Innovations in the History Curriculum

Briefing Pack

By Melanie Jones, published 3rd September 2009


Project based learning has been around for decades; it is not a new idea. When we think back to the curriculum of the 1970s and early 80s, integrated Humanities was once again all the rage. As the Nuffield review of 2008 highlights "between 1975 and 1983, HMI tried to create an entitlement curriculum based on 9 areas of learning and experience within which the traditional subjects could be integrated." This is not dissimilar from current thinking, although the QCA emphasises topics and skills rather than subjects.

However, project-based learning has its real niche in the United States. One can also see this in the endless list of websites concerning project based learning (PBL) that are produced from the United States on a simple Google search. It seems that the lead for PBL certainly came from the United States as head-teachers were sent there on fact-finding visits back in 2005 when this current wave was all in its very early stages.

So why are we doing this here when it did not work before? Good question. The answer is not clear, but for some could be tied up in a number of political factors. The BSF programme being one. These schools of the future are state of the art buildings with facilities that have the wow factor. If you have state of the art buildings with excellent equipment, you need excellent use of these, which is the ideology of pupils working on cross-curricular themes, being able to present work through a variety of mediums. If you have a large space with computers, a lecture theatre, artists sinks and floor space for drama - why not use them? This would also clearly fit in with the ECM agenda and exploit opportunities for the PLTS. Project based learning can also be a valuable tool in saving curriculum time for schools now that they face even more pressure on the timetable with the increase in vocational education. This may seem a rather cynical view and project based learning can be very good when done well, although we as Historians need to ask ourselves - where does this leave our subject?

Resolutions for HODs.

There is much to discuss in any move to pool the Humanities subjects. We have to ask ourselves why are we doing this? How full a commitment are we prepared to make? Below are just a few considerations that ought to be made.

  • What benefit will this have for pupils?
  • Will there be any loss of curriculum time for History?
  • How will project topics be taught? Who will decide these?
  • Will this run as a smaller project for one term or the whole year?
  • If we are not prepared to go for project-based learning for the whole of the school year, for a whole key-stage, why are we paying it lip service? Should it be an all or nothing approach? Or should we test the water first?
  • If we go for a limited approach, what are our goals?
  • How will the History be assessed? What about NC levels?
  • How will the success of the venture be measured?
  • How will parents respond?
  • How will facilities cope with this? Do we have the facilities to do this effectively?
  • How much planning time will be allowed before implementation?
  • Who will teach it?
  • How can the History element be taught as well by a non-specialist when a specialist could teach it far more effectively?
  • What effect will this have on GCSE up-take and success levels?
  • What benefit will it have for the school? What is the school's rationale to this approach?

Arguments for Project Based Learning...

Below is a short summary of what Stephen Murtagh representing QCA was saying at the end of 2008.

 Project Based Learning would: "Develop a modern, world-class curriculum that will inspire and challenge all learners and prepare them for the future"

An effective curriculum would "enable all pupils to feel that they are gifted and talented."

So, why do this?.....

  • To develop a more rounded education
  • A possible continuation from primary education, especially in the wake of the Rose Review. We do not know yet what impact the review will have in terms of primary history teaching, but if the Rose Review recommendations are taken on board, a similar integrated approach may be adopted at primary level.
  • To develop cross-curricular skill set. This will enable pupils to transfer skills more effectively. A good preparation for life.
  • To deliver PLTS
  • A more personalised approach to fit with the ECM agenda. The idea here would be that pupils learn the Humanities through projects that are more skills driven. It may also mean that the content is hand-picked to cater for the socio-economic and geographical needs of pupils in the school cohort. A chance to link learning to life.
  • In order to develop a curriculum that is more localised and one which takes account of local history.
  • To develop a more relevant and up to date curriculum that fits in with pupil interests today.
  • An easily justifiable way of departing from the constraints of the National Curriculum
  • To create more confident, independent learners
  • To create better citizens by inclusion of more relevant, up to date issues and skills
  • To develop a more flexible curriculum with less prescription - therefore offering student choice. Well-educated pupils are socially, personally and emotionally intelligent, know what knowledge they need and how to acquire and use it in various contexts.
  • To fit with the possible new Diploma based proposals for 14 - 19 year olds. This project is still in its early stages and as yet we still do not know whether the Humanities Diploma will survive. It may yet be affected by several factors, including a possible change in government. However, assuming that the Humanities Diploma does become a reality, teaching pupils the Humanities in a skill/themes led, integrated way could provide excellent preparation for the demands of a Diploma.

Arguments against....

  • Similar strategies have been tried in the past and abandoned.
  • History already delivers many of the PLTS - project based learning will not affect this.
  • Subjects and the skills that go with them are best taught by specialists who have studied them.
  • Project based learning will fail some pupils. PBL places greater emphasis on the pupil. Some pupils will not cope well with this.
  • Well taught History is exciting, relevant and fun! It already facilitates the production of confident learners who are able to critically evaluate. It develops several essential skills.
  • History needs to have a place on the curriculum. It helps us to understand the world that we live in today.
  • Pupils need to have a chronological understanding of History. Content is just as important as skills. Project based learning done badly will give pupils snapshots of small pieces of History that they find difficult to piece together into the bigger picture. This will create a generation of people who do not understand why the world today is the way it is.
  • There is no national strategy or model for this. How will we know that we are delivering a better Humanities education than we already do?
  • It will be very difficult to assess the subject effectively without careful planning and guidance.
  • History is one of the most popular GCSE choices already, why the need for change?
  • How do we know that this approach will improve results for pupils? There is no solid evidence that this will be the case.
  • Project based learning can only be effective if the facilities can support it.

Where Can I Find Out More?

Below is a list of useful web-links that can provide information.


AutoDesk Foundation (article written in 2000, but provides some help)

NCSL Leadership (contains advice on organising/leading curriculum innovation)

Nuffield 1 (for issues paper on 14 - 19 Humanities curriculum)

Nuffield 2 (for creating aims led curriculum)

Nuffield 3 (for final report)

Teacher Net (for 2008 Ofsted report on curriculum innovation. Can provide answers to several questions.)

It is also worth running a Google search on project based learning as there are very few British sites that offer models and yet there are several American sites that offer handbooks, advice, resources and ideas. Obviously these have to be used with caution as they are tailored towards the American system, but they can provide a useful starting point for ideas.

Please also see our complimentary briefing pack entitled "How Project Based Learning Can Work in the History Classroom" which will be available soon.


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