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Powerful Curriculum Design - Stories in Primary History

It’s a familiar struggle. After going to lengths to plan and deliver engaging and exciting history lessons, we want our children to remember what they’ve been taught.


The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve reminds us that children, like us all, forget about 50% of what they’ve been taught within an hour of first encountering it.


While memorising facts listed on knowledge organisers might be an appropriate strategy for secondary-aged children, such a process can be easier said than done for primary pupils.


Carefully sequencing our units of learning both across the key stage and within units themselves can interrupt the forgetting curve but there is another structural tool of which we can also take advantage.


What’s SO special about stories?

Dan Willingham argues that stories have a ‘privileged status’. They are both easy to understand and easy to remember; there is something within the structure of a story which facilitates this. Add to this mix a fantastic storyteller and we have a very promising pedagogical tool.


Stories can also be repeated over and over. If a story is sufficiently concise, it can be repeated several times per lesson and certainly several times across a sequence of learning. Repetition is another tried and tested way of supporting memorisation.


When we read or hear stories, we rarely remember them word for word. Rather, our mind creates a mental model and it is the residue of this model which we can indeed remember.


Through repetition, we are able to develop a deeper understanding of the elements of the story with each re-reading. We also acquire and develop the key language with which to retell the story. This gives children a coherent structure to recount the information they learn.


History is, of course, abundant with stories. The narratives of our past offer a rich and exquisite opportunity to learn so much.


Narrative Structure

There are several models of how stories are structured (each with many variations). A simple beginning, middle and end structure works well for EYFS. For KS1 and KS2, however, it’s likely one with (some of) the following structural components would help with unlocking stories’ potential to help children learn.


This is especially so in a complex subject such as history.


  • Exposition: sets the scene and context, including the time period

  • Initial incident: the first event which signals a change or a start of something

  • Rising action: where tensions and challenges build, where problems and obstacles are faced

  • Climax: the turning point of the story

  • Falling action: how the consequences of the climax are responded too

  • Resolution:how things end

  • Denouement: shows what happens after the resolution

The parts of a story shown as a story mountain.

Using this (or a similar structure) can help us, when designing the curriculum, to construct stories which are appropriate for the age and stage of the pupil about the curriculum content we want them to learn.


We can also tweak our stories to respond to what children have previously learned, and prepare them for future learning . This gives us flexibility and precision, and it supports curriculum coherence.


Sharing these stories with children is likely to make history lessons engaging and memorable.

They also offer another exciting and powerful possibility.


Going Deeper into the Story in Primary History

Throughout each unit of learning, regular sharing and repetition of the story will build a core knowledge. However, history is of course much more than recalling events in chronological order.

It is common for enquiry questions to be used to structure curriculum content. These questions can target specific aspects of the historical narrative we've explored, such as the causes of an event or the long-term consequences. We can use these historically valid questions to examine the story in more depth.


These questions might focus on exploring only ‘parts’ of the story, such as the ‘initial incident’ or the ‘resolution’, or they might examine the broader narrative across longer scales of time.


These questions provide a suitable lens to learn about the past in more depth. When we design the curriculum, we can decide upon the most appropriate content and substantive concepts children will need to learn to answer the enquiry. Relative disciplinary knowledge can also be included alongside the substantive content.


This approach to curriculum design means that the content we teach should be organised in a logical and coherent way. It avoids teaching disconnected facts, which children struggle to remember, because the content is connected to both the broader narrative and the question being used to interrogate the past.


At primary, the enquiry questions we use generally fall into one of the following categories.


  • cause: how and why did events or changes happen?

  • consequence: what happened as a result of an event or change?

  • continuity and change: what changed and what stayed the same?

  • similarity and difference: the extent of difference within a period

  • historical significance: why is this event worth studying?

  • sources and evidence: how do historians construct knowledge?

  • historical interpretation: how the same ‘story’ can be understood differently


Across KS2, children should have sufficient experiences of different types of enquiry for them to appreciate the different types of questions historians ask about the past.


What might this look like in practice?

Whatever we decide to teach in a unit will fit in with both the rest of history curriculum and the rest of the primary curriculum (which is of course considered already jam-packed).


The level of complexity in our unit stories will adapt based on children’s age, developmental stage, and prior knowledge. While the narrative structure supports understanding, when we select the content we must strike a balance between ambition and age-appropriate pedagogy.


Here is an example of the story of the Roman Empire.

The Story of the Roman Empire

We can also display this story alongside a more realistic timeline, supporting chronological understanding and children’s concept of chronological scale.


The Story of the Roman Empire (chronology)

Here is another example, this time for the Battle of Britain.


The Story of the Battle of Britain (scaled to chronology)

The Story of the Battle of Britain (chronological)

The ‘shape’ of the narrative can help children appreciate the rate of change within a period of time, whether it be over hundreds of years or a matter of days.


Once the story has been shared with the children, we can begin to zoom in and enquire about different parts of the narrative. In this way, we can develop children’s depth of understanding about the story as well as enrich their understanding of substantive and disciplinary concepts.


Here are two examples of how different enquiries could focus on different parts of the storyline. The suggested content illustrates how lessons could be organised and which content could be selected for meaningful learning.


Cause enquiry into the story of the Roman Empire

Consequence enquiry into the story of the Roman Empire

💡 Top Tips

  • The embellishment of the story - setting the scene, introducing the characters - is really important. Establishing the narrative is, however, the first step.

  • The story should be long enough to avoid oversimplification but be short enough so that it can be repeated often.

  • Learning the story off by heart - Talk4Writing style - might help children with memorisation. There are other engaging ways of interacting the story, such as drama and storytelling.

  • History is one of those subjects where it can be very tempting to want to teach everything you know. Considering a model answer to enquiry questions is a really useful way of being able to identify the key content and ensure that lesson time is used effectively.

⚠️ Caveat

It’s important not conflate memorisation of the story as evidence of understanding. Children’s responses to the enquiry questions would provide better evidence.


📝 Summary

  • We all forget things, especially when new information appears disconnected. Using stories can make information easier to learn and more memorable.

  • Mapping the narratives of the past onto a story structure is a way in which teachers can use the power of stories to structure their curriculum.

  • The content of these historical stories can be tailored to the children’s age, stage and prior learning.

  • Historical enquiries can be used to interrogate different aspects of the story and reflect the way in which historians learn about the past.


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