Primary Humanities: Inclusion, Joy and Challenge For All

In nearly all primary schools, teachers strive to create engaging and challenging lessons in the humanities. Most ensure that National Curriculum topics are covered. It is common for teachers to think about different types of diversity, to make connections with pupils’ own lives and to introduce challenging vocabulary.

These are worthy goals, but they are not enough.

Around the country, we find Year 6 pupils unable to read a rich page of prose, fluently, because they are stuck on such basic historical vocabulary as ‘precious’, ‘Arabic’, ‘amber’, ‘government’, ‘merchant’, ‘Constantinople’, ‘treaty’, ‘taxation’, ‘monument’, ‘heritage’, ‘law code’ or ‘descendant’.

Many pupils are unable to write fluently about interactions between rivers, land and people, using words such as ‘estuary’, ‘deposition’, ‘erosion’, ‘meander’, ‘irrigation’ and ‘reservoir’.

Some, even in Year 6, are confused about when Islam, Judaism and Christianity began, where they spread and how the stories of these three Abrahamic faiths converge and diverge.

They’ve been studying history, geography and RE for seven years, and yet these basics are beyond them.

Something’s not going right. But it is possible to sort this out.

Here are three key tips for getting it right:

Let subject-sensitivity drive your overall coherence.

Don’t leap from ancient Egyptians to Anglo-Saxons or Victorians. Enable pupils to get a sense of how the ancient world fitted together. When pupils know about the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Sumerians, and they know they developed at the same time in strikingly similar and fascinatingly different ways, you double the value of both topics. They can then proceed into the Indus Valley Civilisation with properly informed questions about beliefs, government, art and society in the world’s earliest civilisations.

Specify the vocabulary for each unit and teach it thoroughly

A curriculum is a set of promises to future teachers of the same children. When a well-planned curriculum is in play, the Year 5 teacher teaching about migration is confident that they do not need to re-teach the words ‘border’, ‘boundary’, ‘migrate’ or ‘push/pull factors’. These words were taught so thoroughly in Year 4 (or earlier) that the pupils read them fluently, leaving memory space for new vocabulary and challenging geographical thinking.

Sequence your topics so that one thing prepares for another.

Whether locational frameworks in geography, a description of a new dynasty in history or traditional stories told in RE, each topic does a job in providing access to a later one. When you have taught the story of Rama and Sita, of Matsya the fish and of Arjuna and Krishna arguing on the battlefield, a whole mental world of Hindu beliefs and values has been created in the pupil’s mind. When pupils then move on to study another Hindu god, or another dharmic faith, they do so armed with rich mental models that accelerate access.

There is no need for pupils to be left out of a classroom conversation, a challenging new text or an intriguing problem to solve. Common knowledge is a fresh way of thinking about inclusion. When we assure an entitlement to rich common knowledge we allow reading, writing, debate and argument to fly.

Christine Counsell, is working with SAfE to support schools across primary and secondary phases, as they develop their curriculum.

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