Should progression in history be modelled hierarchically?

I argued in my previous post that existing models of ‘getting better’ at history have tended (a) to look for generic features of historical practice and (b) to break these generic features down into hierarchical stages which describe ‘more sophisticated’ or ‘less sophisticated’ thinking within particular second-order conceptual domains (e.g. ‘evidence’ or ‘change’). In this post I want to tackle this problem head-on and suggest that our models of progression need to work on an accumulative rather than a hierarchical model.

The following table shows an attempt made in 1991 to break the idea of ‘causation’ down into ten stages by which to measure the progress of pupils between the ages of 5 and 16. This kind of approach has existed for many years in the UK with different iterations of the National Curriculum relying on the same approach to outline ‘levels’ of progression. Although these were finally scrapped in the 2014 National Curriculum, a number of organisations – such as Person and PiXL – have recreated very similar models for schools to use.

The 1991 National Curriculum Attainment Target for Causation
Level 1 Recognise everyday time conventions
Level 2 Demonstrate, by reference to stories of the past, an awareness that actions have consequences
Level 3 Demonstrate an awareness of human motivation illustrated by reference to events of the past
Level 4 Understand that historical events usually have more than one cause and consequence
Level 5 Understand that historical events have different types of causes and consequences
Level 6 When explaining historical issues, place some causes and consequences in a sensible order of importance
Level 7 When examining historical issues, can draw the distinction between causes, motives and reasons
Level 8 Produce a well-argued hierarchy of causes for complex historical issues
Level 9 Demonstrate an awareness of the problems inherent in the idea of causation
Level 10 Demonstrate a clear understanding of the complexities of the relationship between cause, consequence and change

There are two fundamental problems with this model (and with all similar hierarchical models based on second-order concepts). First, the statements contained within each stage are just too vague to be useful. Some models get around this by adding in qualifiers such as “beginning to” or “moving towards”, but all this achieves is taking something vague and making it vaguer still. Secondly, it is quite clear that there is no logical basis on which one moves from one level up to the next. I reckon I could teach most eleven-year-old an “awareness of the problems inherent in the idea of causation”; equally, one could argue that an “awareness of human motivation” is highly complex. On this particular model, thinking about consequences is easier than thinking about causes. On Day 2 of my PGCE we were given these statements as cut-outs and asked to put them in what we thought was the right order: unsurprisingly, a room of history graduates (some with MAs and PhDs) all came up with different orders for the statements.

Numerous attempts have been made by theorists and practising teachers to make this kind of hierarchical progression model work, but I have yet to see a single one that avoids the problems of vague genericism and an arbitrary order of hierarchy. I would argue that this is model to which we should no longer be attached: we need an alternative way of understanding progression in the subject. This probably means we need to set ourselves free from the chains of imposing a hierarchy onto the discipline, and instead to treat the learning of history as a growing web of things that have been learnt. Take the following diagrams as a model. A green circle represents something that has been learnt about how the discipline works: a particular causal model, a type of source used by historians, a historiographical point, and so on. A blue circle represents something that has been learnt about the past: the beliefs of a person, the actions of a government, the ideas held by a religious group, and so on.

When one begins learning history, one does not know very much. There are not many links, and the novice has a fairly superficial grasp of the subject.


But once more has been learnt and a student knows more about the past and about the discipline, then he or she is developing a more sophisticated understanding of the subject. As each students builds this more complex knowledge base, they are able to answer more complex questions, or turn what they already know to new questions in different contexts. Crucially, there are no hoops to jump through to ‘move up the levels’: what each individual student retains from each lesson might well vary. No one point in the web of their knowledge is necessary, but collectively what they know is sufficient for them to begin displaying some of the generic characteristics of historical competence that have been identified by philosophers of history and curriculum theorists.


The expert historian goes even further and has a highly complex knowledge base that incorporates all sorts of interesting links. Where this knowledge base is sufficiently complex, a critical mass is reached where novel and creative solutions to questions – including the formation of new questions – begin to emerge. It would be foolish to try to establish a threshold for this and it will vary from individual to individual, and indeed between specific specialisations.


This for me offers a more compelling vision of what it means to get better at history. As we learn more, we get better at history. The more we know, the more categories we can have, the more links we can form, and the more easily we can organise our ideas. This is not about learning a list of facts: it is rather about building up a complex array of knowledge of the past and the discipline. Although this model allows that ideas might be ‘hubs’ off which a number of other things hang, there is no hierarchy here that attempts to raise one thing above another.

This all points towards a very different model of progression: rather than rely on a series of conceptual levels derived from generic statements about disciplinary practice, we can simply say that the more one learns, the more progress one has made.  The problem here is that, in schools, we are often interested not just in the fact that a pupil has learnt more, but also in whether they have learnt what we intended them to learn. It is this, finally, which brings everything back to curriculum. In the third post in this series I intend to explore the implications of this, reaching the conclusion that the curriculum is the progression model.

4 Comments on Should progression in history be modelled hierarchically?

  1. Another fascinating post, and again not for me in any way restricted to History.

    I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with your main points above, after all this is cognitive science 101.

    I really am intrigued as one does not often have the opportunity to get inside the mind of a trad.

    I think I start to see where you are going, and I can see the logic of your position, but only if one asserts from the start that learning is simply the acquisition of lots of knowledge. To almost quote Dan Willingham, understanding is simply remembering in disguise. Please note not just remembering but remembering in disguise. The “disguise” is perhaps the important part.

    It would seem that your argument goes something like…..

    -All learning is knowing stuff
    -You can’t describe knowing stuff as a hierarchy
    -Knowing stuff is a web
    -The curriculum is knowing stuff therefore the curriculum describes the progression model

    I believe I have the support of cognitive science when I say that remembering stuff is not the end of learning. One needs to be able to apply stuff in real life familiar and unfamiliar situations. Your talk of second order concepts is interesting but I think a distraction as you only describe the framework of knowledge/understanding.

    Although I am sure you will use the knowledge nodes and links between them (referring to your model) to apply the knowledge, your model does not seem to stretch this far.

    The system I use as a working model has the knowledge acquired in terms of facts, concepts and algorithms etc but also the cognitive processes that come to bear on the knowledge that you so eloquently describe above. For me it is the latter that provides the hierarchy.

    I am sure your approach will be very successful and I wish you every success using the thing. The thing that I use is also very successful. It allows for the accumulation of a web of knowledge and deals with the use of that knowledge to solve real life problems, often across domains as well as within.

    In the end we are possibly describing the same thing in that you seem to talk about links complex links and webs of knowledge and perhaps I refer to the same thing as cognitive processing.

    Hopefully in the last of the 3 posts this may become clearer to me. I may of course find that I have completely misunderstood your position and have to rethink, after all, isn’t that what learning is.

    • Michael Fordham // 4 March 2017 at 10:02 // Reply

      I don’t think you’ve particularly misunderstood my point, and as said in my reply to my previous post, there is nothing particularly profound or insightful about my comments here. Yet they do differ significantly from the the vast majority of work currently done on progression models in history. I am using ‘knowledge’ throughout these posts to mean both ‘know-that’ and ‘know-how’, and I’ve made my views on ‘understanding’ clear elsewhere:

      Where I perhaps need to be clearer is what I mean by ’emergent properties’. These are things which are only ever taught indirectly, in that we teach the things that make it possible. A good comparison is ‘health’. We can’t teach someone ‘health’, but we can teach them lots of things which, if they do them, will probably result in them becoming healthy. The same can be said of lots of ideas in education such as ‘creativity’, ‘curiosity’, ‘criticality’ and so on.

      There’s also an important point here on what the distinction is between knowledge (broadly conceived) and ability. Can one know how to ride a bike and yet not be able to ride a bike? Probably. Can one know-how to write an essay but not be able to write an essay? Perhaps. But I would again be tempted to treat these outcomes as emergent properties – we teach them what they need in order to be able to ride bikes and write essays, and we give them the chance to practise this, re-teaching some of the conditions where necessary.

      Not sure how much sense this makes but hopefully it clarifies things a bit.

    • Jonathan Gould // 13 September 2017 at 08:59 // Reply

      As a Head of History I have been wrestling with how to assess attainment and progress in my department. I agree that a linear model is built on shake foundations and prefer the analogy of a climbing frame, rather than a ladder, when it comes to thinking about how pupils learn in this subject.
      However, the more I read, the more I get confused. Brian, would you be happy to share the model you use?

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