Object lesson in sourcework skills

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
WHAT IS EVIDENCE? SOUTH AFRICA DURING THE YEARS OF APARTHEID. A skills-based approach to secondary history. By Rob Sieborger Gail Weldon and Chris Hinton. John Murray with Francolin Publishers Cape Town Pounds 6.99

This fascinating South African publication was written for South African pupils to study apartheid - "now that it is possible to do so". Rob Sieborger teaches at the University of Cape Town, and Gail Weldon is director of studies at a Cape Town school.

A book on apartheid by South Africans makes for an insightful and particularly relevant selection of sources. But What is Evidence? is not main-ly about apartheid. It is an object lesson in how to develop pupils' sourcework skills.

The first exercises teach simple cataloguing and factual extraction. Later spreads address bias and reliability, contradictory evidence and interpretations of history, and synthesis of a narrative from different sources. Teachers who are uncertain about sourcework might want to buy this book - even if they do not study South Africa - just to copy its approach, which could easily be adapted to any content material.

A range of sourcework skills is addressed through the study of apartheid. Pupils learn "what sources tell us", for example, by considering: "How did apartheid affect the lives of people in South Africa?" A selection of evidence allows them to answer this.

Questions follow, however, which direct their attention to the problem of the survival of certain sources and the destruction of others.

The authors explain the historian's task clearly and simply. They are practical: the reader learns that "not all sources consulted will be useful". They are realistic: for instance, pupils are shown how to research Bantu Education, assuming they could find only two, secondary sources in the school library!

A foreword explains that the authors do not feel neutral about apartheid. But I do not think anyone will have difficulty with the book's treatment of its subject; it seemed to me to be surprisingly objective.

It is not, however, for the less able pupil. Although it starts with very easy exercises, it is text-heavy and black-and-white, which may turn them off.

Nevertheless, What is Evidence? is what it claims to be: a skills-based approach to history. It will be an excellent supplement to a Modern World topic on South Africa. Rather than adopting a textbook which tries (and perhaps fails) to do sourcework within a narrative framework, you might wish to try an approach which uses a simple narrative text, and then studies this book to address the sourcework skills.

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