Trends in Researching School History


Chris Husbands, Alison Kitson and Anna Pendry, in their book “Understanding History Teaching” summarize the main trends in researching history teaching. They set out three broad strands; research into children’s understanding of history, research into the purposes of history teaching, and research into history teaching in the classroom. HE institutions will expect research to offer new insights and knowledge and so it is wise to be aware of the main trends in an area before choosing a question for large studies – to check whether you’re reproducing other people’s work (unless of course you’re testing someone else’s ideas or their results).

Researching Children’s Understanding of History

The early studies under this heading were heavily influenced by the Swiss educational psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget’s stage theory of cognative development suggested that children’s thinking moved in stages from concrete to formal operational through to abstract conceptualizations. This early work was therefore about identifying patterns in children’s thinking related to Piaget’s model. In the event, it was found that Piaget underestimated the ability of children to think in “stages” above those than they were supposed to be limited to.

In studies in the 1960’s and 1980’s Martin Booth argued that teaching influenced by Piaget was limiting the curriculum offered to and the historical development of students. Booth looked for activities and objectives, designed “in the light of an understanding of what history is” ([1]:32), that would help pupils in “genuine historical thinking”([2]:25) Booth’s research thus made a much less pessimistic assessment of the abilities of school historians and used this knowledge to construct classroom activities.

Another group of studies have concentrated on building models of progression in historical thinking about causation, empathy, evidence and methodology. Husbands, Kitson and Pendry argue that although this strand of work allowed the “articulation of a history-specific model of progression” it became harder to tease out “clear implications for teacher thinking and development” ([2]:32) as these studies moved away from models of progression set out like ladders, true for all individuals, towards studies of individual, contextual and cultural effects on such models.

According to Husbands, Kitson and Pendry there could be mileage in researching the relationship between the curriculum and the construction of classroom tasks, which has not received significant interest thus far. There might also be further interest in studies of the ways in which teachers use their understanding of children’s thinking about history in their own practice.

Researching the Purposes of School History

This is a much more philosophical and at times ferocious area of debate and research, where argument has centered around three broad schools of thought; those commentators who see history teaching as a method of transmitting a culture, national story or a body of knowledge; those who see history teaching as a method of socializing or civilizing students, and those who value history teaching “for its own sake”. Husbands, Kitson and Pendry rightly point out there is an “absence from the debate of the voices of history teachers themselves” and that the debate does not “engage with the lived professional practice of teachers”[2](33). This would seem therefore to be an area in which further studies, which do address this missing aspect, could be usefully carried out.

Researching the Teaching of History

Although there has been much research done on classroom teaching, very few studies have specifically “attempted to explore issues of classroom teaching in relation to history” ([2]:33). Such advice that is available is “frequently de-contextualized and over simplified” and “what remains unclear […] is the extent to which it relates to classroom practice” ([2]:33) One strand of research into teaching in the classroom concentrates on interactions between pupils and teachers, in the search for the building blocks of effective teaching, which can then be disseminated through policies designed to implement good teaching Cooper and MacIntyre). Other studies have tended to see teaching as a "highly skilled technical accomplishment, encompassing planning, management and assessment skills" ([2]: 35) and, instead of assessing a series of standard activities that produce "good history teaching" have investigated teaching as a decision making process [3].

There is a strand of research from the U.S. Which focusses on “pedagogical content knowledge”, ways of representing and formulating the subject that makes it comprehensible to others”. ([4]:9-10). The definition of "pedagogical content knowledge" used in the different studies has been wide, and has enabled teachers to consider the effects of subject matter, preconceptions of both teachers and learners, and the relationship between philosophies of history and history teaching.


  1. Booth, M (1987) Ages and concepts: a critique of the Piagetian approach to history teaching, in C Portal (ed.) The History Curriculum for Teachers Lewes: Falmer [Booth1987]
  2. Daniel Muijs, David Reynolds. Effective Teaching . Sage Publications Ltd. isbn:1412901650. [MuijsandReynolds]
  3. Shulman, L.S. (1986) Those who understand: knowledge growth in Teachin, Educational Researcher 15(2): 4-14 [Shulman1986]
  4. Chris Husbands, Alison Kitson and Anna Pendry. Understanding history teaching. Maidenhead; Open University Press, 2003. isbn:0335212727. [HusbandsKitsonPendry]

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