Cognitive Science and Curriculum Sequencing in Primary History

You've finished teaching a wonderful unit of learning. You've shared tons of information with the children in beautifully prepared booklets, including some really aspirational stuff that the children seemed to relish. They asked so many questions that it was difficult to finish each of the lessons, but by the end of each lesson, you felt the enthusiasm and passion the children were developing for the subject. A few weeks later, they are asked what they learned about...the key vocabulary and important information... and their recall is hazy at best.

Cognitive science teaches us that the limitations of our working memory affects the amount we can learn in any one episode. This presents a tension between children's capacity to learn, and the amount of content in a curriculum: a content-heavy curriculum might actually decrease what pupils learn and remember, especially if lessons contain too much information and insufficient time for children to acquire it.

Many teachers are familiar with Rosenshine’s principles: one of which is to introduce content in bite-size chunks. Whereas the 'size' of this ‘bite-size’ chunk can vary depending on the particulars of a class – what might be right for one class might not be for another – the principle still demonstrates a limit to the amount of content that can be included within the time constraints for any subject. This exacerbates the problem, which many teachers consider, of an already crowded curriculum: just how do we find the time to fit it all in?

How do optimise our use of curriculum time to make sure the children learn and remember what we want them to?

Part of the challenge of curriculum design, therefore, is selecting the knowledge and understanding we desire for our children to have whilst remembering that children’s minds are limited in how much content they can process – and subsequently learn - at any one time. (For a more detailed description of this, I’d 100% recommend reading the work of Efrat Furst)

Another key implication from cognitive science is that learning builds on what children already know. This does not necessarily mean completely new content cannot be introduced – knowledge has to be new at some point – but rather that what we already know shapes what we learn; moreover, children are more likely to remember new knowledge when it can be integrated with what they currently know – the development of schema.

A further implication is that knowledge needs to be rehearsed and retrieved in order to prevent it being lost from long term memory. Each time knowledge is retrieved our long term memories are strengthened, reshaped and adapted.

The tensions created by these implications mean that curriculum designers must make careful decisions to provide a curriculum which has sufficient depth and breadth as well as one which children are actually able to learn and remember. If children’s minds are overloaded during the teaching sequence, new learning can fail to be committed to long term memory.

I've been thinking about how we might design curriculum units with these tensions in mind. To address these, I suggest the following principles:

  • Select content which will develop concepts that children are already familiar with (where possible) or can lead children to understand new content e.g. in history, the concept of ‘empire’ can build on ‘kingdom’.

  • Select content which provides a platform for concepts to be developed in later studies.

  • Select a sufficient number of components of knowledge that support conceptual development but refrain from overloading the curriculum – you can’t teach everything, and don't need to teach everything in one go

  • Sequence the content in a way which rehearses previously taught content so that it can be regularly reviewed and integrated into a larger schema which we desire the children to develop.

  • Sequencing the content carefully can reduce the limitations of working memory so that we can be ambitious in terms of conceptual development.

Narrating the learning journey might be a useful exercise to describe an overview of the understanding we desire children to possess, and also how this understanding will build on prior learning and prepare children for future content and concepts.

I want to explore this idea through the example of curriculum sequencing in primary history.

Ancient Egyptians – a ‘think aloud’ description of curriculum sequencing

The content and sequencing of a unit of learning of Ancient Egyptians will very much depend on what children have previously learned and what they will learn in the future. When designing the curriculum, it is important to consider the domain knowledge of Ancient Egypt – pharaohs, pyramids and mummies spring to mind – as well as the substantive concepts from the history curriculum such as monarchy, governance and society (see Michael Fordham’s blog for a non-exhaustive list). Meaningful encounters with these concepts across different studies will help children develop a rich understanding. On top of this, we also need to think about the disciplinary knowledge and concepts that children need to learn.

I’m going to propose ideas based on teaching about Ancient Egypt in Year 3 and the pre-existing knowledge is based on my school’s curriculum.

We might start the sequence by using children’s knowledge about rivers, from their prior learning in geography. The sequence would begin by exploring the locations of some of the ancient civilisations mentioned in the National Curriculum and making the connection between the rivers and the emergence of these civilisations. Their prior learning will have included some of the connections between the human and physical geography of rivers and reasons why settlements have formed around them. Children would also have learned about flooding and the risks this poses to riparian communities.

When introducing the chronology of Ancient Egypt, children will extend their understanding of the past by thinking in terms of ‘so many thousands of years ago’. Although I think this is a hard concept to master for younger children, it is necessary to introduce examples of times which are further in the past than what has previously been studied in order to begin and develop this tricky aspect of history. Before this unit, children will have already learned about thousands in maths, and so they can compare the magnitudes of number of years using representations of number – both concrete and visual. Importantly, it would also be difficult for children to appreciate the meaning of ‘ancient’ without reference to these numbers and comparison to the ‘size’ of the past they had thus far studied.

Children will also learn about the geography of Ancient Egypt such as the climate and desert, to help them understand why the river Nile was so important to Ancient Egyptian settlement and society. In terms of human geography, the children could explore a map showing the borders of the different Egyptian kingdoms. This would demonstrate change over time, but also allow them to extend their understanding of ‘kingdom’ beyond their learning in EYFS and KS1, and reinforce the concepts of borders and nations.

Building on their learning about plant growth from Y2 and Y3 science, children would then learn about the role of the Nile in Ancient Egyptian life and teaching should focus children on understanding the significance and importance of the river to everyone in Ancient Egyptian society. As Clare Sealy argues, making these "3D links" across the curriculum supports memorisation of previously learned content.

Once this idea has been established, the next area of learning would be to understand about Ancient Egyptian beliefs and how they worshipped a range of gods who they believed controlled many aspects of their lives. This would help children understand why the Ancient Egyptians likened the Nile itself to a god. Religion was a feature which united the society of Ancient Egypt and so exploring the roles and status of different levels of society could coherently follow – as well as learning about ‘governance’ under the rule of the pharaoh.

In EYFS and KS1, children will have developed their understanding of the concept of 'monarchy': from kings and queens in fairy stories, to examples of real-life monarchs such as Queen Elizabeth II and (possibly) King Charles II, if they have learned about the Great Fire of London. Ancient Egypt provides the example of a ‘pharaoh’ as a different name for a monarch and children could progress to understand how pharaohs were absolute monarchs. This concept would help them appreciate the structure of Ancient Egyptian society, as well as understand how and why the Ancient Egyptians likened pharaohs to the gods. Returning to previously taught content from this sequence means that children are strengthening their recall and adapting their understanding of the key ideas throughout the unit. This takes advantage of how the brain works to make the learning more durable and prevent some of the forgetting that would happen if the content wasn’t returned to.

The context of pharaohs becoming ‘divine’ as they passed to the underworld provides a wonderful opportunity to teach about pyramids and mummification. These become important as ways of teaching ‘how’ historians learn about the past and why we know about Ancient Egypt. Although knowledge of the process of mummification might not be something which children need to remember, it could still be worthwhile to include if the ‘residue’ knowledge is that bodies (and body parts!) were very well preserved; this might help children to appreciate why some things from history don’t last as long, which adds more depth to their understanding of how historians know about the past. I’d recommend reading Jonathan Grande’s writing about this concept.

Optimising the content

In the previous section, I have set out a description of both the understanding I want children to have, and the links I want them to make. After doing this, I can then decide on additional key content and questions which I want children to be able to answer to show that they have achieved my intended aims.

This might include:

  • On which continent is Egypt located?

  • Which river flows through Egypt?

  • What does Ancient Egypt have in common with other early civilisations?

  • What was the land in Ancient Egypt like?

  • What did the river do every year?

  • Why was this event important?

  • What was the name of an Ancient Egyptian monarch?

  • …etc…etc…etc

Once I’m satisfied with the questions I want the children to be able to answer, I can fine-tune them to ensure that only the essential questions remain. This is not to say that I won’t teach the other content, but rather that I’m going to focus the children’s attention on to this core knowledge.

Teaching materials

An iterative process which could run alongside the previous stage is to choose and select appropriate teaching materials for the content. I remain convinced that Mary Myatt’s suggestion about using high-quality texts – especially stories – is an excellent way of teaching content. The problem is that some books aren’t quite perfect for the content you might want to teach, and some books are yet to be written!

For the first problem, we can substitute the main text with additional information from other texts (or artefacts in the case of history, perhaps). For the second problem, it might be that we have to use alternative ways of sourcing the required information and write the texts ourselves. I’d warn against this, from experience, as I think it might be a better use of time to rethink the curriculum intent to match existing high-quality texts – especially those written by experts in the field.

Repeated reads of a suitable high-quality text is a great way of revising and reviewing content in addition to introducing information is small steps: with each read, children will pick up something they didn’t pick up before – particularly as their underlying knowledge grows. It’s a bit like watching a film or series a second or third time when you have a completely different take on some of the events which occur. It also provides multiple encounters with the ideas and vocabulary which we want children to commit to long-term memory Once this vocabulary has been explained, children can practise using it purposefully, especially in structured talk sessions - with lots of modelling from the adults, of course.

Designing lessons

In history, an overarching question for a lesson can be useful to express a knowledge-based learning objective: the responses that children produce, after having made sense of the content, can be a good source of information for teachers to make an assessment.

These questions could also fit into a larger “big question” for the unit of learning - although this might be more suitable for depth studies than for breadth studies, depending on the content included. The wording of any questions is important and they could also be used to reflect the types of questions historians might ask as well as to guide the development of second-order concepts such as change and causation, developing all-important disciplinary knowledge.

The lesson question can be used to determine the content which the teacher wants the children to focus on and provides clarity over which questions to ask when checking for understanding and when purposefully developing conceptual knowledge. Teachers might need to provide further explanations for any important ideas emerging from the high-quality text that has been chosen, and if any independent task is required, children should have purposeful activities which enable them to integrate their new knowledge with their prior learning. This could take the form of comparing, contrasting or categorising their new knowledge to help organise the new information in a meaningful way.

Knowledge Organisers

Once the lessons have been designed, the core knowledge ascertained, and any key vocabulary identified, a knowledge organiser could be designed to communicate the key information we expect children to learn. I’ve sometimes doubted the use and benefits of knowledge organisers since they first became popular, but I now strongly believe that if they are used to contain the key answers, definitions and any other information we want the children to ‘use’, then they can be valuable to the learning process – especially if the knowledge can be tested and memorised. Like any resource, children will need to be taught how to use KOs effectively.

The Takeaway

This post has explored how we might adapt primary curriculum design to surmount some of the barriers caused by cognitive overload. By selecting content and sequencing it in a way which repeats and embeds key knowledge, children can have multiple encounters with the key ideas of a unit of learning. This repetition supports memorisation and strengthens children's developing schema. Using high-quality texts can help convey complex ideas and concepts to children in an accessible way, and exposes children to a range of Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary. Making explicit links to content from other subjects supports memorisation of previously learned content and allows children to see how knowledge from one subject can be used to make meaning in another. Questioning is an important tool to both establish what we want children to be able to remember, and to assess their growing knowledge and understanding. There's perhaps nothing revolutionary or radical about anything I have written, but I believe that small tweaks to the way a unit of learning is structured can yield great benefits to children's knowledge and understanding.

If you're interested in continuing the conversation, please leave a comment below.

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