Cognitive psychology and my approach to teaching history this year

I have been mulling for some time all that I have learned so far about cognitive psychology and its application in the classroom, stimulated by my reading of Daniel Willingham’s ‘Why don’t students like school?’, Daisy Christodoulou’s ‘Making good progress?’, the Learning Scientists blog and Clare Sealy’s recent blog about teaching for long term memory. How would I incorporate these approaches into my own teaching of history this year? I already made a start on this thought process in my blog about my takeaways from Christodoulou’s book, but I struggled to make further progress into practical applications of the ideas.

This week I read Michael Fordham’s article in the latest issue of Teaching History, and suddenly a path was illuminated. Fordham articulated with his usual clarity many of the concepts I had come across already and pointed the way forward. I particularly liked his metaphor of the human brain as a reservoir and how

‘the means of getting information into the brain is a thin straw’

to describe the limitations of working memory. As part of my Schools Direct training, I am required to produce three ‘evidence bundles’ over different Key Stages, evidencing a learning strategy and its impact on the progress of my pupils. I have decided to use Fordham’s article as the starting point for my KS3 evidence bundle. Let me first summarise the key points I took away from the article.

Fordham highlights the importance of retaining knowledge in long term memory and quotes Kirschner, Sweller and Clark:

‘If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned’

Knowledge retention is not just important for pragmatic reasons such as exam success but also to support acquisition of further knowledge. We need to embed a whole range of historical knowledge, such as conceptual frameworks, narratives or famous quotes in the memory of our students.

‘Fluent access to a range of types of knowledge is what enables historians to participate in some of the more sophisticated forms of historical discourse.’

Long term memory is unlimited but limitations of working memory means there is a limit on how much we can learn at any one time. Novices find complex tasks difficult because working memory becomes overloaded (cognitive overload). Mastering complex activities requires that the basics have first been committed to long-term memory.

With this in mind, Fordham advocates seven approaches to teaching which encourage the creation of stronger memories. These are:

  • Retrieval practice
  • Spaced study
  • Interleaving
  • Dual coding
  • Elaboration
  • Concrete examples
  • The power of the story

All this ties in with my takeaways from Clare Sealy’s blog on teaching for long-term memory. Sealy talks about the retrieval effect – also known as the testing effect – where the process of trying to remember something actually helps you to learn it.

‘When we struggle to remember something, this primes our brain to remember it more easily the next time we look. The brain gets the message that this memory must be important because we are looking for it.  The more times we try and retrieve something, the stronger the memory gets.’

The last piece in this jigsaw is Christodoulou’s assertion that we need to break down the skill to be learned into its component parts and practise those components for mastery – what she calls the deliberate practice method. Very often, getting better at something does not involve actually doing that something until the very end, when mastery is reached in the component parts of that skill. This requires us to deconstruct the different elements that come together for a student to be able to understand a concept or demonstrate a skill. What are the necessary building blocks of knowledge that first need to be embedded before the student is able to understand the new skill or concept to be learned?

These then, are my starting points for the approach to my teaching of history to my year 7s and year 8s this year. But what does this all mean in practical terms?

My first challenge is to try to sequence and plan the curriculum while broadly keeping to the Scheme of Work I have been given by my department. How do I space and interleave without descending into chaos? One idea, floated by Fordham, is to space study through ‘scale switching’, moving from depth to overview, and then overview to depth. Having discussed this on edu-Twitter, I was also pointed towards articles by Dale Banham (TH 99), Rick Rogers (TH 133) and Ian Dawson (TH 130). I was persuaded by Dawson’s description of pupils emerging from KS3 with patchy knowledge and his claim that

‘there is little chance of pupils attaining a coherent big picture of the past when the topics they study have only the thread of chronological order to hold them together.’

While I need to space and interleave, I also need to build a thread or a powerful narrative to bring together all the different strands of knowledge being taught in year 7 and I can’t simply rely on chronology to do this. Two advantages to this approach could be to encourage pupils to think deeply about issues across the curriculum (remember ‘memory is the residue of thought’) and to make links across different topics (elaboration), all strategies that help with long-term memory retention.

In short, I need to sequence my curriculum so as to have an overarching thread which will help pupils make sense of it all, and avoid them getting a disjointed picture of the periods of history we will be studying. With a big underlying theme on which to hang the various topics that we cover, I will also be able to switch from overview to depth and vice versa, which will (I hope) afford plenty of opportunities for revisiting material, breaking it into different component parts and spacing the study so as to enhance retention. When planning lessons, I need to build in retrieval practice into the class routine (my preference is to have a recap quiz at the start of each lesson and to make sure that what is recapped is not just what was learned in the previous lesson but a big mix of content from many other lessons).

When explaining new concepts, I need to search for concrete examples to explain abstract concepts and powerful metaphors that will get the students thinking – and hopefully remembering. I remember just one thing from my history O level, which I took over 30 years ago. I recall in a lesson my teacher explaining to us that ‘Afghanistan is the Clapham Junction of the Middle East’ and I was so struck by that analogy that it has stayed with me to this day. For the really big concepts I want to teach, can I find similarly powerful analogies that will get my students thinking and remembering?

In terms of using dual coding, I want to ensure that, whenever appropriate, a mix of diagram and text is displayed to help bypass the constraints of working memory. I’ve already started using timelines – such as this one I did at the start of a unit on Tudor society, to help put ‘Tudor’ into a time context.

But I want to go beyond timelines and see where it is appropriate to use diagrams to help describe particular concepts I will be teaching. This means going through a checklist of my lesson materials and trying to identify bits that could be dual coded as well as bits that could link with other topics we have already learned. When switching from the depth to the overview, I hope to be able to help my students make links between the different topics we have studied in depth, and to help make the history more meaningful.

My starting point, as ever, is my department’s year 7 scheme of work, which I summarise below. It’s not as rich as I would like, but I only see my year 7s once a week, albeit for 70 minutes each time. The relatively long length of the lesson is, to my mind, all the more reason to try to break things up and mix things up a bit more.


What kind of overarching theme could link all these together into a cohesive story? My answer: power. With this theme in mind, I came up with the main enquiry question as follows:

Who has power and how does it change over time?

Beginning to get a sense of direction, I started to plan the overviews, my stopping points along the journey, where we could keep coming back to address the main question. I came up with the following stopping points:

  • Anglo-Saxon England
  • 1066 to 1215
  • 1215 to 1350
  • The Black Death and its aftermath
  • Ending with a snapshot of the modern day, and a comparison between power today and how it was where we leave our story at the end of the 14th This then sets them up nicely for the continuation of their journey in year 8, where they can continue looking at the changes in power structures that take place from the 16th century onwards.

Based on the above, I came up with the following plan. It’s the first time I’ve had to think of the medieval period through the prism of such an enquiry, and I’m a bit hazy on some of the details, so it could be that my assessment of the changes that happen is flawed. I would be happy to receive some feedback on this.


Now, I needed to plot the course of my teaching. I came up with this.

Start of our journey:

Introduce pupils to our main enquiry question. This is what we are going to be trying to answer all year long. Next, spoiler alert: tell the story in broad brushstrokes and show chronology of what we will cover on a timeline. Retrieval practice on chronology of events and open ended questions to test their retention of key parts of the story.

Overview 1:

Anglo-Saxon England – what made it attractive to the Normans? Who had power in Anglo-Saxon society? Examine the power of king, barons, church, freemen in towns/cities and the peasantry.

Depth: 1066: the year that changed England

We will examine the events of 1066 from 3 perspectives.

Perspective 1: Harold Hardraada – why did he decide to invade England and why did he not succeed?

Perspective 2: Harold Godwineson –  how did Harold come to be crowned king of England and why did he fail to keep his crown?

Perspective 3: William of Normandy  – how did he rise from being the bastard son of the duke of Normandy to king of England?

The Battle of Hastings: to what extent did Harold stand a chance of winning? Explore his odds both before and during the battle.

How did Harold die? Explore Bayeux Tapestry and other sources to investigate different interpretations.

Overview 2:

Who has power in England after 1066?

Examine the rebellions of 1066-1072 and how William exerts control over England, his use of castles and feudalism. What does the Doomsday Book tell us about the changes in English society over the 2 decades after the conquest? Link back to the previous overview and examine the changes that have taken place. What hasn’t changed?

Depth: conflict between king and Church

Why does the Church come into conflict with the king in 12th century England? How religious were people? Look at doom paintings, bestiaries and monasticism. Examine the power and influence of the Church.

Why was Thomas Becket murdered?

What were the consequences of his murder? Did it change the balance of power between Church and state?

Overview 3:

What were the responsibilities of English medieval monarchs and what problems did they face?

What were considered good qualities in a king?

Why were the barons, the Church and the king of France a threat?

Compare three kings (my first thoughts are William I, Henry I and Henry II) to see how close each of them was to the ideal medieval monarch.

Depth: King John and the Magna Carta

To what extent did king John fail to live up to his responsibilities as a medieval monarch?

Explore the traditional interpretation of King John (the story as everyone knows it). Investigate the evidence. Who wrote the accounts of John’s life and how far should we trust their interpretation?

Did John fail or was he just unlucky?

What is the significance of the Magna Carta?

Overview 4:

Who has power in England after 1215? What has changed and what hasn’t changed since our last stopping point after 1066.

Depth: The Black Death

How did the Black Death affect English society in the 14th century?

Where did it come from and how did it spread?

What were the symptoms?

What did people think caused the plague and how did they try to prevent or cure it?

What were the short and long term effects of the plague on society?

Why did the peasants revolt in 1381?

Overview 5:

Final overview. How has power changed from Anglo-Saxon times to the end of the 14th century? Compare with power structure in modern day Britain.

Final task: write an essay answering our main question.

So there we have it. Although I may not follow the scheme of work to the letter, I feel that I cover everything required and more perhaps. I have not included a big unit on ‘life in the middle ages’ despite the 6 weeks attached to it in the SoW, but I think our look at society through the question of power does investigate life in medieval England quite well. One further idea I’ve had is to prepare a big grid on an A3 sheet that can get folded three ways and stuck at the back of the pupils’ books. In the grid, I will put a column for each of our overview stopping points and rows for each sector of society. By filling out the grid at each stopping point, we can plot the changes for each social group. This will aid the students in their final essay task. It might look a little like this (though bigger of course).

Anglo-Saxon period 1066-1215 1215-1350 1350-1400 Today
Ordinary people


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