Teaching History 177: Out now

The HA's journal for secondary history teachers

By Katharine Burn, Rachel Foster, Christine Counsell, Tony McConnell (Editors), published 16th December 2019

Read Teaching History 177

Building Knowledge

As regular readers will know, the theme for each issue of Teaching History is usually determined in response to the range of proposals that the editors receive. Given the current focus within the education system in England on how knowledge is built cumulatively over time, and given continuing debates about what knowledge matters most to young people, it is unsurprising that ‘knowledge’ should feature in the title for the second time in two years. As editors grouping the proposals together, our interest was not simply in the development of pupils’ knowledge, but also in the ways in which teachers’ knowledge is constructed, strengthened and renewed. Several contributors were interested in how those responsible for curriculum design and planning, as well as for effective implementation, could establish and sustain the rich and resonant knowledge of the past needed for each stage of the planning and teaching process.

History teachers have long acknowledged the importance of sustaining history teachers’ relationships with the disciplinary community from whose authority we derive the knowledge that we teach. Some 25 years ago, the Canadian history educator Peter Seixas examined the nature of the relationship between two different ‘communities of inquiry’: that of academic or scholarly historians, and that of pupils within the history classroom.1 Teachers, he argued, play a crucial role in providing a bridge between the two if we are to avoid the twin risks that arise when historical knowledge, recognised within the academic community to be a ‘provisional, dynamic, ongoing conversation’, is taken into the classroom. The first risk is that recognising the provisional nature of historical knowledge and encouraging our pupils to join the debate will result in ‘the warranting of belief by a community of the incompetent’. The second risk – at the other extreme – is that the ‘products of historians’ work will be transformed into authoritative “facts” to be transmitted’ to pupils.2 In seeking to navigate between ‘the Scylla of dead knowledge and the Charybdis of relativistic ignorance’, Seixas insisted that teachers do more than transmit knowledge: they ‘construct the experience and knowledge of others into a form that is meaningful’ to their pupils. In order to do so, history teachers need to be well connected to the scholarly community.3 Without that link, they are more likely to present inert information than to engage pupils in tackling historical problems. Those who sustain productive forms of interaction can see, and make clear to their pupils, the ways in which historians’ questions and interpretations respond to current concerns.

A focus on developing and renewing teacher knowledge thus takes us very quickly to the ways in which teachers build bridges between the community of enquiry in their own classroom and that of academic historians. As several articles in this issue demonstrate, it is not simply the historians’ knowledge of the past that teachers seek to convey to their pupils. It is also knowledge of how particular historians’ claims have been constructed: the kinds of questions that the historians asked, the reasons behind those questions and the means used to answer them. David Hibbert and Zaiba Patel were fortunate enough to be able to interview Yasmin Khan, an historian of British India, about precisely those issues. They used video recording to bring her questions and methods into the classroom, alongside some of her sources and conclusions about The Raj at War. Their article illustrates how construction of this particular interpretations enquiry, intended to equip young people to interrogate popular British mythologising about the Second World War, also informed their long-term sequencing of substantive and disciplinary knowledge.

As a trainee teacher just getting to grips with the process of planning a sustained historical enquiry, Barbara Trapani was asked, quite deliberately by her tutors, to find a way of bringing historians’ work into the classroom. She too made direct contact with the historian whose work inspired her, using a letter from Susan Whitfield to her pupils alongside extracts from Whitfield’s accounts of different individuals’ lives along the Silk Road and of the processes by which she had constructed them. Trapani’s article illustrates the power of individual stories to engage pupils and the way in which using objects as sources can effectively build pupils’ knowledge of the process of evidential thinking.

Working at the Mary Rose Museum, Clare Barnes is well placed to demonstrate how the use of objects and other physical remains (including the skeletons of 92 crew members) can transform our knowledge of the past. She explains how the museum’s Learning Department use artefacts and written sources alongside competing theories advanced over time to build historical enquiries that exploit pupils’ fascination with the causes of the ship’s sinking to develop their knowledge of the enquiry process itself. While Robin Conway’s ‘Cunning Plan for teaching about life in Elizabethan England by looking at death’ relies on a much narrower range of written sources – specifically court records – it too demonstrates how engagement with on-going historical research can re-shape teachers’ curricular planning and the ways in which they build on pupils’ prior knowledge.

Conway’s encounter with the work of historians Steven Gunn and Tomasz Gromelski occurred within a local network of history teachers. Such networks are central to the work of Kate Hawkey and Helen Snelson, who each set up a local group for recently qualified teachers, intended to provide inspiration, professional learning and a strong sense of community in tackling common challenges. Their article explains how the groups worked and what they achieved, offering models that may inspire others to build such networks, promoting not just teacher retention, but engagement, excitement and growth.

The strength derived from building professional knowledge together is also powerfully demonstrated by Abdul Mohamud and Robin Whitburn’s article, setting out their understanding of the fundamental characteristics of an effective historical enquiry question. They draw on three of their own enquiries, developed as directors of Justice to History, but also explain how their thinking builds on foundations established by others, pointing to seven inspirational articles published in Teaching History over the past 20 years.


1. Seixas, P. (1993) ‘The community of inquiry as a basis for knowledge and learning: the case of history’ in American Educational Research Journal, 30, no. 2, pp. 305–324.
2. Ibid., p. 310.
3. Ibid., p. 317.