International community

18th February 2005 at 00:00
A new network and its first conference have brought together teachers from around the world. Hilary Cooper provides a snapshot of three research projects

Last summer a group of people from all over the world gathered at St Martin's College in Ambleside to discuss teaching and learning history at the first conference of the History Educators International Research Network (HEIRNET).

Researchers into teaching history from North and South America, South Africa, the Pacific Rim and Europe presented 40 papers. There is space here to give only a flavour of three of them but they can all be read on the website.

Reasoning about sources

Carla van Boxtel of the University of Amsterdam and Jannet van Drie from Utrecht University investigated the strategies which 14 and 16-year-olds and their teachers used to work out the meaning of sources.

One source they used was a political cartoon. Teachers and pupils were shown a cartoon by Mirko Szewczuk called "Kom, lass dich auch neutralisieren". The 1952 cartoon is about Stalin's proposal to unite and neutralise Germany. Pupils and teachers were not told these details and were asked what the cartoon referred to and the year it belonged to. After video-recorded discussions, they wrote down their answers and how they had reached them. Strategies used to work out the context were: * Time frameworks: students and teachers used a chronological frame of reference. All the teachers, but few of the pupils, knew the exact date.

But they all drew on their knowledge of past events to reason about the meaning of the cartoon, the difference was in the degree of knowledge they brought to bear on it.

They all mentioned the Second World War, the Cold War and Communism. Some 16-year-olds and all the teachers mentioned the division of Germany and the death of Stalin.

* Place frameworks: the 16-year-olds (but not the 14-year-olds) also used their knowledge of place. Here is an extract from one of the discussions between 16-year-olds: Lara: That cat is Communism.

Sanne: That cat liberates that angel to make peace with the mice or something like that.

Lara: Yes.

Sanne: Look. All those countries. Those are not Communist; these are Communist, aren't they - Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Sanne: Yes, they're taken by the Russians.

Lara: They are.

Sanne: Perhaps they try to catch it with that small angel - something like that.

Lara: Yes. A trap. Yes, I think so.

Sanne: That's it! In the Cold War Germany was divided wasn't it?

Lara: In the Cold War they tried to make Germany Communist.

* Questions and argument: the younger pupils were more likely to make claims without supporting arguments. Also, the number of aspects of the cartoon that were discussed increased with age. Questioning was an important part of the reasoning.

The researchers concluded that more work was needed to investigate helping pupils develop their reasoning.

Developing abstract thinking History teaching is not simply what David Starkey has called "the mechanics of history". Story can also play a part. It depends what is learned through listening to stories. Dursun Dilek and Guelcin Sogucakli Yapici from the University of Marmara challenged the notion that learning develops from concrete to abstract; drawing on research of Kieran Egan and others, they suggested how a concept they called "abstract thinking specific to childhood" might be developed through stories about the past.

They created a story about "Grandfather Seljuk" for a class of 11-year-olds in Istanbul, giving them opportunities for questioning and explanation while they listened. When the story ended, children were asked to draw certain artefacts described. Similarities and differences with the originals were analysed. Dilek and Yapici identified three levels of abstract thinking in the responses.

* Static imagination: the story described servants pouring rose sherbet into glasses from a ceramic flask, round like a globe with a peacock decoration and two handles next to the rim. Pupils' drawings correctly reflected the description.

lTransition from static to dynamic imagination: pupils were asked to draw a coin depicting Suleiman Shah on his horse carrying a weapon with three prongs. There were six-pointed stars on each of his shoulders and on his legs. Around the edge of the coin was written "Destroyer Prince". In general, the pupils' coins looked very like the original, but some had added details: headgear, saddle, boots, not described in the story. They were filling the gaps in the information given, in valid ways. One pupil added musical notes to a plate depicting a wedding feast.

* Dynamic imagination: some pupils devised historically acceptable symbols representing abstract concepts. For example, one drew a coin, described in the story as a "symbol of sovereignty", with a two-headed eagle, symbol of the Anatolian Seljuks, on one side and Kabadabad Palace, symbol of the economy of the state, on the reverse.

Do your pupils use dynamic imagination to draw artefacts, people or events described in a story? Does the way they do this change with age?

True or valid statements

Rosalyn Ashby, from London University Institute of Education, examined the responses of Year 3, 6, 7 and 9 pupils to statements such as the claim by the Welsh monk Nennius, that "Arthur killed 960 Saxons at Mount Badon".

Pupils were asked "how could you decide if this was true?" and the answers showed progression in their thinking. Generally, younger children wanted to find out from an authority - an adult or a book. By Year 7 they recognised that books may differ - then they would say what most say: "If 80 per cent say the same thing I'd go for that." The younger pupils considered the credibility of the author: "Monks would write the truth." Most Year 9 pupils questioned the author's claim, on the basis of his ability to know.

They recognised that inferences could be made from sources and considered whether these were likely.

Rosalyn Ashby's study illustrated the need for teachers to help pupils hypothesise and to reason about sources in order to understand the difference between evidence and sources, between an accurate and a justified representation of the past.

In each of these studies, teachers showed progression in classroom practice, a professionally empowering approach, rather than depending on ad hoc attainment targets. So don't wait for the next HEIRNET conference in Capetown 2006. Visit the website and let us know about your own findings.

Hilary Cooper is professor of history and pedagogy at St Martin's College, Lancaster

* HEIRNET was set up last year by Jon Nichol, reader in history at the University of Exeter, and Hilary Cooper as an international forum for researchers in teaching history, reflecting the subject's politically powerful nature. Contact Hilary Cooper, Bracken Steps, Grasmere, Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 9RL Tel: 01539 435558 Email:

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