What sorts of substantive knowledge are needed to get better at history?

As I set out in my last post, substantive knowledge concerns knowledge of the past, and in history curriculum theory can generally be seen as the counterpart of disciplinary knowledge, which involves knowledge of the discipline. Over the last few decades, however, substantive knowledge has generally played second-fiddle to disciplinary knowledge in models of progression, if it makes an appearance at all. In part this is due to the frustrating fact that the substantive knowledge taught to pupils can be wildly different, particularly when comparisons are made between countries. Theorists have often tried to create progression models that can be used in more than one context, and substantive knowledge has just been too difficult to incorporate. In other cases, substantive knowledge has been seen as less important, perhaps being understood as inert pieces of factual information that are structured through disciplinary conceptual frameworks.

It is perhaps for both of these reasons that, where attempts have been made to incorporate substantive knowledge into progression models, it has usually been to focus on what pupils might do with the knowledge. For example, a common approach has been to shift the emphasis from the knowledge learnt to the generic ability of ‘selecting’ and ‘deploying’ substantive knowledge. This can be found widely in the English National Curriculum and in public examination mark schemes. I have already made my case for why I think general ability statements do not work: in this case, one’s ability to select and deploy knowledge in support of an argument is entirely derivative of what one knows about the period in question. If we are to move ourselves on in thinking about what it means to get better at history, we need to think more deeply about substantive knowledge and how it can be integrated into models of progression.

One attempt at theorising substantive knowledge was a taxonomy put together by a group of history teachers who are part of the Cambridge History PGCE mentor team. They wiped the slate clean and asked ‘what sorts of substantive knowledge do pupils need to learn in order to get better at history?’ The result was a taxonomy that I have summarised below.

  1. Clear, coherent narratives concerning people, institutions, places or events
  2. Small-scale human stories that make larger-scale historical stories, events or changes meaningful and memorable
  3. Macro-stories conveyed through generalisations and categorisations
  4. Chronological frameworks
  5. ‘Sense of period’ (1) that helps students avoid anachronism.
  6. ‘Sense of period’ (2) that facilitates the contextualisation of smaller narratives or case studies.
  7. Knowledge acquired of historical periods, events or individuals that provides context for the study of a different period, event or individual.
  8. Appropriate period resonances attached to substantive concepts such as ‘Parliament’, ‘Church’, ‘federalism’, ‘loyalty’ or ‘taxation’.

The Cambridge team placed a strong emphasis on story and narrative in their model, with (1), (2), (3) and (4) all in some sense focused on learning these. We have on so many occasions chastised pupils for ‘simply telling the story’, but stories operate as crucial components in many forms of history, including causal analysis and accounts of change and continuity. Stories and narratives are of course constructs – temporary scaffolds we build to help us make sense of the complexity of past events – but the fact that they are constructions should not distract us from their importance. A brief glance through any work of history will find it littered with stories and narratives, some of which are problematised, some of which are not, and of course before you can critique a narrative, you first must learn the narrative. Getting better at history involves learning stories and narratives, and any progression model which excludes these is not fit for purpose.

Substantive concepts have proven one of the most fruitful ‘ways in’ for curriculum designers, for it is usually easier to justify the inclusion of these than other forms of substantive knowledge. We might, for example, suggest that pupils need to learn about the following in order to be getting better at history:

  • empire
  • revolution
  • social class
  • monarchy
  • republic
  • schism
  • mercantilism
  • free trade
  • socialism
  • nationalism
  • democracy

It would be an error to suggest that these should be learnt by definition, not least because the meanings of these words differs in different contexts. Good historians do therefore operate not just with a working definition of these words, but also with instantiations: for each substantive concept a historian has a number of examples of these concepts, and it probably does not matter too much exactly which instantiations are held. Nevertheless, it would be fair to incorporate concepts such as these into a progression model on the grounds that a person who has learnt such concepts is better at history.

I want to finish this post by coming back to specificity. We might, for example, construct a progression model that says something like:

  • Pupils have learnt clear, coherent narratives concerning people, institutions, places or events

The problem with this is that, in its current form, it could describe a pupil at the end of Year 7, an experienced history teacher, and a world-leading professor. This is a broad curricular goal, but it is not a progression model. Part of the problem here is that this is in part a matter of accumulation: a world-leading professor will know many more narratives than a Year 7 pupil, but it would be ridiculous to start quantifying this statement (e.g. pupils have learnt seven narratives…). As a statement for guiding what it means to get better at the discipline, it is not fit for purpose: in its current form, it’s a helpful description of what the progression model needs to contain, but it is not in itself a description of progression.

For this to work, we would need to begin specifying what narratives someone will have learnt. This immediately presents curriculum theorists in history with a now familiar problem: different pupils in different schools in different parts of the world quite legitimately learn a completely different set of narratives (or chronological frameworks, or instantiations of substantive concepts), and this frustrates those who want to construct general progression models that can be used in all contexts. It is for this reason that we probably have to accept that there are as many progression models as there are curricula. The curriculum is the progression model. As curriculum designers, we decide what substantive and disciplinary knowledge we want pupils to learn, and it makes sense for us to think exceptionally carefully about what knowledge our curricula contain. The model of substantive knowledge produced by the Cambridge history mentors is a helpful guide in this sense to curriculum construction, as indeed is the copious amounts of work done over the last twenty years or so about forms of disciplinary knowledge. Our job as curriculum designers is to weave the substantive with the disciplinary, ensuring that this knowledge is taught to our pupils.

If our pupils then learn that knowledge, we can be happy that they have got better at history.



2 Comments on What sorts of substantive knowledge are needed to get better at history?

  1. I found this really helpful and thought provoking Michael. Thank you.

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