Teaching History in the Primary School

Teaching the Key Skills: Historical Understanding

I sometimes jokingly refer to this skill as 'hat history' or 'what makes a Roman, a Roman?' Of course hats - and clothing in general - tell us a great deal about a society: whether, for example, it was warlike or peaceful, divided by class or aiming at equality (Chairman Mao's overalls). The changes in fashion in Tudor times signal very clearly the difference between a court ruled by a man (Henry VIII) and one ruled by a woman (Elizabeth I).

Clothes also tell us about the climate and introduce the close relationship that exists between environment and culture. In the past the diversity of the world's environments resulted in a huge diversity in the way people lived. Now there are few places not open to the influence of the urban monoculture. Were this to collapse however local circumstances would once again produce local solutions and value systems based on those solutions. Several famous novels have been written about the post-industrial future, for example Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), 1984 (George Orwell), The Shape of Things to Come (HG Wells). A particular favourite of mine is the short story by EM Forster called The Machine Stops.

Making up your own society

This is a valuable exercise at almost any level and ideal for group work. Each group must produce a traveller's guide to their 'world', including all the information that a visitor would need to spend some time there. Whatever the level the group must first describe the territory (probably by creating a map), then the climate and finally the people: what they wear, what food they eat, and where they live. These things must all be consistent.

Next the traveller will need to know what language is spoken, what currency is in use, what laws or customs he must respect and who is in charge. Furthermore, if the traveller is to spend any time in the society being imagined, he will want to know how children there are educated, how are the sick cared for, and how law-breakers are punished. At some stage the group may need to invent a religion in order to explain these things.

Inventing a religion requires consideration of the three big questions that all religions exist to answer: How did the world begin? What happens when I die? and Why does good or bad luck happen to me? All previous societies have had answers to these questions, based on the state of their scientific knowledge and tradition. The answers to these questions can be as imaginative or as colourful as the group likes but again they must be consistent. Any inconsistencies should be exposed by the other groups acting as the 'traveller.' The final stage in the activity is to write a history for the society, either in the form of a chronicle or some pictorial equivalent. Such a history can contain mythological or factual elements.

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With luck what should emerge from this exercise is an awareness that we can understand a society at several different levels: by what it looks like, by how it does things and by why it does them. I call the answers to these questions 'systems'. Examples of systems are given in the introduction to the course handbook. The definition of a system is a) that it will work when tried and b) that it is consistent with other systems belonging to the same society. I call this matching of systems congruency. Put all the systems associated with a culture together and you have something called a mindscape.

We are now armed with an approach which should allow us to select those aspects of a society which children need to know about in order to build up an understanding of how it works. This understanding will be acquired in stages, just as in the case of the traveller: first a superficial acquaintance, then a working knowledge, finally a comprehensive view.

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Example: putting thoughts into the head of a Roman soldier

130 AD: a young Roman soldier stationed on Hadrian's Wall sits polishing his helmet. What is he thinking about? He will be reflecting on recent events: training, the fairness or unfairness of his centurion, the reliability of his mates, the faithfulness of his girlfriend. He'll also be thinking about what's for supper, what chores he will have to do on the following day and what entertainments he can look forward to when he goes to the amphitheatre. He may well be looking forward to a campaign and wondering whether he will have the luck to survive without injury - a prayer to his favourite gods may be wise. The 'thoughts' will depend upon the age and ability of the children but they can be equally authentic whatever the level.

The same approach can be adopted in relation to almost any historical period, providing that the teacher can give the children access to enough information. At the end of the exercise the key question for assessment will be: to what extent have the children grasped even a small part of what it meant to be a Roman? Providing that small part is the real thing it will be a 'window' into the past for them and a foundation on which they can build future knowledge.

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Summary: how do we know where we are in the past?

From left to right: Egypt: scribe writing, calm, serene, looking into a timeless eternity. Greece: perfect people and buildings constructed according to mathematical formulae. Rome: professional army with fighting tactics requiring strong discipline. Saxons: individual heroes pitted against dark forces.

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