Model practice in black and white

5th September 1997 at 01:00
THE NUFFIELD HISTORY PROJECT TEACHING PRIMARY HISTORY. By John Fines and John Nichol. Heinemann Pounds 19.99.


Hilary Cooper reviews long-awaited publications from the Nuffield Primary History Project

The full truth of this . . . matter is what the world has long been looking for, and public curiosity is sure to welcome," says Robert Louis Stevenson's introduction to The Master of Ballantrae.

These books are long-awaited because since 1991 the Nuffield Foundation has given considerable financial support to the project team. Based at Exeter University, the team has worked with class teachers and children in primary schools throughout the UK over prolonged periods to develop case studies that are models of good practice.

"Public curiosity" will welcome their publication because, although the introduction of the national curriculum in 1991 was followed by a surfeit of schemes for teaching enquiry-based history, this is the first project to investigate and demonstrate in detail how this may be done in practice.

The support of the Nuffield Foundation in making these links between policy and practice has been essential. In spite of rhetoric about partnership between schools and higher education, resources for teacher training make it difficult for tutors to work with teachers in schools on curriculum development.

Teaching Primary History describes a variety of approaches explored by the project team. This is supported by books giving several sequences of precise and detailed plans which were used to teach specific history study units.

Some initial observations in Teaching Primary History suggest that at the outset team members were a little out of touch with the rigours of classroom life. It is a long time since anyone might have thought "discovery learning" provided an opportunity for the teacher to read Sporting Life.

Most teachers are aware of the mental sophistication of young children and of the wide ability range in any class, although they may be concerned to learn that "many 10-year-olds are demonstrably cleverer than their teachers in some areas". The cover photograph, boy seated attended by three coy females - all apparently admiring a Greek jug, conveys gender messages reminiscent of Chaunticleer "among his wyves alle".

But the team soon gets down to the realities of working with teachers to plan and teach work that closely reflects the demands of the OFSTED framework. The value of the project then becomes apparent, much is learned by all of the partners, and readers are constantly encouraged to focus on their own practice and develop their own action research.

Teaching Primary History is unique in that each chapter begins with brief references to relevant learning theory or the work of a historian; (Jack Hexter is clearly a familiar), although precise references are not given. This is followed by detailed plans for sequences of lessons, and there is an emphasis throughout on examples of children's responses.

These plans reflect the considerable historical knowledge of the researchers, thoughtfully applied to the needs of classes familiar to the teachers.

Some chapters focus on the uses of a particular type of historical source - objects, sites, visual images, for instance. Some explore a particular teaching approach applied to history - storytelling, drama, simulations, and so on.

The most innovative chapters are those that apply generic research, some of it undertaken as part of other projects at Exeter University to historical contexts. These include development of questioning, speaking and listening skills, and use of writing frames as scaffolding to structure children's historical thinking. These sections are particularly useful in view of the idea popular in some quarters that English should be taught as a series of discrete skills, and not linked to other subjects.

Chapter 5, on questioning, will give the flavour of the book. It begins with a quotation from Collingwood on the nature of historical inquiry, then helps readers to consider ways of encouraging children to ask and answer questions about life in Tudor times. Pupils could compare two maps, at key stage 2, or about the Bayeaux Tapestry or a Richard III portrait at key stage 1.

These exercises are related to models for questioning, followed by examples of how pupils' questions about Anglo-saxon England and Columbus were structured so they could plan their own group, individual and class enquiry. Finally there is an example of assessment through questioning.

The hallmark of the project is that it shows how interesting stimuli were used to help children plan their own enquiries, which were economical of source material, so they could debate issues and finally present findings to a range of audiences. It should support the novice and the experienced teacher.

Last week saw the publication of Teaching Key Stage One History, which completes the Teaching Primary History series Hilary Cooper is head of research in education at the University College of St Martin, Lancaster

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