Back to historical basics

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Diana Hinds visits a school that is creating and trialling new teaching materials

Part of the fun of history lessons at Midhurst Intermediate School, a middle school in West Sussex, is that the children never know what they might be asked to do next. For they are directly involved in devising innovative teaching materials which will be published and sold to other schools. Today, five weeks into a project on the Irish famine, 12- and 13-year-olds are given the task of using what they have learnt to prepare a one-hour lesson on Ireland in the 1840s.

They are cast in the role of expert historians by Professor John Fines, president of the Historical Association, who is teaching this lesson with the school's head of history, Tony Hopkins.

"When someone calls you up as an expert, it is an imposition on you to be fair in what you are saying," he exhorts. "You must be able to put both sides of the picture. If what they learn is wrong, it's your fault. Getting things wrong can cause problems: we all know the problems there are in Northern Ireland today, which mostly stem from getting things wrong."

The large history room has tables around the outside, and chairs in the centre for class discussion. After pooling ideas on the board about what their lesson might include, the children disperse to work in small groups. There are no textbooks. Instead, the class works mainly from period documents - in this case, photocopied extracts from the Irish journals of Elizabeth Smith, wife of a retired Irish landowner, who attempted to help the poor.

Once the project is completed, these documents, together with a factual summary and examples of children's oral and written responses, will become available to other teachers of key stage three history, from Front Line Publications.

There are already packs available on the Roman Empire (with source material from Pliny, Livy and Tacitus), the native American peoples (with extracts from Indian stories and documents, and conflicting accounts of the battle of Little Big Horn), the French Revolution (with a varied series of paintings and drawings by David for pupils to date according to events), and the First World War (with a wealth of contemporary diaries, letters, cartoons and poetry). All contain ideas for lessons, as well as examples of written work by Midhurst Intermediate pupils and transcripts of discussions.

"They represent a contribution to thought, rather than a plan of action, " says Professor Fines, whose work as co-director of the Nuffield Primary History Project is published this month by Heinemann. The Front Line publications are a much more amateur affair than the Heinemann history units, self-published and more informally presented. The inclusion of pupils' work is central.

"There is an advantage in being specific: this class, which we taught in this way, produced these results," explains Professor Fines. "It gives ideas, but leaves the teacher free to make his or her own decisions. Teachers are often lonely in their classrooms, and to give examples of other children's work gives them a point of comparison."

This is no money-spinner for Professor Fines and Mr Hopkins - units cost between Pounds 5 and Pounds 35 - but more of an evangelical mission: "Since we have got the models, we thought, why not use them?" says Professor Fines. Once he has assembled documents, pictures, artefacts, for each pack, and devised a basic structure, he then trials it in a class with Mr Hopkins (a former student of his at West Sussex Institute of Higher Education); Mr Hopkins then repeats the lesson with other classes. The 12- and 13-year-olds at Midhurst - an average bunch in terms of ability - have been Front Line guinea pigs for the past three years; their names crop up frequently in the project literature, so that the reader almost gets to know them.

"Some of the documents are quite difficult at first," says Olivia Morgan, 12, getting to work on the Irish famine. "But we go through the pieces of evidence as a class."

Mano Sindihakis, 12, confesses: "When I heard we would be doing the famine, with just these documents, I thought it would be really boring. But you start to get pictures in your mind of what's going on, and the documents help with that. This one (by Elizabeth Smith) is good because it is from a rich woman's point of view - it's not written by the teacher."

What Professor Fines and Mr Hopkins are attempting in all this is to treat their pupils as real historians in the making: instead of textbooks to regurgitate, they are given different kinds of historical evidence to sift and evaluate, encouraging them to come to their own conclusions, but always to back up what they are saying. Dates and facts are there, too - but embedded in a deeper understanding of historical period.

"Depth is perhaps our true credo," writes Professor Fines, in his introduction to the unit on the First World War. "Unless the children are tangling with real historical materials in a real historical way, there is no point in the operation. So while madmen drivel in the media about knowing the framework of the past, about a structure of dates and events, about a knowledge of chronology, the teacher must keep his or her head and let the little divers dive, go deep, begin really to know things - to have the confidence to say, 'I think I can say something about all this, and it is my idea.'" Variety of approach helps to make it fun: the Midhurst children visit local libraries and historical sites, hold debates and perform role plays, as well as read and write essays. The personality of Professor Fines helps, too; in the classroom, he is hugely jolly but authoritative, humorous and compelling. "He's fun. You don't want to miss out on what he's saying. He sort of hypnotises you," says one boy.

These pupils probably spend more time on oral work than in other schools - "they need that, because we're using quite demanding materials," says Professor Fines. But the effect of this, according to Mr Hopkins, has been to improve the quality of their written work, partly because they can structure things better. Simon Davies, the headteacher, says the historical work has boosted pupils' confidence in other subject areas.

"The first years in secondary school are so often wasted," says Professor Fines. "The national curriculum demands this type of work, but a lot of teachers say they wouldn't know how to do it, they don't believe you can use documents of this difficulty with children. But this class has had a real blast of role play, of coming up to the front to defend their ideas, being shoved into the realisation that it is their responsibility to make up their own mind."

"They have learnt to select evidence and use it well," says Mr Hopkins. "They have become good at discussing, debating, and arguing. They are even asking for documents now."

Front Line Publications, co Marion Turner, The Shrubbery, Upper Bognor Road, Bognor Regis, West Sussex PO21 1HR

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