Evidence unearthed

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Learning how to learn is the aim at the heart of two primary schools' recent history projects. Tom Deveson explains their approach

The Department for Education and Employment has put its authority behind the promotion of thinking skills, seeing them as the way pupils can "focus on 'knowing how' as well as 'knowing what' - learning how to learn". The DFEE's positive assertion that thinking skills "are embedded in the national curriculum" has been welcomed, though such skills can sometimes seem invisible because of their very ubiquity. And while the Government officially commends pupils' learning "to look for alternative innovative outcomes", the means by which this can happen can get lost in the demand to cover programmes of study.

"Thinking skills" are increasingly studied and recommended in a number of programmes in higher education - their essence being an emphasis on problem-solving and on articulating the processes used to find a solution rather than merely stating an answer. Because thinking skills involve mental flexibility and the ability to transfer what has been learned into new settings, there is no specific or favoured subject area to which they are attached. Some innovative work has now been done in the school science curriculum, in geography, and in the literacy and numeracy strategies. But history, which depends on the capacity to notice, argue, generalise and reflect on our own reflections, is proving a rewarding field for these techniques.

High Spen primary, which serves a former pit village, Rowlands Gill near Gateshead, recently welcomed the collaboration of Peter Fisher from the department of education at Newcastle University. His research on learning and instruction has inspired many teachers in the North-east with a missionary determination. With Helen Burrell, a Year 3 teacher, he devised a half-term's scheme of work featuring the local legend of the Lambton Worm. The aim was not to tack thinking skills on as an extra, but to infuse them into the discipline of the subject.

The children began by exploring the notion of different points of view. They "overheard" the headteacher delivering a message and were invited to report back and compare versions. They discussed an account of a fight in the playground, arguing productively over such issues as whether the teacher's view should be accepted as authoritative and how various assertions could be classified as fact or opinion. All this was preparation for work on the Lambton legend, which exists in many renditions - from a ballad in dialect to a sanitised modern retelling in which the family curse is quietly bowdlerised away from its harsh medieval setting. Working with differentiated resources to suit their reading ability, the children now really began to exercise their powers of discrimination.

They used cut-and-paste methods to reconstitute the fundamental story from randomised statements; they argued about the epistemological status of pieces of evidence such as "the Worm suffered when it died"; and, most impressively, they produced "living graphs" in which the narrative time of the story was plotted on one axis against another of smiling, neutral and scowling faces, indicating how different participants might have felt about events. Discussion about how crusaders of different temperaments might have rated "going to war" was fervent but focused on documents and facts.

This matching of chronology with the "affective domain" has been used successfully with secondary pupils, as a means of going beyond the simplicities of empathetic guesswork. To see it used here by small children, maintaining their decisions in an informed manner, was impressive. The class became a true community of enquiry, with the teacher acting not just as an instructor but as a mediator between competing and complementary discourses. Jean Fisher, High Spen's headteacher, judges the project a great success. "It demonstrated the virtues of rigorous planning, and it kept history abreast of the literacy strategy. And in a village that has undergone a major social and economic transformation, the project helped link past and present, and develop an informed pride in our neighbourhood."

Summerlea primary school in Littlehampton, West Sussex, spent a week reliving the experiences of Iron Age villagers who lived between the Downs and the Channel in Celtic times. The staff had spent a two-day conference working with Charles Desforges of Exeter University on "Thinking and Effective Questioning". Headteacher Brian Ball was determined to put their enthusiasm to immediate use.

"History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors," TS Eliot wrote in Gerontion. Lines from Eliot's poem East Coker were turning in Brian Ball's mind as he planned the project: "Mirth of those long since under earth,Nourishing the corn." He wanted children to feel something of the continuity of human involvement with their long-inhabited locality. He also wanted them to appreciate the dignity of long-dead generations by thinking through evidence and reaching into the past, bringing together the power of language and the data available to their senses.

In collaboration with Tristan Bareham of the local archeological museum, he spent part of the holiday burying objects and artefacts - an antler comb, flint tools, bits of pot, loom weights, a billhook - in a field by the school. Each class was assigned an area to dig, sketch, photograph, clean and carefully remove any objects they uncovered. These were then stored in the school hall, recreating the positions from which they had been taken and documented with descriptions of colour, shape and texture, together with speculations as to their identity, provenance, and possible use.

While this was happening, other classes were working with museum staff and volunteers on the construction of a full-size wattle-and-daub thatched roundhouse. Children took part in all the construction work apart from the thatching on the higher parts of the structure. Simultaneously other classes were spread about in the summer sunshine, making and firing pots, turning wooden tool handles, spinning and weaving woollen cloth, and making vegetable stew and honey oatcakes, all with the appropriate technology. Nikki Senior, a Year 3 teacher and the school's history co-ordinator, was impressed by the quality of co-operative thinking in her class. Children helped one another manipulate shaped flints, choosing the best angle for drawing - "hold it like that, because then you can see how it was probably used". Others huddled together to evolve possible explanations for the find of a shell. It might have been dropped by an Iron Age child who had been at the beach; or maybe the coastline itself had moved over the intervening centuries. Pupils became a research team, looking at possibilities and assigning one another investigative tasks.

Older pupils, working with the kiln, developed language to express the double comparative variables ("the hotter, the harder") so necessary in scientific analysis. Younger children, working towards a speculative account of their uncovered artefacts, found ambitious forms of syntax to express their thoughts about time and causality; these, in turn, enabled them to refine and develop their historical concepts. They needed to be able to generate elaborate subordinate clauses and express the notion of conditional corollaries: "If the pieces of pottery have different thicknesses, the containers may have had different uses." Such words and ideas flowed in discussions and hummed out of printers.

The language represented more than a dutiful trudge through the Literacy Hour. The vivid experience of "time present" (in Eliot's words) was complemented by an imaginative recreation of "time past" in which the whole school shared. The pupils were learning an attitude to history that is both factual and imaginative, where empathy is based on rigour and where the discipline of the subject is complemented by an almost poetic sense of other lives before our own - what historian RG Collingwood calls "history as the self-knowledge of the mind".


Long ago, young master Lambton went fishing. He caught only a worm and in disgust threw it into a well. Years later, the worm left the well - but now it was a huge, ferocious dragon. Lambton killed the worm with a witch's help. But, to fulfil her conditions, he had also to kill his father. He couldn't, and his family was cursed for nine generations.

The magazine 'Teaching History', with occasional articles on the use of thinking skills, is published quarterly by the Historical Association, 59a Kennington Park Road, London SE11 4JH.

NETS News, the Newsletter of the North East Thinking Skills Network is published by the University of Newcastle. Tel: 0191 2225299. Fax: 0191 2228252

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