Historical Significance

  • What is historical significance?

Historical significance is the process used to evaluate what was significant about selected events, people, and developments in the past. Historians use different sets of criteria to help them make judgements about significance.

Significance has been called the forgotten concept in history, no doubt because it can be challenging for both teacher and students.

“Teachers often tell students what is important instead of asking them to consider what is significant. The key to understanding significance is to understand the distinction between teaching significant history, and asking students to make judgements about significance.”

Matthew Bradshaw (Teaching History 2004)

Planning to teach significance

When teaching historical significance teachers need to;

  • Understand that the significance of some past events may be contested in their school situation.
  • Appreciate that what can make chosen events and individuals most significant is the impact they have on the way we live today.
  • Understand that significance is attributed to events and individuals at the time and subsequently.

Primary examples

Deciding who to choose and which individuals are more useful for the children to learn about, are issues facing all teachers in the primary school. Teachers and children’s views about historical significance are often shaped by contemporary contexts and can dependent upon their own values and interests.

Significant public commemoration and the commemoration of individuals in the locality are sensitive and need careful handling in classrooms where there are children from different cultural and religious backgrounds.

Teaching Historical Significance KS1

By the end of KS1 children should have experience of a broad understanding of chronology and be able to select significant events and people that have formed the world in which they live. They should also be beginning to realise the difference between importance and significance. 

Examples of enquires about significance of commemoration KS1

  • Developing an enquiry around a key event such as World War 1 provides children with the opportunity to explore an event that has been commemorated annually for almost 100 years. Children can investigate the origins of  what it is that is being commemorated, and how its significance has grown to include conflicts up to the present day.
    Enquiries about conflict or war may raise sensitive issues for children whose families are still suffering the effects of conflict or still involved in fighting a war.  These children have direct, personal experiences, of recent hostilities and their schools will need to exercise sensitivity in teaching this topic
  • Children could also focus on the symbols of remembrance and their significance, and why it has been chosen as a symbol of remembrance. They can explore issues around the wearing of symbols of remembrance and how they can be seen as expressions of identity.. The children’s awareness of different viewpoints can be extended through discussions concerning why we should remember, what sorts of things we remember, other special events or people we remember and why is it important to remember? Could we remember past conflicts in a different way?
  • Focusing an enquiry on significant women in the past such as Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole or Amelia Earhart will help develop the children’s understanding of the roles of women in the past. Stereotypical views of women explorers can be challenged by examining images of the life of Mary Kingsley, a female explorer.
  • What importance can the study of topics about the commemoration of events which happened in Ireland 100 years ago have for today’s children?  Does it matter if they know what the actual events are and when and how they happened? These events have all had an effect on the world in which the children live today, in terms of how the state in which they live was set up, how they are ruled, where the government is situated and the type of society they will live and work in. Building enquiries around the commemoration of these events are therefore important in helping to develop the children’s realisation the connections between past and present.

Primary Ideas

  • Using wheels of significance to determine the significance of historical figures. Where are they placed on the wall for example at the top or bottom and why?
  • Use priority pyramids and dot voting to explain their judgments of historically significant people and events (See Active Learning and Teaching Methods CCEA 2007 )
  • Text book searches to introduce the children to the concept of significance by asking them to look at which events and people get the biggest headlines or the most pages and discuss why they think this is so. Consideration of who does not get the coverage in books, films or documentaries would make a very interesting discussion on significance.
  • Using statue plinths to decide how historically significant a person was by awarding the person who was most significant the highest plinth and the least significant the lowest plinth.( Adopted from Matthew Bradshaw)

Post Primary Examples


There are a number of criteria that historians’ use that can be applied to establish the significance of events.

  • Relevance to people living at the time
  • Resonance to people’s experience, beliefs or situations at the time
  • Relevance to an increased understanding of the present-day
  • Remarked on by people at the time and since
  • Remembered within the collective memory of a group
  • Revealing of some other aspect of the past
  • Results that have consequences for the future
  • Durability – for how long people’s lives were affected
  • Quantity – how many lives were affected
  • Profundity – how deeply people’s lives were affected 

Some examples of teaching significance at KS3

  • Use enquiry led approaches in the teaching of historical significance. The opportunity to investigate more fully during an enquiry helps students achieve a better understanding of the historical context of an event as well as its subsequent significance.
  • An enquiry focused on memory significance where events and individuals from the past have become part of the collective memory of a group or groups in society. Students would explore how the memory of past events can be reconstructed and used for present day purposes.
    The students will use the following criteria to attribute significance to the remembrance of the past event or individual. Teacher discusses each of the criteria with the students and asks questions to clarify their ideas.
    The criteria in this exercise have been adopted from Teaching History Volume 129
    • Events which are of personal interest; Which groups of people would see the event as significant today?How are the students connected to the event, for example through family or religious, cultural, or ancestral connections?  Students could examine personal stories about the event to identify contemporary significance for them and their communities.
    • Symbolic significance; use of particular events for present-day national or Patriotic  justification for example exploring ideas about;
      What national holidays mean to some groups in society and what makes them significant?
      Does the use of symbols, uniforms or flags to remember an event or  the presence of politicians and religious leaders  mean that an event is worthy of significance?
    • Contemporary lessons; Use of historical events to draw simplistic analogies to events in the present and to justify and guide actions today.
    • Exposing students to the way in which events have been portrayed in images, videos, music and song and documents and the influence these can have on people’s memories of the events today.  To realise why events have significance attributed to them at the time and subsequently. It is only when a student matures that they realise that assigning significance involves explanation as well as value judgement.
      There is no need with younger students in KS3 to use all the criteria. In fact using a small number to drive an enquiry can be just as effective in developing student’s historical understanding.
  • The following concluding activity for a significance based enquiry could be the use of  a balloon debate of historical significance  with historical characters arguing their significance to gain their place in the balloon.(Bradshaw)

At KS4 the same set of criteria can be applied to the study of Holocaust remembrance and students could apply a further set of criteria to explain why the Holocaust was a significant event

  • Profundity– how deeply people’s lives have been affected
  • Quantity– how many lives have been affected
  • Durability– for how long have people’s lives been affected
  • Relevance– is something still significant to our present lives even if it had only a passing importance?

A Level

Due to time constraints it may be a good idea to match the strategies to the type of examination questions which require the students to make judgments require them to examine significance

Students could use sources on a topic to discover whether contemporary views had the same view of significance as later historians. The students could apply the following criteria to help them to make their judgments

Remarkable :The event was remarked on by people at the time or since

Remembered: The event/development was important at some stage within the collective memory of a group or groups

Resonant: People like to make analogies with it; it is possible to connect with experiences, beliefs or attitudes across time and place

Resulting in Change: It had consequences for the future

Revealing: of some other aspects of the past.