Teaching history in primary schools

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Much of that debate has centred on issues such as content versus skills, whether its better taught discretely or even whether history is too difficult conceptually for young children to understand. Such debates have often been aired very publicly through the media and sometimes in Parliament. Given this context, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that there is much more general agreement about what constitutes good primary history practice than there is disagreement.

The research and the results of surveys and reviews from organisations such as Ofsted and the QCA have defined good and successful practice in quite similar ways. This does not mean that the debate is over but it does act as a timely reminder that primary history is not totally riven with division and confusion. Evidence also suggests that many primary age pupils enjoy history when adopting these approaches. The story still matters in history.

However, few would accept that primary history is just a collection of good stories, particularly when confined to tales of blood, gore and filth. The earlier mention of the underpinning concepts is vital and, for many, this remains the most challenging aspect of teaching the subject. Few now believe it is a curriculum area that can be taught by anyone just by picking up a book or scheme of work.

What follows is the attempt by a group of teachers and advisers to try to define the ideas behind these concepts in terms of key ideas. This was an attempt to clarify the key ideas behind the main historical concepts so that teachers and pupils could see the ideas that needed to be developed and embedded through the primary years. Their planning and questioning approaches could thus pay heed to developing an understanding of these ideas over time and through applying them across a greater range of periods, individuals, societies, places and perspectives.

Those developing these ideas produced a separate list for Key Stage 1 and for Key Stage 2. Space precludes both but these are the ideas produced for developing across the four years of Key Stage 2. Login or create a profile so that you can create alerts and save clips, playlists, and searches. Please log in from an authenticated institution or log into your member profile to access the email feature. This book aims to provide information, guidance and inspiration for trainee teachers of primary history.

It aims above all to assist primary trainees on all courses of Initial Teacher Training in England and other parts of the UK, where similar Professional Standards are in place, to develop their knowledge and understanding of history and their skills in teaching history in the primary classroom. The book draws on examples from the classroom and from whole school curriculum planning to illustrate good practice in primary history as well as indicating ways in which schools are addressing changing principles and ways of working.

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Vella investigated the ability of 5-, 7- and year-olds to make inferences about sources. Handling sources, objects, writing, and pictures involved observation skills: using a magnifying glass, dividing a picture into sections, tracing photographs, creating maps from written sources, and picking out particular words or numbers Bruner. This also reflects what Piaget calls the stage of concrete operations, at which a child is able to take in information about the tangible and visible world, adjusting it to accommodate new information and store it in order to use it to solve problems, to form a reasoned premise and support it with a logical argument.

The application of both quantitative and qualitative methods to assess children's comments show that manipulating sources and studying their appearance helped pupils develop their reasoning and deductive skills. Other research Cooper ; Nulty ; Smith and Holden ; Blyth ; Durbin ; Hawkes substantiates the claim that the actual process of using primary sources helps children's thinking. After an initial unguided session, an adult intervened to model the processes of making inferences from the sources. Pre- and post-intervention results showed that this modeling enhanced children's thinking.

The skills learnt in the intervention session with the researcher were absorbed by the pupils and reused in the other sessions that followed. Vygotsky showed how interacting with a "more able other" enhanced children's conceptual understanding. Group discussion also accelerated children's thinking.

History teaching challenges in Primary Schools

Analysis of pupils' talk showed that they were not only sharing the materials, they were also sharing ideas. They were using their peers' talk to support their own thinking; in other words, they were using each other as a learning resource. Research into peer collaboration supports this conclusion. The learning in the groups happened for various reasons; one suggestion is that learning is occurring because of cognitive reorganization caused by cognitive conflict Perret-Clermont and Schubauer-Leoni , or that peer interaction is aiding individuals to integrate various perspectives when viewing a situation and this results in superior cognitive reasoning Lomov ; Inagaki Like Hodkinson, Vella found the greatest acceleration in historical thinking amongst those who were generally considered the "lowest achievers".

Hodkinson's research posited but did not confirm that children's thinking in history is influenced by family interest in history. Vella's studies suggested that social and cultural factors in life outside school contribute to children's thinking in history, which tallies with Barton and Levstik's findings that family stories and activities and popular culture, especially television, were the important sources their pupils drew from when asked to place sets of pictures in chronological order, and West reported that historical background knowledge of young children was quite extensive.

Vella , 96 concluded that, "comparing the 5-, 7- and year- olds, one can almost imagine Bruner's spiral diagram and scaffolding process, and Vygotsky's theory of a zone of proximal development unfolding. Pinto explores the role of Heritage sites monuments, landscapes, sites in engaging and year-olds in the process of constructing their identities, as individuals and as members of communities.

Like Vella , she suggests that ideas in history may be grounded in everyday understanding, and that heritage sources and sites can provide challenging evidence to help students make sense of the past Cooper ; Nakou ; Levstik, Henderson and Schlarb ; Barca and Pinto ; Harnett Pinto argues that students should learn to relate evidence in sites and buildings to their own ideas, perspectives, and questions Barton and Levstik , to "connect what they see, do and feel with what they already know, understand and acknowledge" Barton and Levstik , , in constructivist ways, enriching their appreciation of the cultural, social and economic contributions of diverse groups to the communities.

She argues that knowing how to "read" heritage sites helps children to perceive the linkage between local and international events and trends and to find out about differences and similarities in local and in more international or European heritage.

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In heritage contexts, she says, students engage in the process of historical inquiry, and with regard to the questions they find significant, which is not always the case in history. In this study Pinto , 40 twelve-year-olds, 47 fifteen-year-olds and their six teachers were given tasks related to the development of history-learning skills, to complete at a series of points on a walk around the city of Guimarez, in order to look for a model of conceptual progression in the way they made inferences from evidence.

Constructs also appear to have some connections with results of other studies Cooper , ; Nakou ; Seixas and Clark ; Ashby, Lee and Shemilt ; Barton and McCully ; Apostolidou which were found to be relevant for this research field. Data analysis, using a grounded theory approach Strauss and Corbin , identified categories related to evidence.

The categories emerging for making inferences from evidence were: evidence as an alternative idea; inference from existing details; inference from context and questioning. For example, in the category denominated "inference from existing details," most of the students regarded written and heritage sources as sources of direct information. They described a site, either briefly or more extensively, but based on a superficial interpretation. The conjectures of several students related to factual or functional details. In the category called "questioning," some answers revealed personal inferences, questioning the context in terms of evidence and time relations, hypothesising on diverse possibilities, articulating political, social and economic elements in the same context, or even making conjectures about several contexts in terms of time relations.

Pinto, like Hodkinson and Vella, suggests that students' references to heritage evidence are rooted in their cultural and educational backgrounds and that teachers have a role to play in enhancing students' ability to 'read' objects, sites and buildings by using a systematic approach Bruner, Vygotsky. Kang explored how 9-year-olds in Korea formed historical inferences using pictures of historical paintings and, if they could, how they made plausible inferences about the lives of the people depicted.

The pupils had not studied the Chosun period before and the task required close observation and substantial knowledge. However, she found that most of the children demonstrated some general, or even detailed, knowledge of the period acquired from different sources, and combined this with their life experience to develop their own ideas about the pictures, thus suggesting that they already shared some common culture, again illustrating Piaget's Concrete Operational Stage.

Kang's study builds on previous work on children's ability to make reasonable historical inferences about pictures West ; Blyth ; Harnett and contests the findings of American researchers Brophy and VanSledright ; Foster, Hoge and Rosch who found that children were constrained in such a task by limited historical knowledge and life experiences. In this study Kang, like Lee, Pinto and Hodkinson, found that children had knowledge about a period that was acquired from a variety of different sources.

This study Cooper ; , investigated the ability of 56 eight- year-olds to develop arguments about a variety of historical sources that included artefacts, pictures, plans, maps and writing Bruner An experimental group was matched with a control group that was taught using didactic methods. Teaching strategies for the experimental groups involved discussion of key evidence, differentiating between what you could know "for certain," what reasonable "guesses" you could make, and what you would like to know.

The discussion involved selected key concepts at different levels of abstraction, such as arrow, weapon, and defense Vygotsky Each of the four-week-long units of study involved one visit to a local area where there was evidence of settlement in each period and one visit "further afield," that extended beyond the limits of the locality. At the end of each unit, all three groups took five "written evidence tests," consisting of work with previously unseen artefacts, pictures, plans, maps, and written sources relating to the period.

The aim was to discover whether they found "concrete" evidence more difficult to interpret than symbolic maps and writing. The experimental groups were also given an oral "evidence test. During the first year, the teacher led the groups. During the following year no adult was present. An assessment scheme based on a ten-point scale was devised that was developed from patterns for analyzing group discussions of reasoning defined in cognitive psychology and in previous history-related research.

A system for analyzing group discussions was also devised on the basis of the same scale. The experimental groups' written evidence tests, in which they wrote an archaeologist's report on each source making distinctions between "knowing", "inferring" and the impossibility of knowing were more varied than those of the control group and more closely related to the evidence. In contrast, the control group repeated the given information, which was not rooted in the evidence, and displayed more anachronisms and stereotypes.

The experimental groups' written responses reflected the processes modeled in whole-class lessons. The analysis of variance tests to compare matched groups and the Scheffe test of multiple comparisons showed that the experimental groups were able to differentiate between certainty and "good guesses" with almost equal ease, although they found the third question What would you like to know?

In comparing responses, according to types of evidence across the tests throughout the four units of study, there was a significant difference between the level of responses to the artefact and picture tests when compared with the diagrams, maps and written sources, but by unit four, there was no significant difference. The children had learned to apply the same processes of enquiry to all the sources.

They had learned, to varying extents, to spontaneously use concepts which they had learned in Unit 1, and were thus able to transfer them to a new context, at each level of abstraction in Test 4 six months later. Discussion was similar in the led and unled experimental groups and was mainly concerned with how the evidence was made and used and what it may have meant to the people who made and used it. Both groups developed, contested and corrected each other's arguments.

However, the unled groups' discussions were more vivid, since they often explained their ideas through stories and images. Both the led and unled groups improved the extent and range of their discussions over the four units. Both the control and experimental groups improved their scores on the written evidence tests for all three questions over the four units. The control group had become familiar with the test format, but the scores for both experimental groups improved far more than those of the control group, suggesting that if children are taught consistently, they learn patterns of thinking that can be transferred to new material.

Many other case studies of 3- to 7-year-old children, that explore their concepts of time, use of historical sources, and construction and understanding of different interpretations, can be found in Cooper , and Case studies investigating creative approaches to learning how to interpret sources, time concepts and interpretations, in primary schools, can be found in Cooper b. Yapici Dilek asked year-old pupils to draw pictures of scenes and events, based on visual and written primary and secondary sources they had studied Bruner The drawings were analysed based on the processes of historical and visual thinking, to understand how the process of visualization relates to the process of learning history.

Dilek Yapici found that when pupils did not employ historical thinking skills in their drawings, they constructed anachronistic images. However, other students constructed historically sound interpretations. For example, a pupil drew a man king and a woman queen side by side, to indicate equal participation in government.

They drew images of men above women, or women in domestic backgrounds, when they referred to gender inequality and superiority of men in the past. They added captions and used metaphors to describe past times. Other studies by Yapici Dilek Cooper , ; Dilek and Yapici , 61 similarly investigate analyses of pupils' drawings to assess their level of historical understanding. In their project entitled "Recreating Histories," and Schmidt and Garcia encouraged 8- to 9-year-old children to collect documents, photographs and oral accounts of their family histories and analyze them with the help of teachers, in order to write their own illustrated narratives about their family and community Bruner and The results were collated and published as a book Schmidt and Garcia , which was then used, along with additional activities, for teaching other children of the same age Schmidt and Garcia These authors analyzed both the initial narratives and the narratives of the children who used the textbook.

They found that both groups developed the following concepts in writing their narratives: causality, continuity, changes, incorporation of previous knowledge, use of temporal concepts and sequential narrative.

History Education Research Journal - Heirnet

In some instances they identified differences between received information and the information in their documents, thus revealing a real understanding of the processes of historical enquiry. Schmidt examined children's understanding of historical consciousness in terms of personal identity and concluded that the current pattern of history pedagogy in Brazil neither develops in pupils' an understanding of their own identity through personally conducted national or world narratives, nor provides the conceptual tools that would enable them to do so themselves.

Hoodless discussed two versions of an historical story dating from different periods in the 20th century, with and year-olds in two socially different English Primary Schools, to see if they could identify and explain the different thoughts, attitudes and values in each period and spot the agendas of authors of historical stories. Both stories were about about the rebellion of the British Celtic queen, Boudicca, against the Romans. The earlier one Sarson and Paine is a detailed, didactic, and patronizing transmission of information, while the more recent account of Boudicca's revolt Deary , is a humorous story that invites children to engage in critical thought.

There has been a growing interest recently in the use of stories as well as sources in learning history. Barton and Levstik and Bage argue that deep understanding can be achieved through narrative, if a teacher guides children carefully. Hoodless found that children in both groups recognized the differences in style. Some were able to analyze the authors' preconceptions about what was suitable for children and the dominant social attitudes in and , and to appreciate the different values and attitudes of the two periods concerning death, war, suicide and respect for royalty.

They also understood how history changes with retelling according to the agendas of the time. Furthermore, because of the skills developed in source analysis in one school, the pupils seemed able to treat the stories as sources and applied considerable evaluative skill in discussing them. Hoodless acknowledges that in earlier research children's understanding of time concepts was thought to be achieved at about the age of 14, but her analysis of the discussion of parallel time concepts in relation to stories among children at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 challenges this.


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In this story, the left-hand pages record the banal experiences of parents on a trip to the seaside, lasting two or three hours, while the right-hand pages simultaneously describe Shirley's imaginative adventures which take place over the course of a day and a night. They also discussed Where the Wild Things Are Sendak , a story in which a young boy named Max travels into an imaginative world of wild adventures lasting over a period of several weeks, and then returns to his bed the very same night.

Hoodless found that open questions involving "seem" rather than "how long? They were aware, for example, that while Shirley's parents were on the beach for two or three hours, her adventures seemed to last several days.

Furthermore, in discussing Shirley's adventures on board a pirate ship, they showed awareness of historical periods and historical conventions, incipient awareness of broad chronological sequence, perception that time can appear to vary depending on how it is experienced, and the need to measure time and chronology. This is a series of short stories set in different moments during the Roman occupation of Britain, all of which revolve around a bracelet that is passed down from generation to generation.

The children had studied this historical period. She found that those in Years 3 and 4 were aware of dates but could not manipulate them for example, to calculate the length of time between two periods and had difficulty handling large numbers. They needed to have their attention drawn to dates, whereas they could easily discuss the passing of time in relation to illustrations. Children in Years 5 and 6 were aware that it was a chronological narrative, although not always expressed in sequential stories, and discussed similar strategies in stories in film and on television, demonstrating that they were aware that history is a form of "time travel," although most of the older children also found the manipulation of dates problematic.

Hoodless has produced an excellent on-line resource showing teachers how to progress children's time concepts. The following section describes the ways in which teachers in England are advised to plan for progression across the curriculum. More detailed information can be found in Cooper a.

Whatever the statutory content, schools must translate it into whole-school plans for their school, having in mind the philosophy of the school, its locality and available resources, as well as the personal skills, interest areas and knowledge of the teaching team.

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A long-term or whole-school plan for progression establishes an expected pathway of progression of study units and thinking skills for each year-group. A medium-term plan for each study unit links clearly to the long-term plan, makes it clear what is to be taught and when over the course of the year. It is based on prior attainment, rather than on what year-group the pupils are in, contains differentiated teaching objectives, addresses process as well as content, gives clear links to rich and interesting activities and resources, indicates teaching approaches that will engage and interest the pupils, contains a schedule for various assessment items in line with school policy, and reflects the school's vision and national priorities.

Lesson planning links directly to the medium-term plan, making clear what is to be taught, encouraging the teacher to plan a sequence of lessons rather than "stand-alones," and providing guidance for a range of teaching approaches to be used within the sequence of lessons. In writing a lesson plan, a teacher must:. Each lesson must be assessed through formative assessment. The teacher must use evidence from observing the children and questioning them individually, in groups or as a whole class, and through products, the work they produce in undertaking the activity.

Formative assessment is important for the teacher to understand what children have or have not learned, and for the pupils to know what they have already learned and what the next step may be. This requires dialogue and trusting relationships. Children can learn to take ownership of their progress by learning to self-assess and to make suggestions about activities for doing so. Formative assessment may be recorded in brief notes or tick boxes based on the learning objectives, or simply retained in the heads of teacher and learner.

Image 1 shows how assessment is a cyclical process. The teacher and parents and other stakeholders also need to understand what each pupil has already achieved. This can be determined through summative assessment at the end of each unit of study, which involves looking at the formative assessments of teacher and child as well as at the work produced over the course of the unit in relation to the learning objectives for the sequence of lessons on the medium-term plan in order to form an overall judgment based on this evidence about what each child knows, understands, and can do in the different interrelated strands of historical enquiry.

It has been argued that it is important for primary school children to learn history, from the beginning, and in increasingly complex ways, through the processes of historical enquiry, which contributes to their social, emotional and cognitive development and sense of identity. Since no robust, sophisticated pattern of progression has yet been found, and arguably never will be, given the variables involved, the best guidance as to what children at different ages "can do" has been found in small-scale case studies.

Teachers can best accelerate pupils' thinking in history by using the cyclical method of planning and assessment outlined above, informed by, and perhaps contributing to small-scale case studies which show what children "can do" and how their learning may be progressed by using teaching methods which engage them in creative activities Cooper a based on strands of historical enquiry, through peer collaboration Vygotsky , and through scaffolding their thinking Bruner , thereby leading to writing accounts of their findings in genres which interest them Cooper b.

An online resource Cooper and Nichol suggests how primary school teachers can plan for progression in history. Further international case studies relating to constructivist approaches to primary history education can be found in Education Vol. Agreed criteria are needed for assessing history in public examinations at the secondary school level. Nevertheless, there have been criticisms that these tests inhibit the quality of students' thinking because they are "taught to the test" and the stakes are too high to take risks or exercise initiative Hibbert However, case studies across the secondary-school age range Cooper and Chapman demonstrate that a variety of teaching styles based on a constructivist approach which develops metacognition, promotes rigorous historical enquiry and both independent and collaborative learning, is inclusive, makes history relevant, and accelerates pupils' thinking at any level.

There is therefore a continuum of good practice in teaching that progresses pupils' thinking about history throughout primary and secondary education. Furthermore, a dynamic, multi-perspectival understanding of the past is essential in a democracy, a goal to which formerly communist and fascist countries, and countries where history has been a controversial subject, aspire. The author co-organizes the conferences and co-edits the journal with Dr.

Jon Nichol.

Apostolidou, Eleni. The historical consciousness of year-old students in Greece. PhD diss. Arnheim, Rudolph. Visual Thinking. London: Faber and Faber. Putting Principles into Practice: Teaching and Planning. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Washington: The National Academies Press, Bage, Grant. Narrative Matters: Teaching and Learning through Story. London: Routledge.

Introduction and contents

Barca, Isabel and Helena Pinto. Barton, Keith and Linda Levstik. American Educational Research Journal Teaching History for the Common Good. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum. Barton, Keith and Alan McCully. Bernot, Lucien and Rene Blancard. Nouville, un village francois. Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie.