Substantive Concepts

This section of the site just provides a few examples of resources, strategies and activities for developing pupils’ understanding of some substantive concepts which are important in history. The materials give some insight into the complexity of many substantive concepts. Understanding a concept is not an ‘all or nothing’ affair, there are often layers and degrees of understanding involved.

Recap: (in the book, this is covered in pages 46-47). Lee and Ashby (2000: 199) provide what I think is one of the most helpful and succinct explanations of the difference between substantive and second order concepts (and what they term ‘particulars’ and ‘individuals’).

‘Substantive history is the content of history, what history is “about”. Concepts like peasant,  friar, and president, particulars like the Battle of Hastings, the French Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement, and individuals like Abraham Lincoln, Marie Curie and Mahatma Gandhi are part of the substance of history. Concepts like historical evidence, explanation, change and accounts are ideas that provide our understanding of history as a discipline or form of knowledge. They are not what history is “about”, but they shape the way that we go about doing history.’

Appeasement  There is a short section in the book on this (p. 274), but this space is for things about appeasement that I have come across since the book went to print, which I couldn’t fit in, or which I have come across since I wrote the book.

Empire There is a short section in the book about empires (212-13),  here are some other resources/ideas for teaching pupils about empires. It is a particularly important concept for pupils to understand, partly because empires are still (in various forms) an important phenomenon that affect people’s lives, but also because empire is a very high profile and contested area of public debate.


The importance of making connections across the KS3 Curriculum, Sarah Jackson, ‘Developing substantive thinking: a project to create connections through a KS3 curriculum’.

I think that this is a very helpful and important piece, on the HA’s ‘One Big History Department’ website, which points out the importance of making connections between the substantive concepts which crop up at different points in the KS3 curriculum, in this case, using the example of  the concept of ‘revolution’. Revolutions are a ‘persistent issue’ in history teaching – they occur at different points and take very different forms. This resource can be helpful in getting students to understand the complexity of substantive concepts.

Realpolitik Although this might seem a bit esoteric as a substantive concept, I would argue that it is an important one in terms of understanding the way the world works, and what forces, movements, people, political parties and nations  in history have prevailed over others. Often associated with Otto von Bismarck’s period as Chancellor of Prussia and the first German Empire, it has been taken to mean the idea that ‘might is right’, in the sense that whether a cause will succeed or not depends less on the righteousness of the cause than the force behind it. So, big powers tend to prevail over smaller powers because they have more power and influence. An excellent resource for becoming reasonably knowledgeable about the history of the concept is Richard Godwin’s review of John Bew’s (2016) book Realpolitik, in The Guardian, 12/9/21.  Of course, the book would provide deeper insights into the concept, but it is 309 pages long, the review only takes about 5 minutes to read. It is a good example of how newspaper reviews of history books can be a time-effective way of developing your subject knowledge.

Webinar from Tim Jenner, Ofsted subject lead for history, on the importance of developing student understanding of substantive concepts (and their understanding of chronological sequence). Jenner gives examples of gradually  building up a web of connections relating to particular substantive concepts over time so that students develop a more secure, sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the concept in question. Making connections/providing examples across time can also help students towards developing a coherent grasp of the ‘big picture’ of the past and reduce the chances of them not seeing how the ‘jigsaw’ of the past fits together over time. The clip is about 25 minutes long.

‘Is meritocracy a lie?’, Sam Freedman, The Guardian,  Saturday, 8 January 2022: 65. Meritocracy is an important concept in the social sciences. Freedman’s one page article in The Guardian provides a very succinct explanation of the concept and traces a brief history of changing ideas about meritocracy, equality of opportunity and social mobility.

Anti Semitism: You might think that it is an obvious one, but recent IOE/UCL research on young people’s knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust showed that this was one of the ‘gaps’. Also, recent controversies such as the one involving Whoopi Goldberg revealed that the concept is a bit more complex than some people think. This is a 2 minute clip of David Baddiel explaining some of the complexities or misapprehensions about anti-semitism on a breakfast TV show.