#12 This week, in history… you can’t ‘action step’ your way to effective teaching

Teaching history is different to teaching science.

In recent years, much has been made of the differences in the way knowledge is organised in different subjects. Much discussion of the different curriculum structures, sequences and designs that might be required as a result. Designing a history curriculum is different to designing a science curriculum. On that, most seem to agree. 

But the differences don’t end at curriculum. Or content. They continue into the classroom.

Teaching history is different to teaching science.

There’s not a single recipe that shows you how to teach both. A series of generic steps or techniques that can be taken and ‘applied’ to or ‘contextualised’ in the different subjects. Seemingly common features of teaching in both subjects – modelling, for example – are so different in history and science classrooms that they become unrecognisable. The differences so great that any talk of ‘modelling’ in the abstract, in the generic, is meaningless to classroom teachers. Unhelpful. Perhaps even damaging. 

The reason is simple. The aims and purposes of teaching science and history differ wildly. Not just in content. It’s not simply that one subject aims for pupils to know and be able to do one set of things, and the other subject a different set. 

The very nature of the curricular content and aims differ. It’s not just different information for pupils to process and store in long-term memory.  It’s not simply that historical knowledge is different to scientific knowledge. 

It’s more than that. 

Historical knowing is different to scientific knowing.

Knowing about the past is different to knowing about the human body.

Knowing about the past means something different. Requires something different from the knower.

Because knowing about the past requires knowing what it takes to know about the past. And what it takes to know about the past is different to what it takes to know about the human body. We can’t – to take an obvious example – study the past through observation or experimentation. Historical knowledge is constructed in different ways. To know about the past and to know about the human body means to know something about these differences in how the knowledge is constructed. To understand something of the differences in the status of the knowledge. 

Such differences are everywhere. Take diagrams. Compare a scientific diagram of a cell to a schematic diagram of the way the Thirteen Colonies were governed in the eighteenth century. It’s not simply that the content of each diagram is different. The differences are far greater than that. More fundamental.

Each diagram has a different relationship to the thing it is representing. To know these diagrams – to understand them – requires knowing something of their relationship with the thing being represented. Knowing something of how the diagrams were constructed.

It’s not all just knowledge.

The same goes for ‘knowing’ in any discipline. 

Consider, for a moment, stories. History teachers are story-tellers. Much of the way we communicate our knowledge of the past is through stories. English teachers are story-tellers, too. But we need pupils to think about these stories in very different ways. We need pupils to give them different statuses in their minds. To see the different stories having different relationships with the world. 

Knowing a story about the past means something different – requires something different – to knowing a novel.

It’s not enough to say we want pupils to remember the stories. Get them to store them in their long-term memory and celebrate that something has been learnt. For if stories from the past and stories from novels sit in a pupil’s long-term memory together, with the same status as each other – ‘known’ in the same way – has anything really been learnt?

If pupils know about Oliver Twist in the same way they know about Queen Victoria, do they really know anything?

No. We need pupils to ‘know’ them differently. 

And developing different ways of knowing in the classroom requires different teaching. Different pedagogies. 

Fundamentally different teaching. 

This is more than taking a generic teaching technique and tweaking it, adapting it, or contextualising it slightly. 

It’s more than taking a generic technique and considering how best to use it for a particular ‘item’ of content. 

In teaching that is authentically subject-specific – that aims for disciplinary-specific ways of knowing – seemingly ubiquitous aspects of teaching look fundamentally different. They work in fundamentally different ways. 


Ways of explaining.



Checking for understanding. 



Each of these becomes so different as to make it meaningless to talk about them in the generic. Meaningless to talk about practice in a generic enough way for it to be applicable to both history and science. Meaningless to talk about them without considering a curricular object for the technique.

Once that curricular object is considered, the common features become fundamentally different from subject to subject. If a science teacher watched a history teacher, they might not even notice when the teacher is explaining, or modelling, or checking for understanding. (And vice versa.)

Now, of course, if someone was to closely study really effective history – or science – teaching, they might identify some of these generic features as a superficial way of explaining why the teaching is effective. But a superficial explanation for why something is effective doesn’t necessarily tell you how to do that thing.

And not only does this make it meaningless – unhelpful – for classroom teachers to talk about these features of teaching in the generic. It can become damaging. If a science teacher tries to guide a history teacher to do some modelling in their next lesson, problems are likely to ensue. I explored this idea in more detail here. I point out that I Do, We Do, You Do modelling can go disastrously wrong in history when used to model procedural aspects of writing. What’s fascinating, though, is that the approach to modelling a procedure that I parody in the post might work really effectively in science. 

Because history teaching is different to science teaching.

To use modelling effectively in the classroom, we have to consider a whole range of questions. What to model? When to model? Why to model? How to model? The purpose of modelling? Whether to model? The answers to these questions will vary from subject to subject (and even within subjects). The answers depend on the curricular object, on the particular type of knowing we want our pupils to develop. 

The answers mean that modelling in history will often look unrecognisable to modelling in science.

And if you still don’t agree that different subjects require different pedagogies. If you still think that all we need to do is apply a generic step to a subject, try reading the chapter by Bruce VanSledright in Jetton and Shanahan (eds.) Adolescent Literacy in the Academic Disciplines: General Principles and Practical Strategies. Running throughout VanSledright’s brilliant chapter is the idea that something as seemingly universal as reading means something completely unique in the history classroom. And that teaching this particular form of reading in history requires a unique set of classroom resources, tasks, questions, forms of assessment etc.

Generic actions steps will never get us to this kind of subject-specific teaching.

And so generic action steps – however impressive the list, however well organised – are left impotent. They tell us nothing about how to teach different subjects. Nothing about how to develop disciplinary-specific ways of knowing. Nothing about how to get better as a history teacher.

You can’t action step your way to effective history teaching. 

The differences in modelling, or resourcing, or explaining in history and science are so great – so fundamental – that starting from the same point, the same action step, is pointless. Unhelpful. Perhaps damaging.

It’s not that the step needs to be applied to some subject content.

The step needs to end up in a subject-specific place that is so far from its original, generic phrasing, that it’s almost impossible to move from one to the other.

And even if it were possible, why do it? Why make teachers and coaches go to the effort of reforming generic steps for their subject?

This is the trickiest (and riskiest) bit of using generic action steps: contextualising them in a subject. So let’s avoid making time-poor teachers do it. Let’s avoid a process that can lead to generic techniques being applied in problematic ways. 

Instead, let’s start with subject-specific approaches to teaching. Subject-specific literature. Subject-specific CPD. Subject-specific teacher educators.

Because otherwise, we’ll action step our way to nowhere.


It’s possible that generic action steps are useful for some aspects of ‘running’ a classroom e.g. helping a teacher improve the way resources are handed out, the way generic instructions are given, or the way questions are asked to encourage as many pupils to be thinking as possible. But these are all about ‘running’ a room. They are not ‘teaching’. They might be necessary for teaching to happen. But they are not teaching.


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