Ask the Experts

We asked our Subject Specialist Associate Consultants one question. “What are the key concepts that every teacher should be aware of within your subject?”

Here is what they told us;

Lynn Welsh – Secondary Art and Design

“When considering the key concepts of Art and Design, we must start with the formal elements. Line, shape, space, form, tone, texture, pattern, colour and composition will be taught at every level and are the cornerstone of everything we do.

It is also important to ensure that we engage our learners in analysing work from different time periods and cultures. This can be especially rewarding for both staff and students as we can support the wider school by engaging in debate that improves pupils knowledge of context. Ensuring that our curriculum is diverse and inclusive, can be very powerful and can provide an extra opportunity to discuss challenging issues.

The inclusion of Craft and Architecture are key elements to feature in any Art and Design curriculum to ensure that pupils have a wide understanding of the wider opportunities within the subject. They should learn not just to act, think and work like artists but also designers and makers too.”

Helen Ostell – Primary and Secondary Physical Education

“There is a lot of debate at the moment among PE specialists about the pros and cons of a traditional sport and skills-based curriculum versus a concept-based curriculum that emphasises teaching life skills such as leadership, inter-personal skills, resilience and self-worth through physical activity.   This is a very useful debate for trainee teachers to be involved in and a good starting point is for them to visit the PE Scholar platform and more specifically to listen to the recording.”

Kit Rackley – Secondary Geography

“I really like the IB Geography concepts: Place, Processes, Power, Possibilities, and think they are best imagined as concentric circles with Place in the middle, spreading outwards respectively whereby the outside circles have influence on those inside of them. For example, thinking about power structures whether it be a global oil company or a government, they can have huge influence over processes and place. But possibilities can both challenge those power structures or assess possible futures if they were unchallenged, unsustainable, responsible etc. It really helps to take a holistic view.”

Kirsty Wilcockson – Secondary Music

“Music is inherent in all of us and if a teacher taps into this then engagement and enjoyment is high! Music can be taught in many different ways and that how a teacher learnt music might not be the only way to present this learning to learners. ”

Helen Snelson – Secondary History

“As with everything in history and history teaching, this is a source of debate. What I am going to write is up-to-date, but there is discussion about how to categorise things. And in other countries they do history differently too. However, an introduction…

In school history we talk about substantive concepts. These are many and varied. Just a few examples: parliament, communism, revolution, Christendom, Europe, indigenous people. These are not concepts that can be learnt by using a glossary. They need to be encountered across a coherent curriculum many times. They need to be encountered across time – parliament is very different in the 13thC than the 17th C, than the 20th C. They need to be encountered across place – communism in the early 20thC is very different in Russia, Germany, Italy etc. By studying the same concept across place and time, then students gain a more advanced and nuanced understanding. And this is the progression!

In school history we also talk about disciplinary concepts. These are causation, consequence, change and continuity (across time), similarity and difference (within a time period). These all underpin the questions that historians ask of the past. Historians then develop their interpretations using sources as evidence. They do this with strong chronological understanding and an understanding of the context of the topics they are studying – what other people have already said and thought about it, and with a knowledge and sense of the period. All this needs to be taught to students and is only meaningful if taught with substantive knowledge. For example, the causation of the industrial revolution is different from that of the First World War.

By framing learning using historical enquiry questions with a substantive and disciplinary focus, students can develop knowledge and also realise that it is provisional. Their final answers to an enquiry question can be seen as part of the assessment.

For lots more support about how history teachers have theorised these concepts over decades please see the What’s the Wisdom On… series on the HA website.

Gillian Georgiou – Secondary Religious Education

“What are the key concepts that every teacher should be aware of within your subject? The $64,000,000 question…! The challenge here, of course, is that different schools follow different rules in terms of RE curriculum and this has a huge impact on identifying and selecting appropriate substantive knowledge. Depending on the region and type of school in which you work, the concepts with which you need to be familiar might be quite different. As a rule of thumb, I would want to ensure that my students are encountering the following concepts through the RE curriculum, no matter which religious or non-religious worldviews are a focus of study: religion, worldview, belief and non-belief (or unbelief), faith, spirituality, truth, evidence and reason.”

Kate Percival – Primary Languages

“The twelve DfE attainment targets for primary languages are the backbone to which teachers can refer as children progress through KS2.  They illustrate the key concepts of the subject which pupils need to be taught and have experience and regular practice in, in order to go on to become confident language learners:​

  1. Listen attentively to spoken language and show understanding by joining in and responding.
  2. Explore the patterns and sounds of language through songs, rhymes and link spelling of sound and meaning of words.
  3. Engage in conversations; ask and answer questions; express opinions and respond to those of others; seek clarification and help.
  4. Speak in sentences, using familiar vocabulary, phrases and basic language structures.
  5. Develop accurate pronunciation and intonation, so that others understand.
  6. Present ideas and information orally to a range of audiences.
  7. Read carefully and show understanding of words, phrases and simple writing.
  8. Appreciate stories, songs, poems and rhymes in the language.
  9. Broaden their vocabulary and develop their ability to understand new words that are introduced into familiar written material, including through the use of a dictionary.
  10. Write phrases from memory and adapt these to create new sentences to express ideas clearly.
  11. Describe people, places, things and actions orally and in writing
  12. Understand basic grammar.

Teachers need to know and make clear to pupils that there are four core skills to learning a language; listening, speaking, reading and writing (often quoted in this order to replicate the order in which a child acquires his or her first language).  Additionally, there are three ‘pillars of language’; vocabulary, phonics and grammar on which all language learning sits and which any language curriculum should have inbuilt. A final theme which runs through the teaching of any language is its cultural understanding. Omitted from the 12 attainment targets but mentioned in the purpose of study, ‘Learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures. A high-quality languages education should foster pupils’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world.’  This statement promotes the ‘cultural capital’ that language learning has the power to influence in order to create global citizens of the future.”

Steve Willshaw – Secondary English

Too many to mention but here’s a few for starters. How to engage young people with reading for pleasure; the world of young adult writing; techniques for encouraging engagement with texts; ways of organising discussion; the basics of educational drama; media studies theory; literary theory; grammatical conventions; punctuation; how to scaffold writing tasks; how to encourage pupils to writing using the planning, drafting, reviewing structure…

Allie Beaumont – Primary Science

“I liken this question to the thought of ‘How do I know what I don’t know?’ In a nutshell, I believe the key concepts are an understanding of:

Knowledge – now known as substantive knowledge

Working Scientifically now known as disciplinary knowledge.

Within the substantive knowledge we need to be aware of the key ideas / core learning for each unit of work so that as teachers we are secure in our own subject knowledge. To support us we can utilise the Reach out CPD free on line resource packages designed to ensure that we are aware of the key concepts in a topic and provide us with practical ideas and questions to enhance learning. Each unit covers:

  1. The big idea
  2. Core learning
  3. Big questions
  4. Practical ideas

In terms of working scientifically (Disciplinary knowledge) the key concepts pedagogy that teachers need to understand are the skills of working scientifically and how children find out about the world around them i.e through carrying out one of the 5 different types of enquiry as referenced in our national curriculum: observing over time; pattern seeking; identifying, classifying and grouping; comparative and fair testing (controlled investigations); and researching using secondary sources.”

Linda Whitworth – Primary Religious Education

Defining Key Concepts in Religious Education (RE) can be complex because each religion has its own concepts and understandings, as well as those which are relevant across the subject, such as identity, diversity, respect, religion and worldview. The Ofsted Research Review on Religious Education (2021) refers to both substantive knowledge and personal knowledge which indicates the range of concepts the subject engages with.

As RE is taught in accordance with agreed syllabuses rather than a national curriculum, key concepts can depend on the approach of your syllabus and the curriculum you are using as well as the religion or worldview you are teaching.

Some syllabuses have concept lists which refer to beliefs, practices, holy books, celebrations and places of worship. You may have a curriculum which explores concepts such as these through a spiral curriculum throughout the primary years.

For example in Christianity, key concepts include God (including the Trinity), creation, fall, beliefs (including values), practices (including personal adherence, special buildings, prayer), holy books, special people, celebrations, incarnation, resurrection, salvation, life after death. Your syllabus may word these differently, and have fewer or more, but generally these ideas are covered in the teaching of Christianity across the years.

At first it might appear that some of these concepts are common to other religions too; e.g. the concept of God can be found in other religions, including G-d in Judaism and Allah in Islam. However it is important not to equate one religious understanding with another so that pupils think that all religions have the same understanding of God or a divine being. Beliefs differ both within and among religions and so each religion needs to be referenced from within itself. Try to find information and video clips from inside a religious tradition so that your pupils hear authentic voices speaking about how the religion is practised and understood by a range of different people. If possible it is useful for pupils to meet representatives from different religions and worldviews, either by visiting places of worship or inviting visitors into school. Parents and local communities can assist in arranging visits and visitors. It can be easy to stereotype or essentialise a religion for pupils by them only hearing one approach or understanding, so 2-3 voices can be very helpful to demonstrate diversity. To assist with identifying and interpreting key concepts in religions and worldviews I recommend using the knowledge essays freely available on REOnline to see what experts in each religion/ worldview think are important ideas and how they can be approached.

One concept which has had a recent impact on teaching RE is that of Worldviews. It has existed in RE for some time but received a clearer explanation in the Commission on Religious Education Final Report in 2018. This term is used to identify both individual and institutional or organised worldviews. An example might be of an individual who does not believe in a divine being and who calls him/herself an atheist. Yet not all atheists believe exactly the same thing and understand the world in the same way. Other individuals may have been brought up in the Buddhist or Sikh traditions and understands themselves to be a Buddhist or Sikh, but again their experiences and understandings can differ within those terms. Each individual human has different understandings and influences which mean they interpret their lives, including what they believe or disbelieve, in different ways. Developing pupils’ understanding of worldviews is important in enabling them to recognise their own personal views and influences as well as the differing identities of others. Organised worldviews are those that are shared by a group of people. Examples are found among religions but also non-religious groups. Humanism is often explored as a non-religious worldview. Many people in Britain identify themselves as non-religious but may have ideas about spirituality. Some people may have been brought up with the influence of more than one organised worldview through their parents’ / carers’ different backgrounds.  The value of this concept is that it enables us to recognise and explore the complex, diverse and plural nature of religions and worldviews and reflect on our own identities and those of others.

Julia Mackintosh – Primary Geography

“The key concepts that are fundamental to geographical thinking and that every primary teacher should be aware of are:


This relates to the surface of the Earth and helps us to describe where a location is. It is used to examine the patterns in the distribution of things like volcanoes, earthquakes, rainforests and where we live.


When meaning is added to space, a place is ‘made’. Before visiting somewhere for the first time, it would be described as a ‘space’, yet after experiencing it and attaching memories, it can then be described as a ‘place’. Geographers are concerned with helping children to develop their ‘sense of place’.


Geographers look at how features are distributed and how processes operate across several scales. Common terms used to help to describe scale include local, regional, national and global.”

Matteo Sciberras – Primary Mathematics

“Every teacher of primary mathematics should be aware of the five features of a mastery approach: variation (conceptual and procedural), fluency, representation & structure, mathematical thinking, and coherence. Although ready-made schemes of learning are likely to have these features woven into their resources, teachers ought to be familiar with these concepts.

In addition, teachers in both KS1 and KS2 ought to have a solid grasp of some of the theory around early number. Terms like conservation, counting principles, and subitising should be as familiar to teachers in Year 6 as they already are to colleagues in EYFS.”

If you have any questions you would like to ask our experts, then please contact us.

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