Toiling in the history workshop
Mark Williamson on how to give a boost to the practical side of history
It is sometimes forgotten that history is a practical subject which, like technology, employs a range of materials and, like science, involves investigative work. The enquiry component of the statutory key elements for key stage 3 mentions documents and printed sources, artefacts, pictures, photographs and films, music and oral accounts, buildings and sites. It highlights the role of the pupil as researcher and presenter, identifying sources, collecting and recording information - and communicating understanding using a range of techniques. Unfortunately this learning model remains aspirational in most schools. OFSTED reports frequently describe a restricted range of opportunities with teaching and learning dominated by the double-page spread and the worksheet.
The two Teacher's Resource Books written to accompany the Oxford History Study Units series under the original History Order may not by themselves transform every classroom into a history workshop, but they are intended to promote an investigative approach.
Each title in the pupils' series is built around a single key question: Did life change in the Middle Ages? (Medieval Realms); Which change was most important? (The Making of the United Kingdom); Did changes make life better or worse? (Expansion, trade and industry). Both resource books reflect the old study units and assessment regime although much material remains relevant.
For no apparent reason the two books are structured differently. Book 1 groups activities according to type - detective exercises, worksheets, chronology sheets and sequencing cards. Book 2 is organised according to study unit, concluding with revision sheets for knowledge of events, dates and chronology.
The detective exercises follow a similar pattern. Pupils start by writing down their own questions and then use the sources to try to find the answers. The success of the outcome will depend crucially on the ability of the teacher to structure the activity so that the pupil builds up a coherent narrative with an understanding of causes, consequences and importance.
In this respect the exercise on Richard III - hero or villain? - offers a sharper focus than the 13 sources relating to 1066. In Book 2 photographs replace line drawings as visual sources with seven cartoons used for a sequencing activity on key events during 1939-45.
"Worksheet" is, of course, a generic term and, as such, almost meaningless. The publishers have helpfully classified those in Book 1 into sheets to diagnose pupils' understanding at the outset of courses, decision-making exercises, summaries of key themes and sequencing and duration exercises linked to the sequencing cards. Teaching standards might be improved if all routine written work undertaken in class or as homework was similarly classified so that pupils were more aware of its purpose and the skills they were required to use.
These compendia of activities by different writers offer a substantial additional resource irrespective of which core text is being used. Many activities such as the highly condensed but lucid overview of life and work in the Middle Ages and of changes in the countryside 1750-1900 can be used for assessment at the end of a topic.
Other activities, such as the timeline exercise on the Peasants' Revolt and the decision-making exercise on the Act of Union, are designed to reinforce knowledge and understanding of particular events. Spiral bound and durable, they contain some new ideas to freshen approaches which are becoming stale.
Teachers using Stanley Thornes Key History series are offered learning materials to support the teaching of study units 3 and 4 in Hamish Macdonald's From Workshop to Empire and Neil DeMarco and Richard Radway's The Twentieth Century World.
Both consist of photocopiable worksheets for all abilities and teachers' notes on using the pupils' book. Although the ability range is identified for each worksheet, no guidance is given on the relationship between the activity and the new levels.
Hamish Macdonald takes one step further by suggesting topics for the less and more able using approaches ranging from sentence completion and matching achievements to names for the former to research and evaluation for the latter. In Book 2 activities which are text dependent are identified.
The matching of activity to ability and aptitude is no more exact because it appears in published form than if it is done by the working teacher using trial and error in the classroom. In this series there remains a preponderance of sentence completion, labelling and crosswords for the lower ability pupil, although Neil DeMarco and Richard Radway show what can be done with a little imagination in a comprehension exercise on Siegfried Sassoon's "The General" - "Does the poet believe that war is good? Explain your answer".
In contrast, the "clothes in a muddle" exercise - "Sort out the right clothes to wear to play the parts of Richard Arkwright and Isambard Kingdom Brunel" - has neither sense nor substance. One has to conclude that as ever it is the more able who are better served with Wellington's memory of Nelson after their meeting in 1805 and a carefully constructed exercise with a high level of graphical support on Nazi economic policy.
The close interaction with the pupils' books makes it unlikely that these guides will appeal to those who don't use the series, but those who do will receive a fully differentiated if at times variable source of classroom support.
Mark Williamson is general adviser for humanities and RE for the London borough of Hounslow