History as a Form of Knowledge.

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One of the bigggest shifts in (British) school history teaching occured when the emphasis was changed from the teaching of history as a grand narrative, one coherent story where its raison d'etre was to learn names, dates and the superiority of Anglo-Saxon culture by heart as unchangable and unquestionable fact, to the teaching of history as a form of knowledge. This tends to be broken down into two subsections: substantive knowledge and second order concepts.

Substantive Knowledge

The first strand of such knowledge that students should master is substantive knowledge, that is, the understanding of concepts such as ‘monarchy’, ‘slavery’, ‘constitution’, ‘communism’ and ‘inflation’.

These are often complex concepts in themselves and the fact that institutions, practices, jobs and so on change over time means that while students may understand the role of a king in modern British terms, or even if they understand this role in the context of one historical period, this understanding will cause them problems if they apply their knowledge unaltered to kings at other times and in other places in the past. Similarly, concepts such as ‘revolution’ require students to know what counts as a revolution (as opposed to a rebellion, for example) but also the difference between revolution in the abstract and what we mean by the Russian Revolution. As opposed to, say, the Industrial Revolution.

Second Order Concepts

However, in order to understand names, dates and so on in an appropriate conceptual framework, students need to understand such ideas as cause and consequence, change and continuity, empathy, the nature of historical accounts and evidence, and what counts as significant in history. These are often known as second order concepts precisely because they underlie the practice of making sense of the substance of history. For example, when a historian analyses the role of kings throughout the ages, she does not directly write about any of these concepts, but a sophisticated understanding of them has informed how she has researched his topic, how she has drawn her conclusions and how he or she will write about them now.

Much of the research into children’s historical thinking has been focused on these second order concepts, partly because previous research into children’s understanding of substantive concepts proved difficult and partly because of the massive rise in the interest of the history teaching profession into what it means to actually do history since the 1970s, a focus which now forms the basis of history teaching in schools in the UK.

This research has informed not just an understanding of the preconceptions that children may bring to the classroom about how to go about history, but also, in the enunciation of what going from a less to a more sophisticated understanding of the second order concepts involved, what competency actually looks like, or in other words, what the topic headings such as ‘change’ actually mean for a historian. Particularly influential has been the Schools History Project (SHP) and Denis Shemilt’s subsequent Evaluation Study, and the CHATA (Concepts of History and Teaching Approaches) project.

So what do these second order concepts actually look like and what are teachers hoping to achive in the classroom?


One of the most pervasive barriers to understanding that students display is their belief in a deficit past. In the much misunderstood area of historical empathy, children have a tendency to believe that things in the past were different because people in the past were stupid or morally defective, rather than entertaining the idea that people in the past thought differently or lived under different circumstances. At best, students often ascribe modern behaviour and viewpoints to people in the past – a sort of ‘if I were in their shoes…’ approach. While this may take them some way to understanding, they often fail to see the past on its own terms and therefore fail to understand key reasons for people’s actions or even the structure of institutions.

Thus in order to develop children's sense of historical empathy it may be better to replace activities where children are asked to put themselves in the place of a historical personage and describe their life, actions or thoughts, which are often tackled on a superficial level, with more thoughtful tasks where students are asked to explain connections between attitudes and background circumstances, and analyse alternatives available to people in the past.


Similarly, change is seen as linear and invariably as progress. It is also often assumed to have come about as a result of a particular event or the will of a particular person, rather than as a gradual, long term process. This risks being actions being labeled as either a ‘stupid’ move or a ‘rational’ one and students’ lack of appreciation of the effects of unintended consequences of plans or situations compounds their difficulties. Children also see change in comparison with nothing at all happening, rather than the more valid historical comparison of continuity with what has gone before.

Children need to develop, then, a sense of what counts as change, and to be able to distinguish degrees of change, and the fact that it is probably more likely to occur almost imperceptibly over a long period of time rather than quickly. They need to gain an understanding of the causes of change and also that change can have different effects on different areas of life and that not all of these will be beneficial.

Cause and Consequence

Confusion between motivations and cause is also a problem. Students often see no difference between someone’s desire for something to happen and the actual reasons why it happens. Conversely, they can also feel that if someone’s desires or plans came to nothing, then they have no relevance at all. This, of course, implies that children at least see the point of studying the causes of events at all, which is not always the case. Some children, in fact, see the business of studying history simply as the business of studying events which are in effect destined to take place, so no study of cause is necessary. This is a view which is perhaps more prevalent if children are taught history as a set of facts – dates and events to be learnt – than as a more enquiry based subject, a teaching method which also has severe implications for children’s understanding of evidence.


If history is simply received wisdom from the teacher or the textbook, there is no need to prove the claims being made, no need to search for the truth and therefore no need for the support that evidence can bring. Children at this level of understanding often make no distinction between a source of evidence and a source of information. It is all the same and provides a clear ‘window on the past’. Even if such children are confronted with conflicting information about the past, there is a tendency for them to count the number of reports that agree over those that do not and accept the majority verdict.

Once children have progressed beyond this stage to an understanding that ‘how do we know?’ is a valid question to be asking, they tend to look for 'authoritative' accounts such as those of eyewitnesses to help with their investigation. But children also come equipped with an everyday notion of how bias works. Since we will not be able to trust everything that our eyewitneses say, can we, in fact, say anything at all about history? Many children, having reached this stage of understanding, would say ‘no’, and reduce all of history to the very postmodern position of it being all a matter of opinion. Progressing students further relies on helping them to see that when we ask questions about a source of evidence it was not designed to answer, we can gain information in which the question of reliability does not arise. They should also learn that while backing up a claim relies on searching for things which would disconfirm it as well as those which support it, the notion of reconstructing the best picture of the past that we can being not the same as telling it exactly as it was, is the basis of creating a historical account.

This is at the heart of what historians do and one of the reasons for a difference in the accounts that different historians give. The other is that different historians might be interested in answering different questions or reconstructing different areas of life. Differing accounts, however, are another area that children find difficult to get to grips with, particularly if they are still struggling with the concept of evidence and what it is for. Helping students to identify the different areas of interest and questions that a historian might be interested in when studying different substantive topics and identifying this in differing accounts should help children to overcome this problem.

Reaching the heights

Students' preconceptions are not a jumble of random ideas, however. It is possible to identify levels of progression ie that students responses to historical ‘problems’ could be catagorised along a continuum of less to more powerful ideas. For example, in the understanding of evidence, those levels of understanding seem be (going from less to more sophisticated understandings): treating potential evidence as though it offers an exact replica of the past; seeing the past as fixed and treating potential evidence as information which is either correct or incorrect; treating potential evidence as testimony, where conflicts are resolved by trying to find the best report available; taking a cut and paste approach by piecing together a version of the truth by picking out the 'true' statements from different reports of the past; inferring ideas about the past from pieces of evidence in isolation; inferring ideas about the past from sources of evidence seen in context.

And teaching matters. It is true that on the whole older children have the more depth to their understanding. But students who are taught the second order concepts of history through the study of different substantive topics demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of history as a form of knowledge than their peers who are taught in a more didactic tradition where the memorizing of set facts about people and events in history was the norm.

In the Classroom

The first challenge that teachers face in teaching is to decide what to teach. The solution when teaching history seems to be that while they should not neglect the substance of history, teaching needs also to address the development of the conceptual framework that children need to be able to make sense of them. That is to say, teaching second order concepts is important and should form the basis of the aims of both individual and a series of lessons.

And one day, readers of the Daily Mail may agree.

Further Reading

Probably the easiest book to get hold of would be How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds; National Research Council, National Academies Press; Washington DC; 2005).

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