How can we teach disciplinary knowledge?

The ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum has been much discussed over recent years, and an increasing number of schools and departments have started to place a greater emphasis on the acquisition and retention of knowledge in their curriculum. The vast majority of this focus, however, has been directed towards substantive knowledge, the facts, dates, and formulae that we want our students to remember. Whilst this is an important step,  substantive knowledge alone does not render a curriculum ‘knowledge-rich’ – it is important that alongside this students are being exposed to disciplinary knowledge. 

Christine Counsell has described disciplinary knowledge as the ‘organising structures of the discipline‘, the unwritten rules that shape each discipline as as tradition of enquiry focused on its own unique quest for truth. In the case of History, it refers to how historians think about the very nature of causation, or change and continuity, the unwritten rules of how historians construct a claim, the acceptable standards of evidence versus speculation in historical argument, and the conventions of academic writing. It’s the tacit knowledge that makes an individual a subject expert, that which allows them to participate a discipline’s academic discourse.

In planning a curriculum, we should be seeking to introduce our students to this disciplinary knowledge, since it is fundamental to giving our students access to the conversations of our disciplines. Of course, introducing students to something so amorphous is no easy task. The challenge is made more difficult by the ever-present need to plan or update schemes of work, which tempts us into short-termism at the expense of thinking carefully about the long-term progression model of our curriculum. All too often, this leaves us hoping that students will simply ‘bump into’ knowledge about how to analyse a source, or write meaningfully about causation. The result is that students’ conceptual understanding develops haphazardly and inconsistently.

In the process of rethinking our curriculum, we decided that we wanted to think more pro-actively about the question of disciplinary knowledge, and how we can best go about teaching it. Although this is no straightforward task, we are lucky within the history subject community to have a rich tradition of thinking about precisely what this knowledge looks like. The basic foundations of disciplinary knowledge – those organising structures – are framed by our second-order concepts. The best history departments have long built their curricula around these using enquiry questions drawn from historical scholarship (Riley, 1998; Jenner, 2019). By putting these enquiry questions at the heart of what we do in History, we are able to sharpen our focus on the concepts that provide order and structure to the discipline of History itself.

Although we had been structuring our curriculum around such questions, we had definitely succumbed to the short-termism of the need to plan individual schemes of work, at the expense of the bigger picture of our curriculum. We therefore started to discuss how we might be able to make more systematic use of our enquiries in the long-term in order to develop our students disciplinary knowledge. We wanted to figure out whether we could more methodically plan for precisely how and when students encounter this kind of knowledge. If we could do this, we could ensure that by the time they have reached the end of Year 9, they are equipped with a basic toolkit that enables them to participate in the conversations of the discipline, regardless of whether or not they choose to take History at GCSE.

As a test case, we decided to think about how we might plan to develop our students knowledge of causation, an area that has been particularly well explored by practitioners over recent decades. The first thing we needed to figure out what disciplinary knowledge ‘looked like’, so that we could think about how to go about teaching it. What exactly was it that we wanted our students to know about causation?

The first thing to come to mind was James Woodcock’s article on the role of using precise causal language to improve students’ causal reasoning (2005). This quickly led us also to thinking about what our students needed to know to construct an argument – we wanted them to have experience of prioritising and grouping causes together thematically (or otherwise). We then thought about areas where our students had historically been quite weak, and quickly came upon the problems of counterfactual reasoning, as discussed by Arthur Chapman (2003) and Ellen Buxton (2010). Inevitability was a key concern too – we had already tried to deliberately introduce our students to complexities of the notion of ‘inevitability’, but we needed to think more carefully about when and how to do this. We therefore turned to Gary Howell’s work on teaching the First World War (1998) to shape our approach to this in Year 9.

After identifying a rough outline of what disciplinary knowledge we wanted to teach our students, the next step was to try to sequence this across our curriculum. To do this, we crafted a series of enquiry questions that would create opportunities for our students to encounter this kind of disciplinary knowledge. A few examples are below:

Time Unit Enquiry/lesson Disciplinary aim
Year 7 HT1 Ancient Rome Why did the Roman Empire collapse? Teacher modelling causal argument
Year 7 HT2 Anglo-Saxon England What led to the development of an English nation by 1042? Modelling of written causal argument
Year 7 HT4 The Crusades Why did Europeans go on Crusade? Considering diversity of motive, challenging generalisations
Year 8 HT1 The Reformation Why was there a Reformation in England? Prioritising causes
Year 8 HT3 Civil War and the Stuarts What was responsible for the rise of Parliament? Develop precise use of causal language in written/spoken argument
Year 8 HT6 Victorian England Why did Disraeli pass the Second Reform Act in 1867? Analyse the precise roles of causes in order to prioritise
Year 9 HT2 The First World War Was the First World War the inevitable consequence of the alliance system? Grapple with the concept of inevitability

In some ways this is little different to the curriculum we had before – our enquiry questions remain at the heart of historical thinking. The real change, however, was that we were being much more explicit in identifying  when and how to introduce students to new ways of thinking about causation, and precisely when to add an extra implement to their conceptual toolkit. The most significant improvement here was consistency – by explicitly incorporating how we want students to develop their disciplinary knowledge into the progression model of our curriculum, we hoped to ensure that all students would be gradually acquire it, rather than relying on chance.

Once we had done this with causation, we began to wonder about the other second-order concepts. We had felt on secure ground with the question of causation because it has been so well theorised by the subject community – but could we develop disciplinary knowledge in the same way with something as tricky as historical interpretations?

To try and do so, we went through the same process, referring back to the discourse of the subject community in an attempt to identify precisely what tools we wanted students to have. We then planned when and where we wanted our students to encounter this knowledge. A few examples for interpretations are below.

Time Unit Enquiry/lesson Disciplinary aim
Year 7 HT1 Ancient Rome Examining a statue of Boudicca Introduce the idea that events/individuals can be deliberately presented in a particular light
Year 7 HT4 Medieval Kingship Lesson on interpretations of Magna Carta Consider how interpretations can be different – one event can be viewed in different ways
Year 9 HT3 Second World War To what extent was Hitler an opportunist? Encounter multiple interpretations of the same event in order to critique them
Year 9 HT5 The Holocaust What role did ordinary men play in the Holocaust? Engagement with scholarship, considering why interpretations may differ

We were right to think that the disciplinary knowledge would come to hand less easily here – it’s much harder to identify specific components of our conceptual toolkit than it is when looking at causation. Nonetheless, we were still able to plot out the beginnings of a curricular narrative that can underpin the development of our students’ knowledge, and will help us to deliberately shape their progress in this area.

Of course, these plans aren’t perfect. They might not work at all. The cumulative nature of progression in disciplinary knowledge means we’ll almost certainly find numerous improvements that we could make to our sequencing. Moreover, we simply won’t be able to account for every way in which our students disciplinary knowledge – there will always be an extent to which its development lies beyond our control. But they do mark an important change in the way we are approaching the question of disciplinary knowledge. By focusing on the long-term, and trying to deliberately set out when and where our students encounter disciplinary knowledge as part of our curricular narrative, we hope to move away from a reliance on chance encounters, and ensure that we are more effectively inducting all of our students into the conversations of the discipline.


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