Telling Stories and Teaching History

5 June 2017

Author: Hugh Richards

As history teachers, we love telling stories. It is integral to how we communicate about and conceptualise the past; however, we hate it when students tell us those same stories. “Improve your explanation/analysis/exploration of the key concept,” and “reduce your narrative description” will be familiar target for improvement to many history students around the country.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised however at such narrative responses if they have initially encountered the information in the framework of a story. The new GCSE assessment structure, with its focus on ‘second order concepts’, fights against this. For our students, the marks are in the analysis rather than the anecdotes.

History’s appeal often lies in the story-telling aspect of the discipline. Academic historians love nothing more than telling the stories of their specialism, and often use the micro-narratives to very effectively unlock the macro picture. As history teachers we often teach the events as an unfolding narrative. Perhaps this comes form a motivation of keeping the story interesting as an unknown with the edges of the historical map gradually revealing themselves, or maybe a desire to rationalise the decisions of those involved in the events by contextualising them with as little hindsight as possible

We tell small stories of individual sources, or people, or moments of particular resonance, to hook and engage our audiences of mixed ability and interest, which tends to work. Students bite the bait and start to ask questions. However, these questions are often limited to “what happens next?” and derivatives thereof. Finally, we then attempt to draw together diffuse strands and themes in the final lesson or two – even only as revision tasks – and ask the students to produced their analyses. This gives precious little chance to develop their disciplinary skills as a historian, which necessarily involves looking back at the whole picture to analytically assess it.

As a result of this narrative approach we can face the problem of enabling our students to produce deeper analytical responses that move far beyond description and into the much more complex conceptual construction of history. It’s a tough cycle to break. Daniel Willingham has explored the cognitive psychology behind the human mind’s natural tendency to privilege stories: “History is a natural story; it has the four Cs of a memorable story —causality, conflicts, complications, and character—built in… For teachers, an important way to make use of story in history is through the generous use of trade books that treat history as biography, historical fiction, or a narrative.

So the problem we face how to use this powerful memory capacity, that can be accessed via story, to help students produce thoroughly analytical writing.

At Huntington we have considered how we use narrative to improve the student’s ability to analyse and critically evaluate the component parts of the stories of the past. Specifically, we have spent time developing an approach in which we teach the macro overview of the whole story in one lesson to provide the overarching framework of the whole unit – for example the slave trade in Year 8 or the whole of the Mid-Tudor Crisis in Year 12 – in a single lesson and usually on a single sheet of A3 paper.

World War 2 Macro:

Mid-Tudor Macro:

Slavery Macro:

This process started with the work of Graham Nuthall, in ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’, who recommends students learn things three times in three different ways. Thus the macro lesson formed the first teaching of the material, before subsequent lessons went through in far more detail. E.D. Hirsh has described this macro approach as ‘mental Velcro’ onto which learners are then able to hang new information. This is perhaps particularly vital for history students who often study fragmented elements of the past; for example, studying the Industrial Revolution without any understanding of the preceding Agrarian one.

We have found, anecdotally, that students use the schema provided by the initial macro learning to:

  • Make stronger links and connections;
  • Ask better questions;
  • Offer better reasoning about causation;
  • Make significance judgements based on the long- and short-term impact of an event or person, often looking out for those moments as they arrive in the detailed study;
  • Better understand the rate and scale of change within the time period;
  • Better understand patterns of continuity – an often overlooked element in ‘unfolding narrative’ teaching.

It’s important to understand that with macro/micro teaching we still must tell the stories, but we are able to do so in a way that fosters students’ analytical skills and therefore impacts upon the historical writing they create. There is still plenty of joy there too – but instead of the unfolding story it often comes in the form of fizzing classroom debates by students armed with a more rounded knowledge of their battleground.


Hugh Richards, Subject Leader of History at Huntington School, York

Posted on 5 June 2017
Posted in: Blog
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  1. Kelley Hughes
    June 8, 2017 at 8:41 am
    Hi, I find this a very interesting concept and was wondering how successful has this been at your school? do students retain more knowledge as well as the skills needed? have you used it with all year groups? many thanks for your response Kelley

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