Going 1-9: Life without Levels

I greeted the removal of levels with great enthusiasm. The opportunity to have an assessment system fit for purpose seemed really exciting. However, I think this is already becoming a missed opportunity.

From Levels to Grades

Confused and desperate schools are opting for a 1-9 model. In some regards this has some logic. By choosing to go 1-9 progress towards GCSEs can easily be seen by observers. Each year we can see students moving up a grade each year and getting ever closer to their GCSE targets.

The problem with 1-9

The logic of 1-9 is ultimately overshadowed by the fact that this is not their purpose. The purpose of 1-9 grades is for an end of Key Stage 4 summative grade, taking into account the result of students’ scores in several skills and topics, as well as the dreaded ‘bell curve’. In this I can see history repeating itself. The purpose of National Curriculum Levels was always to give a best fit end of key stage level, taking into account students ability in a range of aspects of our subjects.

However, NC levels became warped into being used to grade individual assessments. For history, this was a disaster. Trying to break down and oversimplify student’s work. Ultimately history teachers came to take of a 4a as ‘describing’ and 5a as ‘explanation’. This was the height of genericism! Mark-schemes began to become massively oversimplified. The key concepts of history started to be treated as skills which were always the same. It didn’t matter if you were looking at the causes of William’s victory at Hasting or the causes of the first world war, students still needed to jump through the same hoops.

Having this removed seems to have been a huge culture shock for many teachers. As a result, as a profession we seem to be looking for something that does the same thing. For me we should take the opportunity to dream big (but that is a discussion for another time). Instead schools are trying to come up with general statements of what a Grade 3 is, and set that as the target for many Year 7 students. THAT IS NOT HOW GRADES WORK!

Let’s just think about the new AQA History GCSE. If we were to break down what we would expect from a student who was getting a Grade 3 overall, we wouldn’t be expecting much. Maybe a few very weak paragraphs. That is not what a Year 7 student who would be expected to go on to achieve a Grade 6 or 7 would be doing in Year 7. In all likelihood, they can write an essay, providing evidence and explanation. They can do more than would be expected of a Grade 3 student.

Does that mean they would get a Grade 5 if they sat their exam tomorrow? No! There is of course an element of age related expectation. Their writing and thinking lacks the sophistication of many older students. And that is why assessment is not a simple set of hoops to jump through.

The progress climbing frame

To steel a phrase progress is a climbing frame not a ladder. Progress is not linear a tidy. Progress looks very different in each subject and assessment models need to reflect this. There are different aspects, skills and knowledge in subjects which create variations in progress. 1-9 fails to capture this!

Who and what are we assessing for?

Ultimately this is the question that explains the motivations behind 1-9.

Broadly speaking the answer is as follows:

  • OFSTED – The logic seems to be that 1-9 is good for OFSTED. Schools can show OFSTED that they are progressing towards their GCSEs.
  • Senior leadership – Leaders can see patterns and weaknesses and plan interventions (apparently necessary).
  • Parents – Can see their children moving ever closer to GCSE success.

However, when it comes to who are for me the most important in this process, teachers and students, 1-9 falls short. For both teachers and students assessment needs to be diagnostic and formative. It needs to be about moving students on. I understand that there is a need for whole-school tracking and picking out trends. But there are better ways than 1-9. Furthermore, not only are ther better ways that 1-9 but 1-9 is a direct hindrance to formative assessment as it is not a model of students progress but is being forced to be one.


To bring my rant to a close, I really believe that 1-9 is not the way to go. However, many schools, including my own, are going down this root. Therefore, I have been racking my brains over how to accept this and develop a useful assessment model. Therefore I will post an article soon in which I will explain how we have tried to overcome these weaknesses in History.


Let’s not overemphasise the fingertip knowledge

Knowledge is back on Britain’s education agenda. Whether it is debating knowledge vs. skills or traditionalists vs. progressives. Talk about knowledge is all over twitter and blogs. I must admit a bias in favouring the reawakening of knowledge. But I do think that we need to make sure we are emphasising the knowledge which is most powerful.

This is a particularly prevalent concern for a history teacher. As I fear that in teaching substantive historical knowledge we may just come to teach a list of key ‘facts’ and dates. Facts and dates have a place in history education. This knowledge is what Christine Counsell has referred to as ‘fingertip knowledge’. That is to say this is the knowledge which students need in their minds, or at their fingertips, during historical enquiries. Without knowledge of historical events students would be incapable of constructing answers to historical questions.

For example, let’s look at that classic Year 7 History questions ‘Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?’ How possibly could students answer this questions without knowledge of events. Moreover, this enquiry would need to take place over several lessons, requiring students to retain that knowledge over several lessons. Therefore, knowledge needs to be taught and students need to retain this knowledge during their enquiry.

However, the retention of this knowledge is not the ultimate objective of the history classroom. Instead what we must value is what Counsell calls residual knowledge. This is the rich historical residue that is left behind after students have moved to another enquiry or area of study. This is what can help to develop a sense of period (perhaps I will explain the importance of this in another post) or develop understanding of substantive concepts.

If my students retain knowledge of key dates, people and events then great. If I can give them a quiz and they get questions right in Year 10, about topics they studied in Year 7, then brilliant. I use retrieval tasks and timelines from memory. But we have to be careful that we do not spend too much time focusing on dates, people and events. Instead our focus on knowledge needs to be focused on developing students’ conceptual knowledge.

For a long time second-order concepts have been the focus of history teachers pedagogy. This focus is absolutely correct, as second-order concepts provide the organising principles for history teachers. When we answer questions in history, then we focus on cause and consequence, change and continuity, interpretation and significance. It gives shape to students’ learning. This is vital. But we also need to think about substantive historical concepts.

Concepts such as democracy, kingship, empire or nation are what have been called substantive concepts. These have a changing nature based on their historical contexts. For example, ancient Athenian democracy is very different to modern liberal democracy. Yet, they are both democracies. That is a challenging idea for young history students. It takes a huge amount of knowledge about the past to develop an understanding of these concepts. Students need to have studied these concepts through different historical examples.

Furthermore, teachers need to help students manage the cognitive dissonance which is needed to grasp the at times conflicting nature of these concepts. For example, trying to understand the role of slavery in Athens and its role in developing democracy. Substantive concepts are complex and at times contradictory. History is at times messy and that is the challenge. As a result, some of the powerful discoverieswhich have been made about how students learn, need to be utilised.

Therefore, it is using residual knowledge to develop students’ knowledge of substantive concepts which should be teachers’ long-term focus. We need to use retrieval and interleaving to achieve this (another post needed to go into that too). It is through focusing on students’ mastery of these concepts that we can best prepare them for further historical study. By grasping the complexity of these concepts students’ will have the language and contextual understanding to grasp future study.

Focusing on substantive concepts requires students to engage with fingertip knowledge. But when we talk about making knowledge important in the history classroom we need to be careful. We have to be careful not to focus on pub quiz knowledge, which so many have criticised those who value knowledge for wanting. That is now what I think most people want from a knowledge curriculum. A knowledge rich history curriculum should therefore be focused on develop students’ conceptual understanding and sense of period.

Mastery in History: some initial reflections

In some ways mastery learning seems an unnecessary buzz word. Surely this is what all learning should be. Teachers teach content and once the students have learnt it we move on. When asked about prior content students shouldn’t have forgotten it. 
However, the term mastery learning seems necessary as it is so far removed from what is going on in most schools. Teachers jump from one topic to the next requiring very little mastery and retention of prior knowledge. 

For several reasons this seems counterintuitive. The idealist in me is critical of this idea as I believe that every student has the right to know the best that has been thought and said. Furthermore, being equipped with this will make them a better and happier person. 

The pragmatist in me says that being equipped with mastery knowledge of history is ultimately going to get them a better GCSE grade. Even if students are doing a GCSE in Germany 1919-45 they can still draw on prior learning from other topics, and in some cases it is essential. 

Let’s take the famous cartoon of the Big Three and the guillotine. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the French Revolution with know about the guillotine. However, when I showed this source to my first GCSE class they had no idea what a guillotine was and most thought that the source depicted a mirror. Therefore without knowledge from prior content they could not fully understand the current topic. 

Therefore I believe that in History we need to be moving towards a mastery approach to history. What would this look like in History? I’m still working that out. But at the moment I would say that mastery is history would require students to master topics and draw on prior content as they study new topics. This would put a specific focus on substantive concepts (as Fordham has outlined) and a strong chronological framework (involving a strong sense of periods and knowledge of key dates). 

There is much to be debated there and I don’t want to outline the exact details of the content which should be mastered (that should be left up to individual departments). Instead I want to focus on the tools of mastery. 

Enquiry Questions

Creating mastery learning in History is of course a challenge. History is such a vast subject. But armed with Fordham’s suggestions for well planned enquiry questions, questions can help us move closer to mastery in history. 

The enquiry question is the bread and butter of most good History teaching. Fordham is quick to emphasise that enquiry questions are not about discovery learning. Instead the enquiry question is a single overarching question which structures a sequence of lessons. 

Within an enquiry we can utilise enquiry questions to ensure that we are recalling information from prior lessons and designing activities which require the restructuring of information. 

Let’s take a series of lessons of the Norman conquest

1. Harrying of the North 

2. Castles

3. Feudal system

4. Domesday book

These lessons could be taught as individual lessons. Disconnected from each other and without an enquiry question. 

However, once we add in the enquiry question ‘how far did the Norman conquest change England’ then we have an enquiry which runs through each of these lessons and requires the retention of information from the previous lesson. 

Fordham adds outlines some great tools to use in individual lessons. Essential for me is requiring students to recall information at the start of lessons and reflecting on how new knowledge has changed their answer to the question at the end of the lesson. I also like to get students restructuring knowledge to answer the question in different ways (e.g. long and short term change and change to different aspects of society). 

Fordham also emphasises that the structure of a series of enquiry question and the switching of scale between overview and depth can require students to retrieve knowledge from earlier enquiries. This could also be used across years and key stages. Especially with students engagement with substantive concepts. Students could be drawing on their knowledge of medieval kingship to answer an enquiry about the Tudors. Therefore ensuring that prior knowledge is not abandoned and is being returned to regularly. 

Knowledge Retrieval Activities 

Mastery learning is ongoing. Even with well designed enquiries which require students to return to prior learning this may be too late.

 As soon as students learn something they are already forgetting it. Therefore if we are waiting a year between enquiries into the concept of revolution we may have to engage in more time recapping the peasant revolt before looking at the industrial revolution than would be ideal. So, how do we ensure students are retaining knowledge between enquiries. 

Bodil Isaksen has written a fantastic post about knowledge retrieval. A central point she makes is that getting knowledge into students’ long-term memory is not just last years teachers job. We cannot just teach medieval England then leave it behind in year 7 just hoping the knowledge will be their when we want to use it. We need to keep requiring students to engage with prior learning. 

But what do we want students to retrieve. Bodil proposes that we focus on the 20% which has the biggest effect. For History, again I would argue this would be substantive concepts. But I would also emphasise it’s a sense of period and some key ‘gateway date’ that help support students chronological framework. 

Here are some ways to do this in History (some from Bodil, some my own):

  • Knowledge organisers with one column blank
  • Timelines from memory
  • Cold call questions
  • MEMRISE HW tasks
  • Mini-whiteboards

If we keep using these kinds of activities to force students to recall knowledge then when they need content from prior topics to support their understanding of the current topic then they can draw on it in current topic. 

Checking Mastery

All of this is irrelevant if students have not first mastered the content. To do this we need to make sure at the end of every lesson we are checking students have mastered the content. I don’t want to say much on this as mastery of content in one lesson is what teachers already do. 
But I would like to outline one tool. Marking every book every lesson. It’s far quicker than it sounds. A quick check of an exit ticket and a differentiated activity at the start of the next lesson to make sure students have mastered the content. 

Used with other strategies it could be that simple. 

These are just a few thoughts and I would be really interested to hear what other thoughts are. 

But ultimately I don’t think any of this fully works unless History departments do it together. Sitting down and thinking about what they want students to master and when and how students are going to return to that content. 

Reading for History

I am a huge fan of essays. I like to use a variety of assessment in the teaching of history (newspaper articles, presentations, pamphlets, debates, ect.) but ultimately I believe that the humble essay is the ultimate arbiter of historical expression.

When it comes to my top set Year 9 class they do a great job. Their essays do all the things I want. They make an argument. They use evidence. Some of them even evaluate evidence and interpretations.

However, what they miss is more stylistic. They just don’t write like Historians. I know that it is a lot to ask from students at KS3 but it’s something I want to encourage.

But, how can this be developed? Well here I want to look at how I have recently tried using History articles to get students to understand how Historians write and get them to engage in some historiography.

Putting the reading in context

With my Year 9s we are currently doing an enquiry into ‘What was the most significant turning point in the Second World War?’ Initially we looked at the early stage of the war and Britain’s general lack of success. From this we then moved to our first ‘turning point’, the Battle of Britain.

In investigating the Battle of Britain I attempted to develop the class’ basic understanding of the Battle of Britain. We looked at different ideas around why Britain was able to ‘win’ and then whether this constituted a turning point.

Off the back of this I gave my students a journal article from History Today to read as homework. I asked them while reading this article to identify key arguments that it presented.

Identifying the core interpretations

On arriving to their lesson the following week the students brought their articles. Most of them had already done a good job reading these, bringing along highlighted and annotated articles. As is often the case some of my students had not read the article. Although following some passed experience with flipped learning I had anticipated this may be the case.

In order to draw out the key arguments of the article I asked each student to write on a post-it note the argument presented in the articles and stick these on the board. I gave the students a couple of minutes to talk about this first and read over their articles. This also gave those students who hadn’t done their homework time to catch up.


I then selected a few post-it notes and read these out. For each one I asked the class from some evidence used to support these arguments in the article. From this I hope to get students thinking about how the argument was being constructed.

At the end of this activity the class was able to identify the two main interpretations present in the article:

  1. The British were a lot stronger in the Battle of Britain than is often suggested.
  2. The ‘many’ civilians suffered significantly more than the ‘few’ of the RAF.

Reflecting on how Historians construct arguments

Anticipating these interpretations I placed the interpretation, that ‘the ‘many’ civilians suffered significantly more than the ‘few’ of the RAF’, on the board and got the students to discuss some questions related to this.


I deliberately designed these questions to be more like broad prompts for discussion than specific questions to be answered. As educated adults we find it very easy to hold free and open discussion with each other and construct our own scaffolds to do this. However, for our students it is often necessary for us to provide a scaffold. Nonetheless, to be true to the nature of scaffolding we need to ensure that scaffolding is being removed. Therefore here I wanted to just give the students some prompts for discussion.

This really created some debate from the class and allowed them the opportunity for some initial reflection on how Historians construct arguments.

The Main Activity

The main part of the lesson now involved the students reading the article again. However, I now wanted them to draw on some of their thinking and to structure their reading a little more.

For this I asked them to highlight their articles with three different coloured pens as Argument, Evidence and Evaluation.

Following this student feedback examples.


As you can see in the example above the students went through this reading very methodically. This was a big improvement on their initial notes in which they highlighted anything and everything.

Feedback Discussion

Finally building on the class’ feedback we had a discussion about the process. With this high ability group we were able to have some really interesting discussions about how Historians construct their arguments. We were also able to discuss how this article could be used in their own essays. The student’s suggestions ranged from using some of his evidence and statistics or evaluating the argument he proposes.

Next step…

I really enjoyed this lesson and was really impressed with the class. They worked very well on these tasks and seemed engaged by the ideas of interacting with the work of Historians. Although I have only used this with a top set group I believe that some of the same principle can be applied to all groups, although scaffolding being needed.

I would however say that the impact of setting the article as homework was limited, although it did give them a bit of time to reflect on it. However, after going through the process of reading the article with them I am hoping that in the next article I set them they will be able to put these principles into practice (I will let you know).

My next step is therefore going to be to give my students some more articles to read but remove the scaffold which I provided in this lesson. Ultimately this will build up to the students comparing two articles on D-Day.

My aim is that by reading these articles students will gain an insight into how Historians write, which will ultimately develop their own writing. Through a few other activities I also want to see my students using these articles and evaluating their arguments in their own essays.

Overall, then I think there is a lot we can do with getting more reading into the History classroom. In this there is some great opportunity for some cross-curricular cooperation with the English department. Following this lesson I paid a visit to one of my English colleagues to get an insight into how the English department gets students to engage with reading. Some great ideas have come from this and I have a few more ideas which I am sure will be part of some upcoming articles.

Thanks for reading and please let me know if you have some ideas.  


I have put these links together from various sources on the internet. These are designed to help Year 9 students answer the enquiry question ‘What was the most significant turning point in the Second World War?’

In answering this question students need to engage with the idea of ‘significance’ and ‘turning points’. They should also take a look at different interpretations presented in these articles and critically evaluate them to develop their own judgement.





Battle of Britain




Enigma and Bletchley park


Espionage and the Resistance movement




Pearl Harbour


War in the east









Hello world!

Welcome to Historioblography.

This is a website about history and history teaching, written by me Mr. Worker.

The idea behind this site has developed from the work I am currently undertaking as part of my MA in Education at The University of Nottingham. This work has endeavoured to build on academic research and on my own knowledge as a history teacher. Through this I am attempting to develop a model for the use of technology in history teaching.

Therefore with this aim in mind I hope to engage with the wider teaching community, sharing my ideas and reflecting on others’, as well as offering a platform for me to model historical methods for my students.

I hope that in reading my posts others can discover the value I have found in reading work developed by other historian writing. Thank you!