance that were crucial in the emergence of Britain as the leading world power in the 18th and 19th centuries. I expect this smacks too much of the dreaded “Whig view of history” for anyone to countenance this.

  2. Michael Fordham // 23 December 2014 at 21:01 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

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