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Planning for Residual Knowledge

Last week my colleague Rob sent over an interesting document that got us both thinking. It was a plan of possible ‘takeaway’ knowledge about Medieval England that Ian Dawson had put together in Exploring and Teaching Medieval History. I put the document out on twitter and asked if similar things had been created for other time periods. Though the post garnered lots of interest, nobody could point me in the direction of similar documents (though this doesn’t negate their existence). This may not be too surprising given the privileged position of medieval History in many KS3 History curricula, and the wealth of misconceptions among both students and teachers. A breakdown of takeaway knowledge from an expert like Dawson is an invaluable resource that has likely been sought after for some time.

The document put together by Ian Dawson first appeared in Exploring and Teaching Medieval History. It is free to download here.

Beyond this, however, I – and I suspect others, too – was interested in the very specific way in which Dawson had thought about knowledge in a KS3 History curriculum. This was not a list of dates, events, battles, and conquests. It was not even a list of what should necessarily be taught to students (in a deliberate sense). Instead, it was the essence of what could be left behind once students have moved beyond the KS3 curriculum. The residual knowledge.

In previous years I have merely paid lip service to the idea that my curriculum can – and should – deliberately plan for this type of residual knowledge. I recall a member of SLT asking me a few years ago whether students left year 7 History with an understanding of Britain’s close relationship with the rest of Europe during the medieval era (the type of deep understanding of period that is invaluable for teachers looking to build upon existing frameworks of knowledge). I lazily gestured to the Norman conquest and mentioned something about Norman changes and we both left satisfied, assuming that this meant the job was done.

But this was fundamentally missing the point. Yes, my KS3 curriculum at that time ensured students encountered a range of events and a diverse mix of people. And yes, it had paid thoughtful attention to embedding and varying second-order concepts across units of work. But at no point could I say that students left truly understanding the character of the period. The sense of place. The appreciation of time and space. The rich tapestry of the past with all its nuances and interplays.

And in many ways it was this that was the undoing of students as they arrived at GCSE. Hours were spent re-teaching the intricacies of feudalism and the role of a monarch when classes began studying the Angevin Kings in year 10. Quite simply, I had spent too much time thinking about ‘big moments’ at KS3 without considering where and how they all fit together. In short, I had failed to consider what knowledge would be left behind at the end of it all.

The issue with this was not just that I would spent time reteaching various foundational ideas to my GCSE students (ideas that should have been secure after KS3), but that these ideas were, indeed, foundational. They were the building blocks that gave meaning to future learning. Christine Counsell has noted the significance of this type of residual knowledge in the past, suggesting that the type of longer-lasting substantive knowledge of period structures and characteristics (so absent among my students at the time) is what makes it “possible to recognise recurring features in future topics and to make links across topics.” In fact, according to Counsell, it is this type of knowledge that makes some subsequent historical learning “possible at all.”

Thus, years later (and in the context of significant curricular overhaul) the idea that we might deliberately plan for this type of residual knowledge is one that intrigues me. In many ways it is implicit in my current History curriculum and I have learnt from mistakes of the past. But what if we can do more?

Planning for residual knowledge

At a fundamental level I think lists like Dawson’s can be hugely beneficial for both History teachers and HoDs. They can help us move this residual, or takeaway (I will use both interchangeably), knowledge from implicit thought to deliberate action, and I will expand on this shortly. For now, however, let’s think about how exactly we may go about creating a list of takeaway knowledge for other time periods. According to Dawson, when identifying takeaways we can think of three categories.

  • Long-term developments and issues that underpin much Key Stage 3 History but may not always get the time and focus that’s needed to help students see their importance. E.g. population changes, urbanisation, climate, harvest-dependence etc.
  • Long-term ‘stories’ that students can follow across Key Stage 3 and which are usually represented in schemes of work, though not always in every period – E.g. social conditions, royal power, popular involvement in politics, beliefs and religion, migration, the development of empires etc.
  • Individual eventsthe Norman Conquest etc.

From my own experience, I know that a great deal of thought goes into planning for category 3 (Dawson also notes this). We can easily become obsessive over the planning of an individual depth enquiry, without really seeing its wider meaning in the curriculum. Clever, creative, historical enquiries are essential to what we do, but when left unconnected to the broader narratives of a curriculum they so often go to waste. Students learn a lot, but their learning happens in a vacuum. They lose sight of how and why this all connects to the rest of what they have learnt. And we lose the ability to call on this knowledge in subsequent months and years.

So when building a list of takeaway knowledge, it is the ideas in categories 1 and 2 that should interest us most. These are the deeper currents of historical meaning that allow us to make sense of a given time period. Based on Dawson’s 3 categories – and with a particular emphasis on categories 1 and 2 – I have attempted to put together a list of possible takeaway knowledge about the Early Modern period (with a focus on England). Like Dawson’s list, it is a list of some possible takeaways. It is not exhaustive, but is a useful starting point.

I am not an early modern specialist, and so this list may well be criticised, picked-apart, and revised at length by those more knowledgable. This is no bad thing and I would welcome feedback from teachers with a deeper understanding of the period. I do believe, however, the process of producing this list was valuable enough. My own misconceptions were identified, and fresh meaning was given to certain historical currents that had hitherto been absent in my curriculum.

Where to now?

This of course begs the question, what use is all of this other than in the world of abstract curriculum blogging. As a former HoD caught in the whirlwind of continual lesson design and curriculum re-development, the idea of stepping back and considering what knowledge would be left after a unit of work may have seemed not only daunting, but also low among my list of priorities. There was data to be entered, assessments to be written, and lessons to be planned!

The point is, however, that none of the above (and this would include, to an extent, the medium-term planning of enquiries) makes sense without a clear understanding of what it is that you want left over in a student’s mind after they finish a unit and move on. So creating lists like Dawson’s can – and should – be part of a critical curricular process. We can then think about using these lists from two angles. Let’s start with the HoD who has a curriculum in place, with no major need of curricular overhaul.

Firstly, thinking about residual knowledge can allow you to start asking the right questions of your existing curriculum. At a basic level, we can now ask how is this unit going to help build a deep and rich understanding of the past, and of period, among my students? It may immediately become apparent that existing units don’t allow for the type of substantive knowledge building that help students to ‘get’ certain aspects of the past. Their amendment becomes a priority.

Beyond this, we can also ask what role is this lesson or enquiry going to play in future months – or even years – of historical learning? We might begin to consider how this particular unit on The Reformation will help students (or not) get a sense of 16th century pan-European turbulence, and how this will help with framing new knowledge in later years. All of a sudden we can be far more deliberate in linking existing units of work into broader schema. I don’t think this happens without first thinking hard about the takeaway knowledge.

It may also be the case that examining your existing curriculum through the lens of residual knowledge might help you see the bigger picture (it certainly did for me!). At a planning level, I think the value of breadth units becomes apparent. Large (though not necessarily lengthy) overviews that operate thematically are given a greater status in the curriculum on account of their ability to knit things together. As Dawson says, it is these that give significance to the individual events and “meaning to their inclusion in schemes of work.”

So thinking hard about takeaway – or residual – knowledge allows us to interrogate an existing curriculum with greater scrutiny. It goes without saying that thinking in this manner also serves a critical purpose when planning a curriculum from scratch. The reasons for this are naturally linked to the ideas above. The deeper questioning afforded to individual enquiries and their broader purpose in the curriculum, the deliberate planning for knowledge-building in later years, and the criticality of breadth units. Within this, however, I think that starting with the takeaway knowledge helps us think harder about what to teach, when, and why.

In my own case, thinking hard about the type of residual knowledge that would be beneficial after teaching a series of enquiries on the Early Modern period brought into sharp relief the topics that would be of particular importance. Having never held any particular pride of place in my previous curriculum (an embarrassing fault), the Renaissance became practically essential. It is, after all, a story of people pushing the boundaries of conventional knowledge. Of innovation, new ideas and invention. It now seems essential that I include, for instance, a figure like Leonardo Da Vinci in my curriculum. Through his story, students begin to see the emergence of an era in which people questioned and probed. In which accepted ideas became challenged as people tried to figure out how the world worked.

That I can also tie this into previous learning about medieval Islam and the pursuit of knowledge only serves to reinforce its significance in my curriculum. I can situate known figures like Al-Kindi and Luther, and to-be-known figures like Erasmus Darwin in a wider framework of human enquiry and discovery. Again, I’m not sure I arrive at this point without first thinking about the takeaway knowledge.

Final thoughts

This has been a long post, so if you have made it this far then well done (and thank you!). I feel it is worth finishing, however, with an acknowledgement that this is but one component of curriculum design in History (this is not an exhaustive guide to building a History curriculum but a suggestion of one strategy that may help). Building a History curriculum is not easy. We are constantly faced with difficult choices about what does and doesn’t go in, more so than most other subjects. But by thinking hard about takeaway knowledge, I think the decision is made easier. We no longer privilege topics that are, for instance, things we are particularly interested in, have taught many times before, or simply don’t want to change. Instead, we focus on topics that build the depth of historical understanding that will ultimately be critical in future months and years.

Though they have been linked throughout, I would encourage you to read the original extract from Dawson, entitled, “What time does the tune start? Planning at Key Stage 3: Helping students see the bigger pictures of the Middle Ages.” Again, you can access it here. I would also encourage you to read this brilliant article by Elizabeth Carr and Christine Counsell on the power of timelines. You will note that much of what I have detailed above stems from Christine’s own classification of residual knowledge within this article. You can access it here.


Dawson, I. (2018). What Time Does the Tune Start? Planning at Key Stage 3: Helping students See the Bigger Pictures of the Middle Ages. Exploring and Teaching Medieval History, Spring 2018, 98-105.

Carr, E. and Counsell, C. (2014). Using Timelines in Assessment. Teaching History, No. 157, 54-62.


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