Little pain but lots of gain

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Dave Martin on how low-level computer software can aid high-level historical thinking. There is one type of software that comes with the computer. It does not get left behind by the changes in technology, as has happened to some excellent history simulations. It is already in use in schools, it does not have to be bought, and pupils are familiar with it.

It is called generic software and includes databases, spreadsheets, word processing, text handling and draw programmes. And it has become the focus of a national project designed to show how high-level historical thinking can come out of using relatively low-level information technology.

The government-funded project found there had been a decline in the use of IT in history, due to the introduction of the national curriculum and changes in the technology available in schools. For instance, simulations, once at the forefront of developments, were being used less and less. The underuse of IT has also been a common complaint of school inspectors.

So the project, managed by the Historical Association and the National Council for Education Technology, starting with key stage 3, set out to show how the technology available in schools could be put to better use.

The project team found that the generic software programmes can help historians in many ways. Take the teaching of overviews, which has always been difficult. How would you cover a long time span without resorting to a dull litany of details and dates? One solution is to use a database of medieval castles. Pupils can quickly search for patterns of change and continuity, seeing how castles changed from Norman motte and bailey to Henrician concentric gun platforms. The database also makes accessible sufficient examples for pupils to recognise that change neither takes place immediately in one year, nor uniformly across a country.

Another solution to outlines is the use of a spreadsheet of trade figures for Britain 1750-1900. Again a quick search for patterns. Why did British trade with countries like the United States or France's noticeably dip at certain dates? This is an opportunity to examine the impact of the American and French Revolutions, while plotting the relative balance of British trade with Africa or Asia enables pupils to chart the development of the British Empire. The ease of search and graphing of spreadsheets makes statistical data accessible and manipulable for Year 9 pupils.

Historical causation is another difficult area. The use of word processing, spread-sheet, text-handling or draw programmes allows pupils to manipulate the causes of any historical event on screen. By highlighting, placing into boxes, connecting with lines or linking pages pupils can see how the causes of the English Civil War are connected, how they might be categorised and what relative importance they have. Alternatively, pupils might develop a database of the problems facing Tudor and Stuart monarchs. In the process they would be forced to consider such issues as religion or the difference between a rebellion and civil war.

Both these activities provide a base on which extended writing can be developed. At one attainment level this might mean a well constructed essay, at another it might mean a few sentences that constitute an historical explanation. In either instance word processing is an invaluable aid to teachers trying to improve pupils' communication of their knowledge and understanding. It is used not to produce a neat final copy but to draft and redraft an explanation, which pupils would find infinitely more difficult using pen and paper.

Site visits are invaluable for pupils but difficult for some schools to achieve. CD-Rom technology can now bring the site into the classroom far more excitingly than photographs can. This makes it possible for pupils to compare the present site with reconstructions. These can be linked on disc with the available written evidence to evaluate reconstruction drawings as interpretations of history.

Historical enquiry, in particular pupils framing their own questions, is another area where IT can help. Many teachers have developed databases of historical sources such as census returns, trade directories, soldiers executed in the First World War. The power of the computer has been the swift searching by pupils to test their hypotheses. Were all children under eight scholars? An alternative approach is through a pupil-constructed database which categorises the sources available for study. Do the sources we have about the Romans affect what we know about them? Yes is the answer an examination of such a database suggests. Here the database is not being used to examine one large source but a wide range of sources.

On a smaller scale word processing allows easy study of one written source on disc. This can be highlighted, for example, to separate narrative from explanation or fact from opinion.

Finally, the most recent development is CD-Rom, where vast quantities of stored information can be searched. Here, as in any enquiry, pupils need to know what they are looking for; they need to frame valid historical questions. For teachers the issue is which CD-Rom to buy.

The History and IT Support Project will be publishing one leaflet on CD-Rom to help history teachers make informed choices and another on using IT. Classroom materials, guidance and training will follow. The three project officers, myself, Rob Entwistle, and Ben Walsh can be contacted at the NCET, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry, CV4 7JJ.

Dave Martin is a history adviser in Dorset

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