Thought for the days;Reviews;History;Books

9th April 1999 at 01:00
Mark Williamson welcomes a reflective new series for key stage 3

THINK THROUGH HISTORY SERIES. General editors Christine Counsell and Michael Riley.

MEDIEVAL MINDS. CHANGING MINDS. MINDS AND MACHINES. Longman pound;6.99 each.

CHANGING MINDS TEACHER'S BOOK. Longman pound;19.50

QUEST - THE MEDIEVAL WORLD. By Bea Stimpson. Stanley Thornes pound;6.50

MEDIEVAL REALMS (History Investigations pack). By Sue Johnson, Keith Worrall, Chris Culpin, Peter Fisher. Collins pound;59.99

Donald McGill would have liked Think Through History, which at times is as direct and saucy as his seaside postcards - including the question of what William did with Harold's body (he sent it to Harold's mother). It gets worse and even more enjoyable as lusty monks chase nuns and Anne (Queen 1702-1714) confesses all: "I am 37. I have been pregnant 18 times ... My main interests are playing dominoes and drinking brandy."

The test bed for arresting history must be the industrial revolution. Even here the series shows that impact and innovation can prevail in national curriculum-led writing. "On 26 May 1832 a two-year-old child began to vomit and have diarrhoea. Within a few hours the child's body had turned a blue-black colour. The eyes sank into the head. The skin went cold." This description of the first cholera epidemic is matched in the harrowing chapters on slavery and child labour and in the case studies of Leeds ("a perfect wilderness of foulness") and the Gressenhall workhouse.

Key events and ideas are mainly presented through the lives of individuals. The Civil War is powerfully portrayed by extracts from the Verney letters - "Brother, what I feared is true - you are against the king" - and the subsequent religious complexities are effectively distilled into personal "statements" by successive kings. In similar vein, the cartoons of politicians kissing Walpole's bottom and George II's hatred of his father - "He locked up my mother for having a boyfriend and never allowed me to see her" - go to the heart of the matter that can sometimes be obfuscated by narrative.

This new series represents a different and refreshing approach to history for pupils of average and below average ability. The authors have a knack of putting life into every subject; even the table of medieval kings - a chronicle of death and war - contains some curious details and the Darwinian controversy, like other conflicts of ideas and beliefs, is approached from the human angle. Cartoons are effectively used to summarise the key issues and the excellent design and layout should help this series reach corners of the classroom that would be unmoved by a more traditional approach. This is irresistible history.

A cartoon boy and girl and a continuous time line accompany the pupil through Bea Stimpson's 100- page story of medieval realms. Unusually for a key stage 3 text, tasks and activities are included in a separate support guide. This is a comprehensive survey of the period, although the single-page topics allow limited scope for interpretive work. Principally an information text, it does little to develop the skill of historical enquiry and the uniformity of presentation fails to excite.

In complete contrast, Collins' History Investigations is a pack for lower-ability pupils designed to develop listening skills and the use of visual sources to answer such questions as Why did William win the Battle of Hastings? and What really led to Becket's murder?

The audio cassette works well in providing background information and raising questions, which are then explored using colour posters, activity cards and information sheets.

Schools will welcome the practical help to be found in these packs, while resenting the cost, which is hard to justify.

Mark Williamson is adviser for humanities and religious education for the London borough of Hounslow

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