Are you ready to fly solo?
Hilary Cooper on a series of Victorian snapshots which rely on teacher expertise.
This series of six books could support small groups of children investigating different aspects of Victorian Britain, then sharing their findings. It is an economical way of covering a lot of content, and of assessing children's resulting knowledge and understanding. However, this will only be possible if, after using a spate of national curriculum history schemes, teachers are ready to fly solo and initiate and support genuine historical enquiry which reflects the various strands of historical thinking.
The series is disappointing in that the authors appear to have learned nothing from the past five years' evidence that young children are capable of discussing sources and considering causes and effects of changes. The books are not particularly easy to read. Although the print is large the vocabulary and sentence structure are not simple: "Cooks expected certain privileges"; "The Duke of Wellington did not say anything about the remarkable dishes he had prepared for him"; "in smaller households the kitchenmaid's job was combined with that of the scullerymaid", who would do "tedious jobs".
There are plenty of photographs, engravings, advertisements, paintings, artefacts, reconstructions. But these are not used as sources from which inferences are invited. They are illustrations only loosely linked to text which often gives very generalised information. This is often banal. "Ordinary children did not have such fancy clothes as rich children". "Life was very hard, even for many in work". There is no apparent evidence for the caption of one photograph, "Children wearing hand-me-downs"! The images are not used as effectively as they could be, for example to show different interpretation of the same situation. Nor is there any attempt to question how the images were made, by whom and why. Victorian photographs of all classes of people were posed and can be misleading. Children are quite capable of discussing validity in such contexts.
Yet the main reason why the books do not encourage interaction is because connections are not explored or explained, links for example between transport, trade, mines and Empire, and the underlying invention of steam power, nor are resulting social conditions explained in this context.
Time-lines at the end of each book do not cross-refer. They merely present facts of varying levels of significance - "1890s: coat hangers began to be used". The expertise of the teacher is crucial in using these books if we are not to return to a view of history as "dry as dust" and "one damned thing after another".