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What might a knowledge-rich ‘humanities’ curriculum look like in the primary school?

Written by: Robbie Burns
6 min read

When curriculum is focused on knowledge that takes students beyond their everyday experience, it has the potential to contribute to an increase in social mobility and higher educational outcomes (Young et al., 2014). Acknowledging these claims, Ofsted’s new Inspection Framework (2019) is attempting to measure the intent and implementation of the curriculums of schools across the country, in the hope of forming a broader quality of education judgment.

With this in mind, I discuss the basis and benefits of a subject-based approach to the humanities (which I narrowly define as history and geography).

A starting point for curriculum intent: Substantive and disciplinary knowledge

Phase 3 of Ofsted’s (2019) research on curriculum outlined some of the key findings of their statistical model. The 25 indicators of curriculum quality could all be linked to two main underpinning factors: ‘intent’ and ‘implementation’. The intent is concerned with the setting out of curricular aims, purposes and knowledge.

Counsell (2018) provides a helpful distinction between ‘substantive’ and ‘disciplinary’ knowledge within subjects. Substantive knowledge is presented as given facts. In the classroom, teachers teach these as established truths that their students should know. These might be key dates in history or map features in geography. Each piece of substantive knowledge should build on the next, which will then later produce understanding. ‘Substantive’ knowledge, then, could be seen as a core place to start in a planning progression model. However, if we finish our curriculum development with substantive knowledge, we might miss important questions about what knowledge will have the most impact on our students’ outcomes, how each piece of knowledge will connect to the rest and, most importantly, how this knowledge will help students who study it to appreciate the subject as a coherent narrative (Counsell, 2018). We must embed the substantive in the disciplinary to more fully realise the interplay of the curriculum intent and implementation.

Disciplinary knowledge is possibly more difficult to define. It is a term attempting to describe what students learn about the overarching development and narrative of a subject and how knowledge has been established within it. As Counsell (2018) states: ‘… it is that part of a subject where students understand each discipline as a tradition of enquiry with its own distinctive pursuit of truth’ (p. 7). In addition, it is the concepts that help the subject as a whole fit together. These sorts of aspects of a subject contribute to students understanding how reliable claims can be made within each subject, asking excellent questions that open up more learning, and understanding what it means to be a ‘historian’ or a ‘geographer’. When students develop their understanding of what it means to be a ‘historian’ through disciplinary knowledge, they can begin to appreciate the breadth of the subject.

This distinction helps us carefully consider the knowledge our students ought to remember and recall. It also aids us in our reflection on the sorts of questions, responses, ideas and concepts that our students will understand if they have truly mastered the subject. To assess our students as confident historians or geographers if they only have a good memory of the substantive knowledge of a topic would be inaccurate – they must demonstrate an ability to enquire thoughtfully about what they have learned. One key way to go beyond just learning facts might be to plan lessons around enquiry questions rather than learning objectives. For example, instead of a learning objective of ‘To understand Roman life’, we could begin our history lessons with ‘What can our sources tell us about what Roman life was like?’. This focuses students on their thinking based on the knowledge that they are gaining in the lesson, rather than only on the ‘inflexible knowledge’ (Willingham, 2002) they might gain from merely memorising the facts of a lesson on Roman life.

The two train tracks and the intent of humanities: A subject-based approach

Before I discuss their differences, there are two strands that tie history and geography together under the umbrella of humanities that are worth noting. First is their intent (purposes and aims). Both subjects seek to understand humanity in the past and in the present and why we are who we are today; both seek to understand the relationships that people and groups have with each other and the earth; both seek to glean from evidence, whether textual or observational, what it means to be a human. Secondly, by nature, the knowledge of these subjects implies spatio-temporal constraints (Scott, 2014). History studies humans under the constraints of time, whereas geography seeks understanding of the space that humans inhabit.

Yet while there is unity of both subjects, there are also clear distinctions. The aims of a history curriculum in the primary school should be to enable learners to understand their past – their country’s and the world’s past (Wrenn, 2007). ‘Understanding’ in this sense refers to knowing this ‘past’ and being able to make observations and judgments about it – this is the essence of the disciplinary knowledge of history. For children under the age of 11, limited in experience, this is difficult but not impossible. Skilful primary history teachers help learners to appreciate chronology, change and other related concepts that push them beyond their years throughout their time in the primary school (Lomas, 2017).

The geography curriculum in the primary school should aim towards helping students to understand the space in which they inhabit as humans and the wider ‘world’ around them. A good geography curriculum should not only help learners understand the relationships they have with the earth but it should also enable students to gain a deep understanding of how the earth has changed and what we can do about it today – this is the disciplinary knowledge that is best gained through studying geography as a subject, rather than a theme or topic (Roberts, 2013).

Teach these subjects through a thematic or topic-based curriculum risks undermining the intent and purposes that both subjects embody, and neglecting both of their distinct disciplinary knowledge bases. Like two parallel train tracks, these subjects move in the same direction, yet both reveal something different about the world around us. At times, these ‘tracks’ might cross over and share substantive knowledge. But in essence, they have different disciplinary traditions. If we are to honour these things through our teaching, we ought to study them separately, under the umbrella of humanities.

Pedagogical benefits of a subject-based humanities curriculum

Beyond the claim of humanities being more knowledge-rich when studied as history and geography, there are also pedagogical benefits.

1. Better curriculum coverage and coherence

When a school humanities curriculum uses the National Curriculum (NC) objectives for history and geography as its platform, rather than its aim, the overarching story of history can be developed through cross-phase planning, making sure that children are learning in a progressively sequenced way. Coherence, organising content into well-sequenced orders, can be difficult to achieve when tied to themes or topics, since they may be interpreted in a variety of ways (Schmidt and Prawat, 2006). Being explicit with children that they are learning ‘geography’ might also make it easier for them to see how the content fits into the bigger picture of the subject.

2. A subject-based humanities curriculum supports high-quality teaching

With the NC as the platform and coherence as an aim, there is scope for learning to be systematically developed over time. When NC objectives are mapped out and taught sequentially, assessing learning within the humanities subjects becomes a far simpler task. Aligning this with knowledge organisers that carefully outline the substantive knowledge that needs to be learned can help to make assessments more accurate, more so than in one unit of work (Myatt, 2018).


Counsell C (2018) Taking curriculum seriously. Impact 4: 6–9.

Lomas T (2017) Coherence in primary history: What is it and how can it be achieved? Primary History 76: 8–13.

Myatt M (2018) The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence. Woodbridge: John Catt.

Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: Overview of research. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2019).

Roberts M (2013) Geography through Enquiry: Approaches to Teaching and Learning in the Secondary School. Sheffield: Geographical Association.

Schmidt W and Prawat R (2006) Curriculum coherence and national control of education: Issue or non-issue? Journal of Curriculum Studies 38(6): 641–658.

Scott D (2014) Knowledge and the curriculum. Curriculum Journal 25(1): 14–28.

Willingham D (2002) Ask the Cognitive Scientist. Inflexible knowledge: The first step to expertise. American Educator Winter 2002. Available at (accessed 29 March 2019).

Wrenn A (2007) Effective primary history teaching, challenges and opportunities. Primary History (Spring 2007): 34–35.

Young M, Lambert D, Roberts C et al. (2014) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury.

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