Friend and guide to the primary teacher

1st December 1995 at 00:00
HISTORY IN THE EARLY YEARS By Hilary Cooper Teaching and Learning in the First Three Years of School series Routledge Pounds 10.99. - 0 415 10100 X

The lack of a "research-reflection" culture in schools is only too evident in staffroom and departmental libraries. In primary schools, apart from the occasional publication from official sources, it is rare to find any text at all on the whys and hows of teaching history. History in the Early Years is a timely response to a real need to support curriculum co-ordinators in primary schools.

Hilary Cooper is ideally suited to be the primary historian's guide and friend being an experienced classroom practitioner and a history academic. The principal competencies of history - understanding change over time, interpreting the past and making deductions and inferences from sources - are placed in the context of a child's learning with reference to an impressive cast of international researchers and frequent recourse to children's fiction.

At one level the young child's history is rich with paradox: Lisa believes that she will eventually be the same age as her mother; Penelope Lively (a history graduate as well as a novelist ) writes of the child's interminable present. However, research also shows that children can become engaged with the past, acting out stories, describing patterns in their own lives and well able to point out similarity and difference both in text and illustration.

The author's enthusiasm is tempered with realism: "Of course chronology and dates and measured time are central to history as a discipline but for young children whose understanding of time is embryonic, a curiosity and excitement about other people, other lives and other times are more important than dates."

Teachers who have studied little child psychology (a regrettable but not uncommon predicament these days) need not be deterred by the early chapters detailing the research. Cooper uses the research findings to construct practical strategies by which teachers can develop the skills of historical enquiry - a class museum for sequencing, the use of fairy stories to cross the bridge between fantasy and fact and play to explore the difference between what is known, what might be supposed and what cannot be known: "Through metaphor, chairs and tables can become mountains and caves and a young child can become a powerful adventurer."

A clearly written and reassuring chapter on planning, based on the revised Order, recommends a combination of subject-focused and more general themes with a positive recognition of the links that exist with other areas of the curriculum.

Four case studies from work in inner-city schools describe activities, methodology and resources and include one on the Victorian kitchen for slightly older children with severe learning difficulties. Co-ordinators will welcome the 10 in-service training workshop plans which are ideal for after-school sessions; the one on the evaluation of secondary sources is particularly well-conceived and designed to involve everyone in source interrogation.

Hilary Cooper has succeeded in the difficult task of writing a text which provides the necessary theoretical underpinning of good practice and sufficient practical help to translate principles into memorable experiences and valuable outcomes.

Apart from a reticence on the finer detail of assessment which is not altogether overcome by the tentative set of proposals in one of the Inset workshops, this substantial book rings with a biblical authority on the subject and adds to the stature of this already highly regarded series.

Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and religious education in the London Borough of Hounslow

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