Te Kete Ipurangi Navigation:

Te Kete Ipurangi

Te Kete Ipurangi user options:

Senior Secondary navigation


You are here:

Develop your students’ conceptual understandings

Students of history engage with concepts in two main ways:

  • as an intrinsic element of the discipline – for example, higher-level concepts such as significance, continuity and change, cause and effect, and perspective
  • as an idea or theme illuminated by the context – for example, more applied concepts such as sovereignty, reform, colonisation, and dispossession (in New Zealand) or conflict, religious intolerance, and power (during the Crusades).

An essential aspect of developing conceptual understandings (the key competency thinking) is learning how to express them (using language, symbols, and texts).

Clarify concepts

Your students need concepts to be carefully defined. They also need opportunities to discuss and apply each concept.

Their understanding of historical concepts deepens as their increasing historical knowledge gives them more opportunity for critical analysis and reflection.

Acquiring understanding of key historical concepts enables students to:

  • move from the specific to the general
  • perceive with increasing clarity the wider issues behind the detail
  • make connections across time and place and between past and present.

What the research on concepts shows

  • Students begin forming historical concepts when they start studying history.
  • The kind of teaching students receive affects their understanding of concepts and their confidence in applying them.
  • Students construct historical meaning around concepts. The fuller their working knowledge of the concepts they are dealing with, the deeper their understanding.

Model and encourage subject-specific language

Your students need ongoing opportunities to acquire and apply the language or vocabulary that will enable them to convey historical ideas and historical concepts.

What is the language of history?

Chris Husbands, in What Is History Teaching? Language, Ideas, and Meaning in Learning about the Past (Open University Press, 1996), identifies four aspects of language used by the discipline of history that students should be exposed to:

  • the language of historical time (era, century, decade, period, medieval, modern, and so on)
  • the language of the past; specialist terminology (sexton, patron, journeyman, swagman, squatter, suffragist, puritan, and so on); and shifting language (republican, orders, classes, radical, innovator, and so on)
  • the language of historical description and analysis (revolution, democracy, monarchy, nationalism, identity, economic depression, inflation, and so on)
  • the language of historical processes (change, continuity, cause, effect, similarity, difference, and so on).

Help your students learn subject-specific language

Incorporate as many opportunities as possible into the history programme for students to articulate, discuss, test, and apply relevant concepts. The tasks need not be complex.

Tasks could be based on concept maps, cards, or charts identifying similarities and differences. See also page 44 of Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9–13: A Guide for Teachers (Ministry of Education, 2004) for suggestions on using concept circles.

For example, as a pair or group activity, give students a set of cards, each of which states a single concept. Ask them to match these concept cards to further sets of cards containing either definitions or descriptions of contexts and events that have already been studied. To encourage students to transfer their knowledge, expand the contexts and events cards to include examples studied in previous levels or current national and world events. (See also Hunt, 2000, page 50)

Further activities for teaching the language of a subject can be found in chapter 2 of Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9–13: A Guide for Teachers (Ministry of Education, 2004).

Readings on concepts

Relevant research can be found in:

  • Drake, Frederick D., and Nelson, Lynn R. (2009). Engagement in teaching history: Theory and practices for middle and secondary teachers (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Merrill/Pearson Prentice.
  • Hunt, Martin (2000). ‘Teaching historical significance’, in James Arthur and Robert Phillips (eds), Issues in history teaching. London: Routledge.
  • Hunter, P., and Farthing, B. (2007). ‘Connecting learners with their pasts as a way into history’. Research Information for Teachers, 1, 21–27.
  • Hunter, P., and Farthing, B. (2008). ‘Students think history and teachers learn’. Research Information for Teachers, 1, 15–22.
  • Husbands, Chris (1996). What is history teaching? Language, ideas, and meaning in learning about the past. Buckingham, Philadelphia: Open University Press.
  • Wineburg, Samuel S. (2001). Historical thinking and other unnatural acts: Charting the future of teaching the past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Last updated July 22, 2010