Teaching History in the Primary School

Teaching the Key Skills: Enquiry

The classroom museum

Before children can begin to appreciate the nature of the evidence available to study the past they need to think about the evidence available to study the present. A classroom museum is a good way to start, assembling the objects of everyday life today and labelling them as if they were artefacts of historical significance. What modern items would we choose for our museum? The next stage is to see what objects the children can collect to illustrate the times their parents have lived through. It will soon be apparent that 'old' means more than simply worn or broken: it will also be a question of style and use and, ultimately, of rarity.

This raises the question of how things are destroyed. Buildings are knocked down and objects thrown away. What will you find in the contents of the average dustbin? Where will these contents end up? Children will quickly see that much of the evidence of the past ends up in the ground.

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Archaeology is enormously popular nowadays, partly because archaeologists marry up the image of the dotty but benign professor with the physical world of the 'out-of-doors'. It is also popular because debates about the interpretation of finds are not too difficult to follow when presented to a television audience, particularly when they involve 'giving the past a face' (as in Meet the Ancestors).

Archaeology can be done in the classroom in a number of ways:

  • by simulating stratification in an earth-filled container
  • through a computer simulation
  • by making an archaeology game

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Visits to historic sites and buildings

These establish the reality of the past and generate questions. How did this building come to be here? What was it like before it fell down? Children will quickly see that not all the evidence exists to provide an answer. A reconstruction drawing may be an artist's best guess: how might it alter when new evidence is discovered or when the existing evidence is seen in new way? Concepts like radio-carbon dating and dendrochronology can be explained in this context.

Archaeological evidence tells us about the way people lived and about change in the environment. Less easy to deal with is the kind of evidence that relate to political and religious changes. Here the motives of people and the accounts of their actions that they have left in letters, diaries and chronicles become important. So too does the question of interrelatedness. Few historical changes happen in isolation, but teaching children to see relationships between different types of change, especially over long periods of time, is very difficult.

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Example: the traffic accident simulation

One way of introducing children to the complexity of historical change is through a simple event like a minor traffic accident. A young man is driving home one evening. As might be expected he's going a little too fast and it's raining. Suddenly a cat darts across the road in front of him and he swerves to avoid it, hitting a garden wall. Whose fault is the accident? His own apparently, but what about the old lady who owns the cat? She always puts it out at this time of night although there's a busy road outside her house. Or the man next door who hates cats and puts his rottweiler out at the same time? Or his girlfriend who chooses this exact moment to show her appreciation for the good night out they've had? Or the council who have ailed to mend the road or the garage who did shoddy work on his brakes? Children can quickly see that this seemingly simple event has a multitude of causes, some long term or 'background' causes, some short term, or 'triggers'. They can use this model as a way of understanding complex events like the Reformation or the First World War.

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