Curriculum Development: Substantive Concepts in History

Curriculum Development: Substantive Concepts in History

If you’re thinking about your curriculum and how it all fits together, it’s imperative that you consider substantive concepts. Your curriculum will focus on how the children in your setting learn the key knowledge related to their topics. You will probably have considered how you will put strategies in place to help the children know 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’ we want to ensure that children develop a good understanding of in their learning so that they can use and apply their knowledge in new and unfamiliar contexts. By ensuring children have a secure knowledge of these ‘big ideas,’ we can prepare them to become lifelong learners.

History Focus

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

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

Each is equally important in 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 that 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 a fundamental concept or idea to consider because history is 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. If we are developing a curriculum in our schools, it should tell a story. That story should be relevant to our islands, the children we teach, and the local area 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 worldwide. 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, there was the Stone Age, then the Egyptians appeared and so on. However, 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 the Stone or Bronze Ages were still happening in other parts of the world. 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 are significant things 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 about 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 to make it easier to teach and explain, and I have worked hard to challenge myself and other staff members 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 this happened, some things continued, and some things changed. Some developments were reversals of the advancements the Romans had brought with them. We must encourage the children to investigate this and ask questions 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? A big part of investigating this concept involves looking at evidence from the past. To understand why key events happened or why historical figures took specific actions, 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 these ancient peoples wrote.

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 to find the cause and why of the events that happened, and children need to use this to develop their ability to investigate and make relevant historical enquiries.

Similarity and difference

This idea of similarity and difference links nicely with the other substantive concepts. Sometimes, things stayed the same in parts of the world, whereas 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 support children with their historical knowledge and developing those perceptive questions.

When you think about what the National Curriculum expects, the idea of similarity and difference is at the heart of everything we teach. We want children to develop a secure understanding of British history. We want them to understand the impact that other civilisations worldwide 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, considering why this was and its impact 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 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 today?

It’s this concept which essentially draws everything else together in order to support children in 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 have 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 we use as part of our day-to-day life today? That’s significance. 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’. These ideas 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 secure understanding within the children’s minds.

Let me demonstrate what I mean by 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 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 it's during the study of ancient civilisations, you’ll begin to look at similarities and differences 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 in making links across topics. If you continue to do this with further history topics as the children move through Primary school, you’ll 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, which is why it is such an important aspect of curriculum development.

For some of you reading this, it might not be new. It may be reaffirming things that you have already considered. For others, you might 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.

Find out more about the Learning Challenge Curriculum

Alex Neophitou will introduce you to the concept of the Learning Challenge Curriculum. He will show how each unit is carefully crafted so that children learn key knowledge one step at a time.

He will explain how one aspect of the learning challenge curriculum builds on children’s prior learning through careful sequencing to support teachers in enabling children to know more and remember more.

Alex will review the resources, including the units of learning, the assessments and the knowledge mats, as well as the recently added vocabulary overviews. He will also introduce you to the art and DT curriculums.

This is a chance to ask questions and get more information about our curriculum. There is absolutely no obligation to buy.

We are passionate about our curriculum and want to show it to as many people as possible. If you are looking for a change or want to implement a new curriculum that will have an impact and be cost-effective, then this session is for you.

Book a Free Demo over Zoom with Alex >>>

Watch a video on how the Learning Challenge Curriculum works>>>

For more information about our flagship Learning Challenge Curriculum, visit our website here.


Back to blog