How to teach the primary History curriculum
The aims of the National Curriculum History objectives are to ‘help pupils gain a coherent knowledge and understanding of Britain’s past and that of the wider world‘. Easier said than done! Ensuring that your primary History curriculum offers children a deep insight into British and World History can be a daunting task.
So how can you go about ensuring that your History curriculum is coherent, engaging and covers the knowledge and skills that your children will need to become budding historians?
Getting as close to history as possible will help your class gain an enthusiasm and understanding for what they are studying.
Ordering the primary History curriculum
Teaching children a coherent narrative of British and World History does not necessarily mean you have to teach chronologically. What is important, however, is that children gain a chronological understanding of the historical eras and events they are studying. There is no reason why you couldn’t introduce the Tudors to your lower KS2 class in the Autumn Term and then jump right back to exploring prehistoric Britain in the Spring Term.
Some schools insist that teaching chronologically is the best way to ensure that children know what happened when and in what order, and this is certainly an acceptable approach. However, this can be limiting; you may be forcing Year 3 children to explore a historical period that would be better suited to older children, such as the Shang Dynasty (which has a lot of meaty historical enquiry that’s ideal for children in UKS2 to get stuck into).
A more rounded approach is to ensure that children explore a timeline every time they begin a new topic, and put their previous learning into context. In KS1, children will be introduced to several different time periods incidentally through their topics, such as exploring the Victorians through a study of Florence Nightingale. As children enter KS2, they should be able to start placing periods on a timeline and identifying if, for example, the Victorians lived before or after the ancient Egyptians.
A timeline of world history for KS2 children
As you start each new topic with your class, establish how long ago the era began. A fun way to do this, to help children gain an understanding of the concept of passing time, is to work out how many times they would have had to live their lives to reach the same period of time. Say you’re looking at when World War 2 began. If it was 85 years ago, divide this by the children’s age. A 9-year-old would have had to live their whole lives 9.4 times to go back to the start of the war. Compare this to the approximately 125 times they would have had to live their lives to match the start date of the Mayan empire and they will soon start to gain an understanding of how recently or long ago certain events took place.
Challenge children to also consider clues that show how recently people or civilisations lived. What transport did they have? What did they wear? How was society structured? What do all these things suggest about when the time period in question took place? Discussing these questions at the start and/or at the end of a topic will help develop children’s chronological understanding as they explore a variety of different eras and events.
What should I teach for KS1 History?
There is even more scope in KS1 for teaching a broad range of topics and themes, thanks to the nonspecific nature of the four KS1 primary History curriculum objectives:
Changes within living memory:
- Changes with toys: how are toys and how people play different today from when my grandparents were alive?
- Changes in communication: how did people contact each other and share information in the past and how is that different to today?
- Changes in travel: how have transport methods changed and what effect does this have on people’s lives?
- Changes in fashion: how is what I wear different to what my parents and grandparents wore when they were children?
- Changes in education: what was school like for my grandparents and how is that different to school today?
For some of these, you may wish to go back further than living memory, for example, to look at the invention of the telephone in 1876, and this is perfectly acceptable. Indeed, sometimes it can be very beneficial for children’s chronological understanding. As long as the explore changes in living memory within the sequence of lessons, this is absolutely something you can include.
Exploring the history of travel is always a popular topic in KS1!
Events beyond living memory that are significant globally and nationally:
The Great Fire of London, which is mentioned as a non-statutory part of the objective, is a common favourite and for good reason. I would highly recommend teaching this event to your KS1 class (probably in Year 2) since there is such a lot of great historical learning that can be done. Other events beyond living memory to include could be:
- The first aeroplane flight (also mentioned in the non-statutory objectives)
- WW1 and Remembrance Day
- Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot
- The moon landing
- The sinking of the Titanic
- The Battle of Hastings
Exploring the first aeroplane flight can be combined with exploring the history of transport, covering two objectives in one scheme of work.
The lives of significant individuals in the past who have contributed to national and international achievements. Some should be used to compare aspects of life in different periods:
There are plenty of named examples in the primary History curriculum for this objective which you may or may not like to choose. If you’re looking for something outside the box though, other examples could include:
- Isaac Newton
- William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King
- Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
- Christopher Wren and Isambard Kingdom Brunel
- Ada Lovelace and Tim Berners Lee
- Sir Francis Drake and Amelia Earhart
Get some cross-curricular learning in by exploring the life and achievements of Isaac Newton
Whoever you choose to study, take the opportunity not only to explore their lives and achievements, but also what life was like during the periods in which these famous people lived. How was it different to life today? How would your life have been different if you had lived at the same time as Christopher Wren or Sir Francis Drake?
Significant historical events, people and places in their own locality:
This is a trickier objective to advise on due to its specificity. You may be lucky enough to live near the location of a famous event of the birthplace of a famous person. Near Liverpool? Study The Beatles and how their music changed pop culture in Britain and around the world. Near Nottingham? Explore the legend of Robin Hood, establishing the facts over the fiction.
But what do you do if nothing or no one immediately interesting or relevant comes to mind?
There are are a few national events you can draw on here if you come up with a big fat dead end:
- VE Day celebrations: what happened in your locality when the war ended?
- The queen’s coronation: how and why did people celebrate?
VE Day celebrations in Piccadilly, 1945
Chances are though, that you will have to do some digging to see if something more specific is feasible:
- If you live in London, check out the English Heritage’s list of blue plaques to see if you can find an interesting historical figure you can use as the focus of your study.
- Use the National Trust’s list of the residences of famous people across the country to see if there are any relevant candidates.
- A good old Google search! You may be surprised at the rich history of your local area when you start investigating.
Check out our KS1 History Curriculum Packs for further ideas on how to structure your KS1 History curriculum.
What should I teach for KS2 History?
There is a little less freedom in the KS2 primary History curriculum than in KS1, although there are still plenty of opportunities to explore exciting events and time periods.
So what exactly do you need to teach your KS2 historians?
There is a fairly large emphasis on exploring early civilisations in the primary History curriculum for KS2. A study of ancient Greece is a compulsory part of the curriculum, as is exploring an overview of the earliest civilisations and a depth study of either ancient Sumer, ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley, or the Shang Dynasty of ancient China.
Ancient Egypt is a great topic to explore in KS2, particularly in Year 3/4.
Many people miss the ‘overview of where and when the earliest civilisations appeared’ section within this objective and skip straight to exploring one of the civilisations mentioned, which is a shame. There is a whole heap of really engaging and useful learning that can be achieved through this study that can help children to understand how civilisations developed (and collapsed). Exploring early writing systems, how measurement and number systems began, how trade began, and building and architecture in the earliest civilisations will provide a really useful foundation for further learning when they come to explore one of these civilisations in more detail.
Themes in British History
When the new primary History curriculum came out in 2014, primary teachers all over the country started bemoaning the fact that the old favourites, like the Tudors and Victorians, were no longer mentioned on the curriculum and therefore couldn’t be taught in primary schools. But fear not! The objective that rather vaguely instructs us to teach ‘a study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological understanding beyond 1066’ neatly allows us to include all those great topics, as well as many others.
If it happened in Britain after 1066, you can pretty much teach it. This opens a lot of doors to aspects or themes in British history that weren’t covered in the previous curriculum. Explore the history of women; investigate how the railway revolutionised Britain; find out about heroes of British history; explore the rise and fall of the British Empire; investigate medicine and diseases across the ages. There is such a wealth of British history you can draw on with your KS2 class that covers this objective perfectly.
Studying the history of medicine is a great example of a theme in British history to explore with your KS2 class.
What to teach when in KS2 History:
The curriculum does not specify when each of the required topics are to be covered but here are our suggestions for what to cover in lower and what to explore in upper KS2:
Year 3 or Year 4:
- Stone Age to Iron Age
- Roman Empire
- Anglo-Saxons and Scots
- Early civilisations: Ancient Egypt or Indus Valley
- Non-European society: Mayan civilisation
Year 5 or Year 6:
- Vikings and Anglo-Saxon struggle for the Kingdom of England
- Shang Dynasty
- Ancient Greece
- Non-European society: Benin or Baghdad
These are based more upon the more challenging skills you can employ in the upper KS2 schemes than 'easier' schemes for lower KS2.
Once you've added these schemes into your timetable, can then dot the British history themes, local study and even subjects that aren't mentioned on the curriculum, such as the Wild West or Aztecs, across the phases as you see fit.
Check out our KS2 History Curriculum Packs for further ideas on how to structure your KS2 History curriculum.
Developing Historical Enquiry Skills
Whatever you choose to teach, it is important that children aren’t simply ‘taught’ the history. Part of becoming an engaged historian is learning how to glean information from evidence in the form of both primary and secondary sources. It is equally important that children learn to ask questions for themselves.
The basic process for historical enquiry is as follows:
1) Provide evidence
2) Ask questions
3) Suggest answers
4) Provide more evidence
5) Refine answers
...ad infinitum. Once children have answers to their initial questions, ideally this should generate more questions for the children to explore.
Let’s look at a specific example of how this could work in the classroom. For this example, children will be starting a new topic to cover the objective ‘Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons and Scots’.
Replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet
1) Provide children with a picture of the Sutton Hoo helmet.
2) Challenge children to generate questions about the object. What is it? Who used it? What was it for? Who made it? When was it last used? Was this for a rich person or a poor person? What can it tell us about the person who wore it?
3) Encourage children to suggest answers to their initial questions, giving reasons for their choices. It’s important for children to use the word ‘because’ in their answers to justify their responses. For example, I think this was worn by a man because men used to fight in battles more than women, or I think it is for a rich person because I can see gold in it. Agree as a class who they think the helmet belonged to.
4) Provide children with further evidence. Explain that this helmet was found along with a lot of other artefacts by archaeologists in 1938. They were all buried in the remains of a ship that was found in Ipswich. Provide further photographs of the Sutton Hoo treasure. What else can we find out about the owner of the mask now?
5) Challenge children to come up with further evidence, based on the artefacts, about who was buried at Sutton Hoo.
6) Ask children if there are any other questions they want to find out about now that they know a little more about the contents of the burial ship.
You don’t have to use artefacts for this kind of enquiry process. Try giving a photograph or a painting of the famous person you’ll be studying as a starting point. Or try using an extract from a speech or a historical document. It’s amazing how much children can get out of these sources when they get used to asking questions and using what they can see before them to generate answers.
The primary History curriculum may seem prescriptive at first glance but it actually provides a real wealth of opportunity to give your children in a lifelong love of history (if it’s taught in the right way). If you want any further help or ideas for delivering History topics to your class, just get in touch with the Resource Creators at PlanBee and we’ll be happy to help.
PlanBee has two ready-to-teach History curriculum packs that provide enough planning to cover each primary History objective from Year 1 to Year 6 – all planned and ready for you to deliver to the children in your school. Find out more here.