Curriculum Development: Substantive Concepts in History

If you’re thinking about your curriculum and how it all fits together, it’s really important that you consider substantive concepts. Your curriculum will be focused on how the children in your setting learn the key knowledge that relate to their topics. You will probably have considered how you will put strategies in place to help the children to know more and remember more, which are hugely important aspects of your curriculum. But have you considered the substantive concepts that the National Curriculum refers to in History and Geography?

Substantive concepts are the ‘big ideas’ that we want to ensure that children develop a good understanding of in their learning, so that they can use and apply their knowledge of them in new and unfamiliar contexts. It is by ensuring children have a secure knowledge of these ‘big ideas’ that we can prepare them in becoming life-long learners.


History Focus

I’m going to focus on History here as an example, as the substantive concepts are made really clear in the National Curriculum for this subject area. These ‘big ideas’ are:

  • Chronology
  • Continuity and change
  • Cause and consequence
  • Similarity and difference
  • Significance

And each of them are equally important in terms of delivering a high quality history curriculum that allows children to develop their historical enquiry skills and ability to apply their knowledge across contexts.



Chronology is all about the order of things. Ordering doesn’t just apply to history. It’s a concept which children encounter in all areas of their learning. This can include, but is not exclusive to, ordering numbers, ordering the size of objects, or putting key events for a story in order. However, it’s an extremely important concept or idea to consider in history because history is all about developing a narrative. The National Curriculum refers to understanding the story of our islands and putting this in context alongside other stories from around the world. I think that if we are developing a curriculum in our own schools, it should tell a story. That story should be relevant to our islands, to the children we teach and the local area that they live in.


How it fits in within the wider world is extremely important. It’s important because the only way to understand how our story fits in with others is to understand the chronology of events from around the world. And this chronology is not made up of nice neat blocks of time. I think this is something that, as educators, we have sometimes defaulted to as it is easier to explain to children that first their was the Stone Age, then the Egyptians appeared and so on. But the reality of chronology, and what makes it such an important concept for children to understand, is that the order of things wasn’t always clear cut. The Egyptians were developing irrigation systems and constructing pyramids whilst in other parts of the world the Stone or Bronze Ages were still happening. Developing an understanding of this is extremely challenging, but I think that makes it all the more important to try and encourage children to be increasingly aware of it through good history teaching.


Continuity and change

Continuity and change is a really important thing to consider when planning units of learning across your history curriculum. I think often people assume, right, we’re teaching the Romans. This happened in Roman Times. And then it’s, right, we’re teaching the Saxons, and this is what the Saxons were like.

As I said with regard to chronology, history isn’t neatly partitioned into specific blocks of time. It feels like this is something that we have decided at some point in the past in order to make it easier to teach and explain, and something that I have worked really hard to challenge myself and other staff members on over the last few years. The Romans and the Greeks existed at the same time. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes came to Britain while the Romans were withdrawing, but the Romans didn’t just disappear off the face of the Earth. In Britain specifically, when all of this happened, some things continued, some things changed. Some developments were in fact reversals of the advancements that the Romans had brought with them to us. We need to encourage the children to investigate this and ask questions in order to develop their understanding and challenge ideas about the past.


Cause and consequence

This is such an important aspect of understanding history. What happened? What caused it to happen? What did it end up leading to? What happened as a result of the events that followed? And actually a big part of investigating this concept is looking at evidence from the past. In order to try and understand the reasons why key events happened or why specific actions were taken by historical figures, we can look at past accounts that were recorded. We have developments in understanding ancient languages, such as the unlocking of the Rosetta Stone, to thank for this so that we can interpret what was written by these ancient peoples.

This concept also instigates so many questions. What caused the Egyptians to become a civilisation where they did? What caused the Romans to withdraw from Britain? Who settled in Britain as a result? Why didn’t they make use of the things the Romans left behind? History is all about asking perceptive questions in order to find the cause and the why of the events that happened, and children need to use this to develop their own ability to investigate and make relevant historical enquiries.


Similarity and difference

This idea of similarity and difference, again, links really nicely with the other substantive concepts. Sometimes things stayed the same in parts of the world, where in other places developments happened and things were done differently. When some people were living in caves and wooden huts, the Romans and the Greeks were building great structures out of stone and brick. Comparing different groups of people in history is another aspect that, if we get the teaching and learning right, can really support children with their historical knowledge and developing those perceptive questions.

Really, when you think about what is expected by the National Curriculum, the idea of similarity and difference is at the heart of everything that we teach. We want children to develop a secure understanding of British history. We want them to understand the impact that other civilisations across the world have had on where we live. By striving for this in our curriculum, we are essentially searching for the things that happened in Britain that were similar to other people at the time, and aspects that were different and considering why this was and the impact that it had on us. We also want children to consider it in the opposite direction, considering the impact we have had on the wider world too.



Finally, there’s significance. This is really important because, as I’ve said before, the whole history curriculum is about relating developments in Britain to what was going on around the world. Why were certain changes important? Why were different achievements relevant to our history? What impact have things in history had on how we live our lives today?

It’s this concept which essentially draws everything else together in order to support children with understanding the importance of what they have learned about history and its relevance to us, now. It’s all about looking at key events that occurred in history and also key discoveries regarding those events. It’s about the impact new inventions and technologies had on the world. Would I be sitting here in my kitchen, typing this out with the lights on if Lewis Howard Latimer hadn’t invented the carbon filament and if Charles Babbage hadn’t created the first mechanical computer resembling the machines that we use as part of our day to day life today. That’s significance. And that is why it is so important to try and encourage children today, who take things like mobile phones and social media as having always been around, to understand just how significant these discoveries and creations were and are.


Considering other concepts

Now I’ve concentrated mainly on the key substantive concepts of the national curriculum here, but underneath that, it’s important to scaffold your curriculum with other key concepts or ‘golden threads’ if you like. These are the ideas that support building children’s understanding of those substantive concepts. Ideas like trade, farming or the concept of what an empire is are concepts which we can use as educators as vehicles for historical study. The concept of farming for example, can and should be explored in several history topics across the primary phase. By doing this, you are automatically planning an aspect of your curriculum which will cover all of these substantive concepts repeatedly and develop really secure understanding within the children’s minds.

Let me demonstrate what I mean with this specific concept. If you approach the concept of farming within the Stone Age, and the fact that it was non-existent until it developed in the Bronze Age, you are looking at cause and consequence – why did it begin to be adopted over hunter gathering? You are also then looking at significance because the tools that began to be refined and developed allowed this to happen. When you then look at farming again in a new topic, let’s say its during the study of the ancient civilisations, you’ll begin to look at similarity and difference as you are then comparing two or more different ways of life from history. This develops further questions around significance. How did farming tools and equipment develop? Why did they develop? You’re beginning to support children with making links across topics. If you continue to do this with further history topics as the children move through Primary school, you’ll then be able to look at continuity and change in terms of what developments lasted. Which advancements were superseded by newer more innovative approaches? Why did this happen and again, why was this significant? If you develop a curriculum with these concepts in mind, you are also supporting the children with their understanding of chronology, and this is why it is such an important aspect of curriculum development.


For some of you reading this, it might not be new to you. It might simply be reaffirming things that you have already considered. For others of you, it might be that you read this and think ‘I’d never thought of it like that’. If the latter is the case, then it’s an exciting opportunity for you to look at and review your current history curriculum. And if you want to have a discussion about it, history is one of my favourite subjects to talk about, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch.


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