This is an article I wrote for the Teach Primary Humanities Special.
You’ve spent hours and hours on your latest unit of work: you’ve done a ton of research, you’ve identified potential misconceptions, you’ve created beautiful resources… and by the end of the unit of learning, the children still fail to tell you at least five things they’ve learned.
This familiar frustration is lived in primary schools across the land. Why does this happen so frequently?
Cognitive science offers an answer.
Cognitive science explains that a child's working memory can only hold three to four pieces of information before being overloaded. For content to be stored in long-term memory, a child must spend a substantial amount of time thinking about it and think about it repeatedly over time.
Teaching new content in bitesize chunks and reviewing it afterwards until students have memorised it are two important principles for effective teaching and learning. However, with so much content to cover – especially in the humanities subjects – this can be a real challenge.
Considering how content is sequenced can help: the way teaching units are structured and sequenced has a significant impact on what children learn. By thinking about how content builds on prior knowledge and returns to key concepts, we can unlock opportunities to support memorisation. This makes our teaching more effective as children develop their understanding and make meaningful links to what they already know.
Here are three examples of how content from the humanities subjects could be sequenced over different periods of time.
History – Sequencing throughout a Unit
A key idea of Ancient Egypt is the concept of ‘pharaoh’. If children have one lesson on Egyptian monarchs, their understanding is likely to be limited. They may remember that pharaoh is the name for an Egyptian King or Queen – a concept which is familiar to them so is more easily remembered. They may indeed also remember some catchy names like Tutankhamun or Cleopatra, but if all the more ambitious content about pharaohs is given in one lesson, they are unlikely to be able to recall it all later.
Instead, the concept can be returned to over a series of lessons. Pharaoh can be understood in terms of their position in the social hierarchy when exploring Ancient Egyptian society, their divinity when exploring Ancient Egyptian religion and how their tombs can help teach about how historians know about this period of time.
Returning to the concept not only enforces the definition of pharaoh, but it also develops children’s conceptual understanding – their schema. By structuring content to make repeated links back to the core knowledge of the curriculum, we can not only prevent forgetting but actually deepen understanding.
Geography – Sequencing Across a Key Stage
Some concepts in the humanities are massive and really do require more teaching time than we might first think.
I used to think climate could be learned in a couple of hour-long lessons… how wrong could I be? Whilst I have previously been happy with my children being able to parrot that ‘climate is the average weather of a place’, I’ve become increasingly bothered that not only is this a superficial understanding, but it is next to meaningless without rich examples underpinning it.
It’s important to remember that the National Curriculum describes the ‘outcomes’ of teaching sequences, and for something like climate, the outcome is a consequence of being taught about its many components and thinking about how they are related. For children to achieve this outcome, they will need to have learned about weather, the water cycle, the sun’s intensity at different latitudes, climate zones, the relationship between climate and biome and why certain vegetation grows in certain parts of the world. Embedding these components in different units of study across Key Stage 2 is one way which can provide sufficient examples of a concept without overloading children in a single lesson or series of lessons. It’s important, however, to make sure children are away of how all the components are connected to the concept of ‘climate’.
RE – Sequencing from EYFS to Y6
Whatever the local specification for RE, determining the content to be learned is a substantial task for any RE leader. To gain a rich understanding of the many concepts which might be taught, they need to be returned to time and time again, with meaningful examples used to illustrate key components.
Whoever designs the curriculum at your school can support you to achieve this by setting out the content to be learned in each year group and, importantly, describing how that content links to and builds on what children have already learned.
Take, for example, the concept of forgiveness in Christianity. Children in KS1 may learn that forgiveness is a core Christian belief and may learn about stories such as the Prodigal Son. In KS2, children might return to the concept of forgiveness but approach their learning with increased sophistication. Returning to a familiar story gives children the chance to extend their understanding of what that story means for Christians. Afterwards, they could then learn about other important stories, such as Joseph and his Brothers, once the more sophisticated content about forgiveness has been practised in a familiar context.
At my school, we’ve been working on making content more memorable for a number of years. We’ve tried being more specific with the content. We’ve tried regular retrieval practice. We’ve tried finding high-quality texts and reading them repeatedly. All of have had some impact, but we still found that children’s ability to discuss their learning in their own language and on their own terms was quite limited. Considering the sequences of learning more carefully, especially referring back to the similar ideas throughout a unit of learning, has had some promising effects. We feel now that children are more able to articulate what they have learned and more easily give examples too.
The curriculum is never done, and we can always find ways to improve to optimise our teaching sequences at every level. When you’re next reviewing your subject, planning or teaching materials, thinking about how the content fits together can be a promising avenue in supporting children to remember more of what they have been taught.
This is the article I wrote for Teach Primary June 2023: Primary Humanities edition.
Please click here to see the article on Teachwire.
If you're interested in what Ofsted have said about curriculum design in the primary humanities, please click on the posts below to read the summaries I've made.