ASCL Guidance: Progression and Assessment in History

Download ASCL guidance paper: Progression and Assessment in History

This paper is suitable for school and subject leaders in England with responsibility for planning and delivering the history curriculum, and should be used in conjuction with ASCL’s Summary guidance to good practice in progression and assessment in history and ASCL’s Embedding a culture of professional development in history framework.

1 Overview

2 What is progress in historical understanding?

3 Developing a model for progress in historical understanding

4 What is the purpose of history?

5 How can progress in historical understanding be assessed most effectively?

6 The role of summative assessment

1  Overview

The National Curriculum levelling system was abolished in 2013. The period since then has seen a welcome shift towards putting a formative conception of assessment at the centre of classroom practice. A 'formative conception of assessment’ means, in this case, a major focus on the potential for assessment to be used formatively to help pupils, rather than to measure their attainment.

Planning for effective formative assessment in history requires addressing two major questions in turn:

  • What is progress in historical understanding?

  • How can progress in historical understanding be assessed most effectively?

The rationale for this is simple. Formative assessment means assessing what pupils currently know and understand, and using this information to help improve their understanding. It is therefore immediately obvious that formative assessment cannot be discussed without first considering the fundamental questions that lay behind it: what does it mean to 'know and understand’ in history? How do pupils make progress in their knowledge and understanding in history?

It is impossible to design a system or policy of formative assessment without a deep, shared understanding of what it is that is being assessed. These two topics get to the heart of history education. Therefore, to reform formative assessment within a department, a wholesale discussion of progress in history is needed. (For primary teachers, this may not be possible given the shortage of specialists and time constraints. Therefore, this document provides a summary of debates around progress in historical understanding and formative assessment to help guide your practice.)

2 What is progress in historical understanding?

No two teachers, professors or departments will ever arrive at exactly the same conclusion to this question. Debates about what it means to make progress in history, and what historical understanding is, have taken place for centuries, and there is still no consensus. It is consequently vital for each department to discuss, reflect, and arrive at its own conclusions.

Having said that, our understanding of progress in historical understanding has moved on profoundly as a result of these debates, and there is more agreement than might be imagined at first. This guidance acts as a primer to ideas on progress in historical understanding and links to further reading are included throughout.

Substantive and second-order understanding

Studying history requires both substantive understanding of historical concepts and second-order understanding of the procedural 'tools’ of the discipline which are used by historians.

Much of the extensive media coverage devoted to school history in recent years has viewed the recent curricular struggles through the tedious prism of 'skills versus knowledge’, with observers lining up to choose a particular side which is (usually) based on their political perspective. This debate is dispiriting for two reasons: it misrepresents a complex debate, and it ignores the degree of consensus achieved by educators in recent years.

Perhaps the most important product of all debate about historical understanding in recent decades has been the idea that it involves developing both substantive and second-order (procedural) knowledge and understanding.

  • Substantive knowledge refers to the substance of history: names, dates, places, events and concepts.

  • Substantive concepts are the concepts that we encounter in history, for example kingship, society, revolution, liberty, and feudalism. While they are specific and historically grounded, many have seen their meanings change over time, presenting an additional challenge in interpretation. Furthermore, the same concept may have vastly different meanings, for example, 'revolution’ could mean the Russian Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, while even a term like 'king’ has been applied to figures as diverse as William the Conqueror and Elvis Presley!

  • Second-order (procedural) knowledge is summarised by Stephane Levesque as understanding 'the conceptual tools needed for the study of the past as a discipline’. These tools capture what is at the heart of history as an academic discipline. If substantive concepts are concepts that we encounter in studying history, second-order concepts are concepts that help us organise the process of studying history.

Many different versions of key second-order concepts have been presented (see links below), but there is considerable overlap between these. Some of the most commonly-suggested concepts are:

  • causation and consequence

  • change and continuity

  • significance

  • historical interpretations1

  • similarity and difference

Commonly suggested disciplinary procedures include the use of evidence and the process of historical enquiry – devising and investigating questions about history.

Further reading

  1. The Historical Thinking Project – a Canadian project set up to uncover the concepts at the heart of 'historical thinking’ – has elaborated a useful scheme of historical concepts.

  2. The 2007 National Curriculum for history splits second-order concepts into 'key concepts’ and 'key processes’ and is one of the more insightful attempts at definition.

  3. Teaching History has a selection of 'article trails’ on key concepts such as significance (subscription required for all Teaching History resources, unless otherwise stated).

  4. Dutch researchers Jacques Haenen and Hubert Schrijnemakers have detailed the methods that they use to teach new substantive concepts to pupils.


The relationship between substantive and second-order understanding

Substantive and second-order understanding cannot be considered in isolation; they build on each other, and only function together. Substantive understanding of a topic precedes, but is not necessarily simpler than, second-order understanding of that topic.

Above all, developing substantive and second-order knowledge and understanding is a mutually supportive, continuing process.

  • It is mutually supportive. Second-order concepts only make sense with reference to historical matter; they rely on, and stand on, substantive concepts. Pupils cannot look at 'causation’ without tying it to a particular event, and when they analyse evidence they are doing so to make claims about something historical. The second-order concepts will themselves develop in response to the substantive matter – causation in the context of the Peasants’ Revolt is very different to the context of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, for example.

  • It is continuing. Perhaps the biggest danger of seeing a substantive/second-order relationship which is analogous to a knowledge/skills relationship is that it implies second-order understanding is a more advanced understanding, to be tackled once 'lower-order’ substantive understanding has been accomplished. This is not possible or desirable. As Levesque says, “progression in historical thinking ought to be developed simultaneously within each of these domains of knowledge”. As mentioned before, substantive concepts can be just as complex as second-order concepts, grappling with concepts such as imperialism, liberalism or kingship is no easy task. Of course, a grasp of substantive concept often comes before, and facilitates, second-order understanding within a particular topic. Pupils will find it hard to argue about the causes of the Black Death without knowing about medieval trade patterns, inadequate medical knowledge and the nature of the disease itself.

Therefore, any progression model must plan for the continued development of both substantive and second- order knowledge and understanding. Developing a model which has a good balance between the two is the focus of the next section.

Further reading

Kate Hammond and Dominik Palek have written about the role of substantive knowledge in historical understanding in recent editions of Teaching History.


3 Developing a model for progression in historical understanding

A progression model is an attempt to explain what it means to make progress in history. Recent years have seen many attempts at designing progression models in history. These can largely be split into models which are based around second-order concepts, and those which are based around substantive concepts.

The last two years have seen numerous attempts to design new history progression models and assessment systems in England. It is an exciting time for history teachers, and these models are a good starting-point for departments looking to create their own. Progression in history is extremely complex, but once again many efforts have been made to decode it. A crucial point to remember is that progress is not linear and easily explicable. Pupils do not go through a simple process of mastering steps to success in history; they may achieve some quite complex conceptual thought while still lacking basic tenets of historical understanding, for example chronology. Therefore, any system which plans for, and expects, linear progress over a key stage is flawed from the start.

Many of the existing progression models focus on developing pupils’ mastery of second-order concepts as a vehicle for developing their historical understanding. This has been the traditional approach of the National Curriculum, heavily influenced by the Schools History Project. The rationale for this has been explained by Peter Lee and Rosalyn Ashby. They have argued that the second-order concepts provide the best way to conceptualise progression because it is best to imagine progression as a process of getting to grips with history as a discipline.

  • A notable example of the approach which uses second-order concepts as key to progression is Alex Ford’s model. This model is based on six second-order concepts and the process of historical enquiry. These concepts are deepened and strengthened by continuous revisiting, and pupils work towards the mastery of each concept (shown through signposts). Ford emphasises that the second-order concepts should not be thought of in isolation, and that substantive content is still vital to the model. Ford’s summary of the model is shown in Figure 1.

  • Another second-order model comes from Richard Kennett, whose department has identified five key second-order concepts and devised a progression map for each of these. This is a common form of progression model.

Figure 1: Alex Ford’s summary of his progression model. Taken from: Alex Ford, 'Progression in Historical Thinking: An overview of key aspects of the mastery of historical thinking and practice’, published online.


Historical Interpretations


Causal Webs

Change happens because of MULTIPLE CAUSES and leads to many different results or consequences. These create a WEB of related causes and consequences.


Identifying Interpretations

Historical interpretations are everywhere. Every piece of historical writing is an interpretation of some sort. The past is not fixed but CONSTRUCTED through interpretations.


Influence of Factors

Different causes have different LEVELS OF INFLUENCE. Some causes are more important than other causes.


Drawing Inferences from Interpretations

It is possible to draw INFERENCES from interpretations of the past, just like with historical sources.

INFERENCES will reveal the MESSAGE of a particular interpretation.


Personal and Contextual Factors

Historical changes happen because of two main factors: The actions of HISTORICAL ACTORS and the CONDITIONS (social, economic etc.) which have influenced those actors.


Evaluating Interpretations

The APPROACH of an author must always be considered. This means considering their VIEWPOINT, PURPOSE, AUDIENCE and EVIDENCE chosen to build their interpretation and how this might impact on the final interpretation.


Unintended Consequences

HISTORICAL ACTORS cannot always predict the effects of their own actions leading to


These unintended consequences can also lead to changes


Interpretations in Context

Historical interpretations must be understood on their own terms. This means thinking about the CONTEXT in which they were created, what conditions and views existed at the time, and how this might impact the final interpretation.


Change and Continuity



Identifying Change

Past societies are not fixed, there are changes which have occurred spanning centuries. Changes in the past can be identified by looking at DEVELOPMENTS between two periods.


Resulting in Change

Events, people and developments are seen as significant because the RESULTED IN CHANGE. They had consequences for people at and/or over time.


Interweaving Continuity and Change

Change and continuity are INTERWOVEN and both can be present together in history. CHRONOLOGIES can be used to show change and continuity working together over time.



Significance is ascribed if they REVEAL something about history or contemporary life.


Flows of Continuity and Change

Change is a process which varies over time. Change can be described as a FLOW in terms of its PACE and EXTENT and can be said to TRENDS and have specific TURNING POINTS.


Identifying Significance Criteria

Significance is seen as something constructed therefore CRITERIA are needed to judge the significance of events, people or developments within a particular historical narrative.


Complexity of Change

Change and continuity are not a single process. There are many FLOWS of change and continuity operating at the same time. Not all FLOWS go in the same direction


Provisional Significance

Historical significance varies over time, and by the  INTERPRETATIONS of those ascribing that significance. Significance is PROVISIONAL.


Historical Evidence

Historical Perspectives


Inferences from Sources

When we write history we need to create interpretations of the past based on evidence. INFERENCES are drawn from a variety of primary sources to create interpretations of the past.


Appreciating world- views

There are major differences between modern WORLD-VIEWS and those of people in the past. Differences are seen in their beliefs, values and motivations. We must avoid PRESENTISM.


Cross Referencing Sources

Historical evidence must be CROSS-REFERENCED so that claims are not made based on single pieces of evidence. CROSS- REFERENCING means checking against other primary or secondary sources.


Perspectives in context

The perspectives of HISTORICAL ACTORS are best understood by thinking about the CONTEXT in which people lived and the WORLD-VIEWS that influenced them


Source Utility

Historical evidence has multiple uses. The UTILITY of a piece of historical evidence varies according to the specific enquiry or the questions being asked.


Perspectives through evidence

Looking at the perspective of an HISTORICAL ACTOR means drawing INFERENCES about how people thought and felt in the past. It does not mean using modern WORLD-VIEWS to imagine the past


Evaluating Sources

Working with evidence begins before the source is read by thinking about how the AUTHOR, intended AUDIENCE and PURPOSE of an historical source might affect its WEIGHT for a purpose.



A variety of HISTORICAL ACTORS have very different (DIVERSE) experiences of the events in which they are involved. Understanding DIVERSITY is key to understanding history.


Sources in Context

Historical evidence must be understood on its own terms. This means thinking about the CONTEXT in which the source was created and what conditions and views existed at the time.



However, the progression model does not have to be structured around second-order concepts. There are several pitfalls in this approach, particularly given the emerging research on the importance of substantive knowledge in history (and in the learning process in general). It is extremely difficult to say that a pupil has 'mastered’ a second-order concept: second-order conceptual mastery can only be inferred from repeatedly strong, and improving, performance on specific historical tasks. Moreover, a model which is structured around second-order concepts may under-emphasise the central importance of developing substantive knowledge.

In line with this, some have suggested that a focus on substantive concepts should be at the heart of progression in historical understanding.

  • Notably, Michael Fordham has argued that substantive concepts are 'the ideal tool for both supporting and identifying pupil progression in the subject.’ Fordham argues that the second-order concepts’ value is as a way to frame questions, not as yardsticks of progression. In a separate piece, he contends that any model which plans for a staged progression in second-order concepts, to be applied to pupils’ work, is 'bound to fail’. This is not to rule out the possibility of using second-order concepts as central to the model, but simply to note that planning for a linear progression between stages – for example, moving from 'explaining some causes of an event’ to 'explaining and linking many short-term and long-term causes of an event’ to 'prioritising the causes of an event’ is neither accurate nor complex enough to account for progress in historical understanding. A model which plans for pupils’ ability to comprehend and use concepts such as imperialism, liberty and suffrage may be just as valid as one based around the disciplinary procedures such as analysing causation.

It is important to note, as Evelyn Vermeulen did fifteen years ago, that when pupils are 'doing’ history they are guided by the 'interplay’ between substantive knowledge and knowledge of history’s disciplinary tools. Moreover, a pupil can only demonstrate facility with a second-order concept with reference to a particular topic; their general mastery of that concept can only be inferred from a repeated ability to do this across different contexts. Therefore, any attempt to test them separately may not be beneficial for measuring progress. Whatever the department’s opinion on the primacy of substantive or second-order concepts in designing a progression model, it is vital to consider the balance between substantive and second-order knowledge carefully when discussing progress in historical understanding and planning how it will be assessed.

A progression model, therefore, should:

  • set out the department’s understanding of what it means to achieve excellence in historical knowledge and understanding

  • structure this through a series of key concepts, whether these are second-order, substantive, or a mixture

It may be helpful to:

  • set out the steps to achieving excellence (for example, the 'signposts’ in the model shown above) – but caution should be taken against positing a simple, linear idea of 'steps to success’

  • detail the stages at which a pupil might reasonably be expected to be at each stage of the progression model, taking into account the wide variation in pupils’ development of historical thinking

Planning for and assessing pupils’ progress against a progression model is discussed at length in section of this paper.

Further reading

  1. Alex Ford’s model is an excellent example of thinking about progression in history. It can be found here. He has also written about the process of constructing the model here.

  2. Peter Seixas and Tom Morton have written about planning for progression in the 'big six’ historical thinking concepts. A sample of the work is available here.

  3. Jamie Byrom has written on planning for progression from early years to Key Stage 3. He emphasises the importance of developing 'historical perspective’ in pupils.

  4. Jerome Bruner’s seminal 1960 work The Process of Education proposed the idea of the 'spiral curriculum’. This suggests that curricula should concentrate on the core concepts and content of a subject, and progressively develop an understanding of these through revisiting them in more complex ways, building on prior knowledge. This process offers a powerful way to conceptualise the development of historical understanding through an increasingly sophisticated grasp of core concepts.

  5. A more recent breakthrough in learning theory concerns the idea of 'threshold concepts’, theorised by Erik Meyer and Ray Land. These concepts are seen to be central to a subject, and, when understood by pupils, to transform their understanding of that subject, hence the idea that they allow pupils to 'cross  a threshold’ in their understanding. The webpage above summarises the features of threshold concepts. An example of applying threshold concepts to history can be found in this blog by history teacher Sally Thorne. Along similar lines, Indiana University researchers have proposed that history undergraduates confront 'bottlenecks’ which limit their historical understanding, and that the teacher’s job is to move them past these.


4 What is the purpose of history?

The purpose of history as an academic subject is, and always will be, contested. Departments must develop their own thoughts on: the purposes of teaching the subject, the content to be taught, and the extent to which it is desirable for their students to be trained as historians.

Instead of the discussion on progress in historical understanding acting as a simple funnel towards assessment, it actually leads to an even more fundamental question: what is the purpose of history? In other words, why do we study (and teach) it? This discussion is especially important as history is a uniquely politicised subject in education, and its teaching has been contested far more than any other subject in Britain in recent years.

There is not enough space for such a profound discussion here – departments who are looking to explore the purposes of history further can consult the further reading section below. However, some of the most powerful responses to this question have included:

  • Sam Wineburg has made the powerful and bold claim that studying history can 'humanise’ people, by enabling them to engage with the past outside of the terms and mindset of the present. This, he argues, allows people to comprehend the differences as well as similarities that tie us to the past.

  • Peter Stearns argues that history encourages the creation of 'good citizens’ by helping pupils to develop 'habits of mind’ that enable them to participate in a democratic society; he also argues that history contains 'the only significant storehouse’ of information about the development of a given society.

  • Penelope Corfield believes that history has the power to 'root’ people in the world – and that if this is not done, the consequences can be catastrophic. She believes that, in the absence of a rigorous historical education, people would pick up some perceptions of history – but these would likely be 'patchy or confused…simplified and partisan’.

History, politics and national identity

Two particularly important debates spring out when considering this question. Firstly, settling on the content  to be taught is vital, particularly given recent debates about the desirable balance between local, national and world history in schools. The complex relationship between history and national identity is an important one  to consider. The extraordinary degree of disagreement over the proposed 2013 National Curriculum of history exemplified this – but also stood in a long line of attempts by politicians to bend the teaching of history to their own aims. Gordon Brown’s notable 2007 speech on citizenship clearly suggested that history should be taught partly to celebrate Britain’s achievements and to encourage the development of British identity2. Historians in Britain and around the world have rebelled against the idea that history should be used to celebrate the nation’s past and develop a national identity, as it can lead to a misguided, inaccurate, simplistic presentation of that past. Of course, this does not mean that Britain’s history should be ignored or reflexively criticised.

Departments must consider how their historical education informs and develops pupils’ understanding of the nation around them. Similarly, they must consider the appropriate balance between national and wider history (and how these relate). Is the primary aim of school history to help pupils to understand the community around them, the nation, the wider world?

Secondly, departments might like to consider whether it is desirable to align a school’s progression model and history curriculum with the requirements for mastery of academic history. Many teachers have debated whether pupils should be asked to carry out the same tasks that academic historians do – particularly in terms of analysing primary source material. Thinkers such as Sam Wineburg have argued that training pupils to think and act like historians – ie training them in the mental processes and habits of historians – is absolutely central to the process of history education, and that if a teacher is not doing this they are not teaching history. However, academic historians make inferences from sources with a vast range of accumulated knowledge at their fingertips and in their long-term memories, which enables them to do it successfully; pupils do not have these resources and therefore cannot do act in the same way. This has often led to schools (and exam boards) asking pupils to do artificial source activities with small, modified snippets of sources and little prior context, with demoralising results. Teachers such as Sean Lang have vehemently criticised the trend towards reductive source activities since the early 1990s, while Michael Fordham has analysed the weaknesses of GCSE and A Level exams in source content. Fordham instead advocates training pupils in the non-source based aspects of what historians do: reading secondary work, discussing historical issues, and listening to the arguments of other historians. Of course, departments must bear in mind that GCSE and A Level exams have significant source components, and must plan for this accordingly – source analysis is a major area of weakness and frustration for many pupils.

Most history teachers would agree that at least some training in the methods and habits of historians is fundamental to helping pupils make progress in history. Without this, pupils are neither 'doing history’, nor aware of what history is and what separates it from memory and myth. Despite this consensus, research conducted by Terry Haydn in 2005 found that many Key Stage 3 pupils could not explain any purpose of studying history other than improved employment prospects – an understanding of the loftier ideals of the subject was mostly absent. This suggests that departments have a lot of work to do in order to create a curricular model that explicitly trains pupils to think historically.

Further reading

The question 'why study history?’ has as many answers as there any historians in the world. Tepid and generic responses such as the 2007 Ofsted verdict that school history 'should help young people to understand why things are the way they are and that history relates clearly to the present’ are not particularly helpful. Many departments and individual teachers have found the works below to be useful starting points for considering the broadest of all historical questions.

Some of the more notable responses:

  1. Richard Evans and John Tosh have produced notable book-length explorations of the purposes of history in the last 20 years. Tosh was outlining the nature of historical study; Evans was writing 'in defence of history’ against the criticisms of postmodern and other scholars in the 1970s and 1980s. These are widely used in undergraduate disciplinary courses, and have largely superseded the well-known works by historians such as Geoffrey Elton, Marc Bloch and EH Carr – although of course each of these has its remarkable insights into the practice of history.

  2. Peter Stearns of the American Historical Association provides a more concise explanation of the purposes of history:

  3. Sam Wineburg has elaborated on the 'unnatural’ and counter-intuitive nature of historical thinking, and the primary importance of teaching the disciplinary habits of historians. (The first chapter is available free here).


Read part 2

[1] It is important to note here that 'interpretation’ does not mean pupils coming up with their own interpretations of particular people or events. Instead, it means studying the different ways in which the past has been interpreted and represented, for example, representations of the British Empire over time, in order to tease out some understanding about both the object of interpretation and the interpreters.

[2] In the speech, he spoke of “two thousand years of British history” with alarming regularity!

[3] Counsell’s activity is cited in a footnote to the blog entry.