Building a knowledge-rich History curriculum

star wars

My wonderful Head of History, Harriet Cornwell, is @First_floor_8 on Twitter. This is her first foray into blogging. Harriet has written six episodes about how she is building a knowledge-rich History curriculum. They also follow a Star Wars theme. What’s not to love?

Episode 1: The Phantom menace 

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… a gold standard history curriculum, turned out to be anything but. 

Read the following statements. At which point do you feel a sense of moral outrage? 

  • A student finishes secondary education never having studied the British empire. 
  • A student in year 7 comments that women in the past lived longer because they spent so much time in the kitchen slaving away over a hot stove.  
  • A student finishes secondary education having learnt about slavery solely through the medium of the TV series Roots.  
  • A student finishes secondary education, having studied only ‘the Egyptians’ at key stage three.  
  • A GCSE History student is unable to recall the correct chronological order of Tudor monarchs in sequence.
  • A student finishes secondary education and has never heard of the English Civil War.  
  • A student finishes Primary school having spent one term learning about the development of castles and two weeks learning about the Holocaust. 
  • A student finishes secondary education having learnt about the Titanic because the teacher ‘had some really good resources on it’. 
  • A student finishes secondary education and has studied medieval food and fashion because their teacher thought it was a ‘really interesting topic’. 

At which point did you interject, protest, and say this is unacceptable? Listed above are a collection of real situations. They demonstrate and reveal some uncomfortable truths about the apparent ‘gold’ standard of our history curriculum. 

Like an enemy in our midst, Key Stage Three has eroded the potential for an ambitious sequence of knowledge stretching from Key Stage One to Key Stage Five. But there is potential.  With training, a padawan can be shaped in to become a Jedi. With expertise, our Key Stage Three curriculum can be a force for good in a fully connected curriculum

To help pupils develop a true sense of the past, we must ensure that our curriculum is populated and sequenced robustly. We need to ask ourselves: What knowledge ‘should’ be taught, why should it be taught, and when? And who decides? Also, what knowledge is essential for our children in our school? Accepting an unfocused and disconnected curriculum, like that which has characterised so much of History education in our schools up until now, is like giving in to the dark side. 

Episode 2: Attack of the curriculum clones 

“Miss, when do we learn about WW2?”

I have begun my own personal war against the dark side of the curriculum. The sign above my office door, in fact says, ‘war office’. After planning an ambitious sequence on historical interpretations, I began to feel some self-satisfaction that we were beginning to build a scholarly, connected curriculum.

Then, in September a Year 7 student asked innocently, ‘Miss when do we learn about WW2?’ That’s when I realised that we have created an army of curriculum clones that simply won’t stop duplicating themselves. 

WW2/Nazi Germany. I have taught this topic for years, and I do believe it’s extremely important, but I think perhaps it’s… can I use this word here?… ‘overtaught’? We have lessons on it at Key Stage Three, Four AND Five. I can say with certainty that some weeks, WW2 was the only historical period I taught.

This doesn’t provide students with a broad scope of history. Plus, the entire subject of History ends up being associated with just this one European time period (which explains the year 7’s question earlier). It also provides a very narrow view of our subject, that we, like clones ourselves, reproduce and replicate repeatedly.

It also results in what I have coined ‘knowledge laziness’ at key stage five. Students become very reluctant to learn anything else, everything else terrifies them.

WW2/Nazi Germany needs to be taught. But at every key stage? It’s essential, of course, but it’s not the only knowledge that students should learn.

Episode 3: Revenge of the Key Stage Two curriculum

‘I’ve already studied this, Miss’

As someone who has previously worked in a Middle School, I think a lot about students’ starting points. Some students come to us from Primary School unable to identify anything specific about history, whereas others gladly inform me they know everything there is to know about history because they know about the Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII, and Adolf Hitler. 

Ah, more curriculum clones! However, these clones seem different. The previously encountered knowledge has been somewhat distorted… has perhaps been delivered to students in an over-simplified way… resulting in misconceptions. A malfunctioning clone army if you will, which turns out to be a legion of stormtroopers working against you.

Most students learnt about these topics as part of loose, cross-curricular projects, and although some were able to name random facts, it appeared that no thought had been put into sequencing. Plus, they all come to us from different Primary schools with a whole range of half-remembered stories, confused historical figures and some wildly incorrect, if mildly amusing, ‘facts’ about Henry VIII.

Which leads me to this: What would happen if all of our starting points were the same? Is there a common theme in history which could be learnt at key stage two? A topic which could unite two key stages through foundational knowledge agreed by subject specialists and taught consistently across schools? 

Also, could we offer our subject knowledge and experience in curriculum design to primary schools? Curriculum collaboration between Primary and Secondary sounds a very exciting prospect to me. Professionally there feels like there’s a divide which simply allows for more clones, and more malfunctioning clones. I would be keen to build a historiography between the two phases.

Episode four: a new curriculum hope 

Fundamentally, at the heart of what I do, as Head of History, is impart knowledge. Therefore, it is necessary to ask “why do I teach this knowledge now”?

We can all argue that learning about Tudor monarchs is necessary, but how do I know it has been taught in a meaningful way? When students begin learning about Henry VIII, should they focus on learning the dramatised ‘soap opera’ that is the romance of Henry and Anne? Do students need to have a complex understanding of Henry VIII’s wives? Should students learn about the idea of ‘good old Queen Bess’ when over 200 people were executed for treason? 

Questions about what, are pointless without questions about why. Why here? Why in this order? Why does knowledge here support future knowledge there?

This leads me to think big: What am I trying to achieve through curriculum? Can it be summarised into something which is simple, even when we know in reality it is complex?

Before simplifying, it’s important to see the curriculum as a whole – as a ‘framework of the past’. On this basis we must grapple with some difficult questions. What is our narrative golden thread? What is the commonality that sews our curriculum together? What is the story of the subject?  

Quite simply, in history, it is chronology.  But chronology is huge and overwhelming, an infinite galaxy of times, places, people, stories. So how to capture that? In my department, I’m exploring the idea of the polychronicon. What is a polychronicon? It’s based on the work of a 14th century monk called Ranulf Hidgen, who attempted to bring together the knowledge of the time for instructional purposes in a chronicle – a polychronicon.

I am replicating this concept within our curriculum planning to provide students with knowledge for each area of study. For example, in year 8, we have written a polychronicon on Elizabeth I. You may call it a booklet, we like to call it a polychronicon (great opportunity for etymology!).

Episode 5: The knowledge strikes back 

Once you have decided on your topic, you need to ask some big questions. For example, for a polychronicon on Elizabeth, what specific knowledge must students be able to remember fluently? What knowledge will they need to be able to access later and elsewhere?  The core ‘necessary’ knowledge should be decided on across teachers in a team – as a pure canon of knowledge. Although this may sound rigid in principle, it provides for knowledge consistency across the department. 

As a simple example, the dates of Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603) would be an example of core knowledge. This agreement on core knowledge provides consistency and equity of access to knowledge for all students. It might seem obvious, but without explicit agreement of core knowledge, students could (and did!) complete a unit on Elizabeth having no sense of the dates or her reign or even of the correct century.  

Following an agreement of core knowledge, as a department you can start to discuss and debate hinterland knowledge which develops understanding beyond remembering dates. This is the really exciting part! The hinterland knowledge has the potential to make students feel truly empowered. It’s a bit like – if you know the Clone Wars era (2 TV series, 1 film, 1 computer game), then when Obi Wan Kenobi says to Luke, ‘I fought with your father in The Clone Wars,’ in A New Hope, you know exactly what that means – and that feels great.

All of the empowering, hinterland knowledge (about Elizabeth, not Star Wars) can then be woven into a ‘micro’ question – for example, what are the key features of Elizabeth’s government? The concept of ‘Government’ becomes a micro-strand of powerful knowledge, a singular golden thread through the learning sequence. It’s powerful because it’s a newly-acquired concept which has currency within and beyond the topic being taught.

Episode 6: Return of the knowledge 

The micro-strand of knowledge endeavours to leave students with a lasting impression of newly acquired knowledge. The end of this micro-sequence leaves students with additional strands of knowledge which, unless collected and knotted together, may become thin, disconnected and frayed fragments. This is when knowledge can become ‘lost’. 

And so, we tie the strands together in ‘knots’. The ‘knots’ in this context are concepts or figures, such as parliament, William Cecil, rule by the Grace of God, nobility/gentry, law making. Previously encountered micro-strands are knotted together by our polychronicon on ‘The English Civil War’ (monarch/parliament/ ruled by the Grace of God) and in our next polychronicon on the secret lives of hidden Tudors (William Cecil, nobility/gentry).


These are just examples from just one strand! Not all micro-topics will be so fruitful, sometimes the micro-stories, for example, why Mary Queen of Scots was a threat to Elizabeth, naturally come to an end. Although, even that strand could be re-sewn into the fabric of the curriculum when students encounter Elizabeth again at KS4, or indeed at any point in their future. Not unlike the Star Wars saga… just when you think the narrative is complete, a thread is picked up and developed.  Sometimes it will be worth it – it will explain how The Death Star plans were acquired by The Rebel Alliance (Eg Rogue One), and other times it will be superfluous (Eg Solo: A Star Wars Story). The great thing is, the curriculum stays ‘live’ and is constantly reviewed. 

The concept of knowledge knots, as ways of tying together micro-strands of new knowledge is something we are exploring in the History department at Lodge Park Academy.  A knot in a thread will stall as it is pulled through the eye of a needle, it will become stuck. That’s what we want with knowledge – for it to stick. Knots can be used as anchor points on a length of twine, or footholds on a rope for climbing, or as reminders on a twisted handkerchief.  As a concept to provide simplicity for teachers and students, we like it – and want to explore it further. 

We’re looking for a History teacher to join our team? Interested. Details here.

And Follow us on Twitter @lodgeparkacad

One thought on “Building a knowledge-rich History curriculum”

  1. Brilliantly exciting new concept on history and the amazing way to properly teach it so that children and teachers can get energised and enthusiastic together. Knowledge and passion for the subject is a very powerful force combined with excellent teaching is a perfect way to conquer the dark side.


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