Teaching History to Children: Connected Thinking for the C21st

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How do we teach our children history?

As an avid reader of historical non-fiction and enthusiast of all things medieval, I was determined to introduce my children to history up-close and personal from as early an age as possible. I didn’t want them to learn history in little clunks of dis-connected ‘projects’ at primary school because I felt that they needed to see history as a continuum. I wanted them to live and breathe their history and to care about the lives of other humans who lived long ago but shared the same basic fears and enthusiasms and dreams for their future as we do.

Now, there is nothing wrong with teaching history in ‘project’ format at Primary level. You have to start somewhere and it is important to introduce such a complex and difficult subject in a digestible format. What I object to, is the feeling that like many of the ‘arts and humanities’ subjects, that history is viewed as a luxury ‘add-on’ rather than a core subject when I fervently believe that it should be key to all learning, whether that be maths, science, art or religious education. Everything has it’s history – it evolved from an earlier form of itself and should be seen within the wider context of the story of human effort and endeavour.

You might say that there would never be enough time within a normal school curriculum to trace everything back to it’s origins but actually, asking deep and meaningful questions about why we spell English words in such an odd way or why we form a number and call that a ‘6’ and what ‘6’ means might actually help small children understand why they need to learn any of the stuff that is pumped into them in order to pass their latest SATS tests in the first place!

The history of the English language would actually make some sense of the anomalies which jut out of the phonics system. They would help to explain why we have a silent ‘k’ in knight or why physics isn’t spelt with an ‘f’ at the beginning. Children currently have no such foundation and many struggle to understand why spelling everything phonetically results in lots of red pen and ’emerging’ statuses on the school report.

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What I find so frustrating about the ‘project’ based approach at Primary is just how disconnected it all is. One year they study the Greeks and the next The Vikings or The Tudors like bubbles in time, floating about in space without grounding any of it in the great timeline of existence.

Why did the Greeks believe in so many gods? Why did the Vikings develop such a reputation for savagery? How far was Tudor society a departure from the medieval world? In order to answer any of these questions, you need to see that society in the context of the age from which is evolved. You can’t really understand the psychology of the ancient Greeks without understanding the cultures of Babylonia, Egypt and the Minoan civilisation. You can’t grasp where the Vikings got their reputation without understanding the impact of Christianity on the British Isles in the centuries before they arrived there anymore than you can see the continuity and change within Tudor England without knowing what came before the split with Rome and the influence of Renaissance humanism on society.

Many people would say that young children would not be able to grasp or grapple with such an approach but I disagree. Even tiny children ask amazingly interesting and complex questions all the time. ‘Why is the sky blue?’ ‘Where do bees come from?’ ‘Why did Henry VIII cut off his wife’s head?’

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They are capable of so much more connected thinking when we allow them to delve deeper into the subject.

To take one example, I went to talk to some year 5 pupils this year about the Anglo-Saxons and knew they had been reading Beowulf by Michael Morpurgo as part of their project. I wanted them to wonder at the beauty of the language and, of course, not being able to read or understand Old English, the best way to convey the poetry and poignancy of the original was to read them passages from Seamus Heaney’s masterly translation and to set the literature within the context of the material culture of Beowulf’s age and the oral tradition of the mead hall.

We looked in detail at slides of finds from Sutton Hoo and talked about the effort involved in the construction of the ship burial and what that represented about the relationship between the tribal leader and his people. This enabled the children to think about the concept of ‘comitatus’ and what that might have meant to the people who built Sutton Hoo and their emotional connection with their leader. By the time we read the lines about the burial of Beowulf and the escort of warriors who paid tribute to him, there was a palpable sense of connection in the classroom. The grave goods were no longer just things dug out of the earth and the words of the poem had taken on a much deeper meaning for those children. The Anglo-Saxons had come ‘alive’ for them. They cared about these people and could understand what made them stand together in battle and face their fears in common as a community. They could see that Grendel was a metaphor for the fears which gripped that society, not just a monster who was invented as a foe to fight and destroy. They had absorbed the fact that Beowulf was a long time in construction and had been transferred from generation to generation through hundreds of years before it was finally written down and that it was a minor miracle that we could read it and enjoy it at all as the only surviving copy was almost burnt to ashes. They ‘cared’ about these things because they had formed an emotional and psychological connection to the text and the people and their culture.

It’s hard to measure this understanding but they asked some very intelligent questions during the talk and all wrote lovely letters afterwards, some with drawings and hopes that they might become historians and archaeologists in the future. I count that a success!

This leads on to the second strand of my argument for a more holistic approach to teaching. In one hour and a half session, we covered literature, symbolic imagery, material artefacts, archaeology, art, technology, psychology, ethics, religious belief and history. Young children are able to cross disciplines and learn through multiple approaches and this enables them to connect things much more quickly and to think laterally.

This has several benefits when studying history but has a wider impact on the level of all their education. Learning about the culture of ‘comitatus’ helps them to understand feudalism and where it evolved from in a shared wider Germanic and Scandinavian foundation. They can connect these ideas to the later ages of Charlemagne and William the Conqueror. It translates to philosophy and ethics – concepts of mutual respect and the greater good. It has a cultural dimension in great stories of brotherhood and friendship. The Anglo-Saxons didn’t invent the concept of a ‘band of brothers’ but they certainly influenced the development of this ideal in later societies and, in turn, looked back to previous cultures and social structures themselves when developing this concept.

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Teaching history in isolation is really a nonsense. So, how might we change the way in which we teach the subject at Primary level?

I think that it should start at pre-school age. Almost all children know about dinosaurs from their toddler years. I was completely obsessed with them and apparently stood on a chair in my local library and announced that I was going to be a Palaeontologist at the age of three. It never happened but I did do my own archaeological dig in my flowerbed in the back garden and treasured an Ammonite that I found for years.

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There we have the foundation for engaging very small children with history. Start with the development of life on Earth, with how the dinosaurs roamed the planet and what happened to them, how creatures changed and became separate species and use their natural interest in animals, birds, fish and reptiles to fuel their knowledge of the history of the Earth. That would give every four year old a basis upon which to build a timeline that is grounded in their own questioning of who they are, where they come from, why they are different to other creatures around them and also maybe, just maybe, foster a love for ecology and sustainability which could save the planet when they grow up!

Rather than jumping forward to the ‘knights and castles’ or ‘pirates’, it would make more logical sense to then ask children how we got from early man to modern society? Use the history of civilisation in connection with biology and science to explain how humans began to cultivate the land, settle in communities rather than following the herds of migrating game and how early communities grew up around agriculture and animal husbandry. Talk to them about the relationship between humans and animal life, about how towns and cities came about and study the great early civilisations which underpinned everything that came after them. Huge opportunities here to introduce philosophy, town planning, science and technology, ethics and codes of conduct and relate that to how they interact with each other in the microcosm of the classroom. This is just the point where teachers begin to draw up class rules and modes of behaviour and would support the development of social interaction, give and take, compromise and sharing, communal living and learning to control their own individual desires for the greater good of their class as a whole. It makes sense and grounds them in the world in which they live.

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By year 1, having understood the development of human society, the construction of cities and the way people structured their communities through time, the next phase would be looking at how different cultures interacted with each other through trade, art, religion and conflict. Rather than studying just one society like the Greeks, this could take on a much wider base of learning. They could look at the Minoans, Babylonians, Egyptians, Phoenicians and the great civilisations of Ancient India and China through their art and archaeology. They could look for connections and differences between these cultures and explore how meeting other people with different beliefs and systems of government can make your own society grow stronger and create even more beautiful art and architecture.

They will be absorbing geography and topography as well. How do rivers help trade? How do mountain ranges protect but also inhibit movement of people in ages before mass transport? Why was the Mediterranean Sea so vital to the development of European civilisation? The role of ships and navigation in the ancient world and how trade disputes led to warfare and weapons development.

Learning to embrace the best of other cultures and fuse their learning with your own is surely a vital lesson for children who will grow up in a global world community at a time of massive pressure and change within all societies and under the threat of global catastrophe. This approach would allow children to understand the importance of shared resources, communication and entrepreneurship and the dangers of intolerance, isolationism and cultural stagnation.

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By the time they reach year 2, children taught in this way, should be able to make connections and ground their learning on a clear timeline of history. They can appreciate that everything is a consequence of something else. Playing chess is another way of teaching history. For every action, there is a consequence. Failure to anticipate what other people are likely to do can cause you problems. Failure to protect your resources can lead to failure. This can be translated into physical games and sports as well as this crucial stage of development when children need to learn how to play together, lose well and balance their own needs against the wider needs of the group.

Year 3 could then be devoted to how the greatest cultures still influence our world today. The children could look at how our cities are constructed, how our laws are made and how we are governed and find out where these ideas came from in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. They could talk about citizenship and what it means to be patriotic. They could discuss different forms of government and why we live in a democracy and what that means to them and their families. They could connect this learning to all their other subject areas through creative writing exercises, debating, argument and ethics and also to their local environment. This holistic approach would provide a strong foundation for understanding how their society operates and why.

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Year 4 would then be the perfect opportunity to explore what happens when a civilisation implodes on itself. The end of the Roman Empire and the impact of this on European history would provide a springboard for looking at how people adapted to change and uncertainty in the past and how this enabled other societies to develop and emerge as the leaders. Migration, land ownership, new religious ideas and practices could be explored which would lead into the Anglo-Saxon and Viking ages in the British Isles and the emergence of great historical figures like Charlemagne and the spread of Christianity.

Once set into context, it is much easier to explain the struggle to control the disparate kingdoms of Britain and how power shifted between various tribal groups during this period, before the Norman Conquest and how Christianity came to dominate the pagan religions. This is the time for Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, for the Viking gods and the great sagas and for a huge creative opportunity to involve children in writing poetry and expressing their developing beliefs about how human society fits into a greater cosmic understanding of the universe.

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Year 5 is the time to talk about power and conflict. The children will have already understood the impact of the Roman Empire of European culture and the importance of planning, organisation and strategic thinking but this can be taken a stage further with nine and ten year olds. This is the time when they are asking questions about current affairs and worrying about news stories. Balancing information with protection from the horrors of the world is every parent’s nightmare as their children become more aware of the world around them and their place in it. This is the time to explain how power and conflict go hand in hand throughout human existence, that there have always been threats and opportunities, strong leaders and weak followers, the victors and the vanquished.

The great struggle of the Normans to establish themselves as the rulers of a mini Empire and the failure to hold territory across the divide of the English Channel is an epic tale, full of colour and heroism, cruelty and betrayal. It is the fabric of our national story, the chapter when our country was formed and moulded into what we know today and may see disintegrate again in the future.

Tell that story and I defy any child not to become absorbed and engaged in history. A family like the Plantagenets put any TV drama or soap into the shade!

By the end of Primary school, children are able to debate, think around issues and begin to form structured arguments. This provides the perfect forum for discussing bias, interpretation, factual information and how to structure a logical argument. These are all skills that they will need to be ‘secondary ready’ but also cross disciplines. Ethics, Philosophy, Psychology, Religious Studies as well as all the Social Science subjects like traditional History and Geography benefit from applying critical analysis to an issue. This multi-disciplined approach to history, drawing in knowledge and understanding from other areas of the curriculum and extending out into other subject areas will give them such a strong, balanced and well-rounded foundation for the challenges of moving on into secondary level education.

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I would take the momentous social, religious and cultural changes of the Renaissance as the foundation for year 6 and look at science and technology, art and architecture, mathematics and astronomy, the religious revolution of the reformation and the ethical dilemmas and debates as a springboard for an explosion of interest and hopefully demonstrate the benefits of thinking innovatively and embracing a real love of learning and enquiry which will hopefully last them a lifetime.

I also think it is very important to widen the viewpoint to take in other cultures and religions as well when looking at history. We live in a world full of ignorance and mis-information about other world religions and belief systems which can only be countered through education and knowledge and once again, a multi-faceted approach would enable children to see the history of their own country within the wider context of a global world history.

So, that’s my vision for Primary history teaching and so much more. It is achievable, flexible, connected and multi-disciplinary. It requires passion and enthusiasm and free-thinking. It demands that children question and explore and engage but hopefully the flip side to all that commitment would be the excitement and exhilaration of embracing on a journey through human experience that will explain who they are, why they are here, where they came from and what they might be able to achieve in the future.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “Teaching History to Children: Connected Thinking for the C21st”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.

    Like

  2. Rose66 Says:

    wonderful

    Like

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