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Beyond a superficial scamper

Michael Riley on how a creative blend of outline and depth history can be used to enrich pupils' historical understanding.

The French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie once divided historians into truffle-hunters and parachutists. Truffle-hunters immerse themselves in the archives, producing detailed studies of individual events and communities. Parachutists write the history of whole civilisations over vast chunks of time. Both approaches to the study of history are valid and necessary and both should be part of our pupils' historical diet.

There is a wide recognition among history teachers that we need to teach history in depth. Many of us were pleased to see an explicit requirement to teach in depth in the revised national curriculum history Orders. Pupils enjoy digging into interesting issues: through in-depth investigations they build up an understanding of the complexity of past events and developments.

However, an approach to history teaching which simply moves pupils on from one depth study to the next limits their historical understanding. We need to encourage pupils to move out from the particular, to see patterns and connections across time and place, to get to grips with big historical issues. A creative blend of outline and depth history is the way to achieve this. Such an approach should be at the heart of all sound departmental planning.

Pupils need to understand how small stories fit into larger ones. We can teach the murder of Becket as a murder mystery, but it can also be the starting point for a much bigger investigation of the relationship between church and state in the Middle Ages.

We can ask whether the Gunpowder Plotters were framed, but we can also use the plot as a way into the more meaningful issue of religious intolerance in the 16th and 17th centuries. On a wider scale, we can teach the history of Britain, but we can also place it in a European and global context.

Using and developing outline knowledge in this way is far removed from a superficial scamper through large tracts of the past. Teaching history in outline can be seen as a way of managing the content demands of history at key stage 3. But there is little point in the transmission of a body of knowledge for its own sake. We need to see outline history not as a way of covering those parts of the programmes of study we do not want to do, but as a way of developing greater historical understanding.

Overviews can usefully he employed to provide chronological, geographical or social contexts for in-depth study. Sometimes they can be established quickly by story-telling or video-clips. A 10-minute narrative of the life of Martin Luther can immediately grab pupils' interest and establish a broad canvas for an in-depth study of the English Reformation. A video clip from the BBC's History File programme on 19th century living conditions provides an array of comparative material which can bring pupils' in-depth investigations of their own localities into sharper focus.

Outlines are often best created by pupils themselves using a variety of active learning strategies. These could represent short 20-minute activities or enquiries which stretch over several lessons. What better way of establishing the key features of a period than by bombarding pupils with pictures at the outset of a study unit. They can be asked to sort and classify images and to frame hypotheses which can then be tested through detailed investigations of particular issues.

The ends of study units are useful points for encouraging reflection on salient features and most significant changes. At the end of their work on the Middle Ages pupils can demonstrate their understanding of the period by selecting only 10 pieces of information which they would give to a member of their class who has been chosen to travel back in time.

A final activity to the core unit on the 20th Century World could be the selection of pictures and the production of a catalogue for an exhibition on the impact of technology in the 20th century.

Often pupils can develop a broader understanding of historical issues by creating thematic overviews as they work through depth studies. Changes in technology, warfare, living conditions and political power all lend themselves to this type of treatment. Classroom-wall time-lines can be built up on a particular theme. One of last year's high spots came when a girl in my Year 9 class drew our attention to similarities in the use of propaganda between Augustus, Cromwell and Hitler.

Pupils will only engage with history if we encourage them to place individuals and events under the microscope. They will only make sense of the past if we let them step back and take a panoramic view.

Departments which plan for interesting and creative blends of depth and outline history lead their pupils to deeper understanding and higher-order thinking.

Such an approach to planning has advantages for pupils of all abilities. The more able are encouraged to make connections and to establish the trends and patterns in the past. At the same time lower-attaining pupils are supported in their learning by revisiting key terms and concepts. Surely all our pupils deserve the satisfaction of truffle-hunting and the exhilaration of parachuting.

Michael Riley is Teaching and Learning Consultant for Humanities, Somerset, and a member of the Historical Association Secondary Committee. He writes here in a personal capacity and will be speaking at the Historical Association 14-19 education conference next week.

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