Unlocking the past

4th April 1997 at 01:00

By Christine Counsell and Kate Thomson


By Coltia Howard and Penny Liddiard

Cambridge University Press Picture Pack Pounds 30 Pupil's Book Pounds 4.25

Teacher's Book Pounds 11.95

Hilary Cooper discovers the picture-perfect way for young children to explore past civilisations.

Jerome Bruner lives! Bravo. Bruner, the eminent psychologist, raised awareness of the intellectual demands required to translate the central ideas of a discipline into forms appropriate for young children; the challenges of selecting key images, key questions, key vocabulary and structuring children's enquiries so that they learn the thinking patterns of a subject, rather than undigested facts.

The Cambridge History Picture Packs for key stage 2 respond superbly to this challenge. Each consists of 12 A3 size, very sturdy, laminated and beautifully produced visual sources: pictures of artefacts; paintings, maps and photographs (Hadrian's Wall on a blue, snowy day looks exhilarating).

They have been carefully selected to represent key features of each period; on the reverse side is brief supporting information, special vocabulary and a sequence of focused discussion questions, which will encourage inferences and deductions about the significance of the source.

There are tactile activities related to the source: making a model ballista, designing Celtic jewellery or baking a Roman cake. Did you know that a coclearum is a snail's shell (or teaspoon) full?

There are also formats for structuring investigations which will teach patterns of systematic historical enquiry: tables to analyse how the meanings in a picture from a Tudor music book are conveyed symbolically; to list similarities and differences between plans of two Tudor palaces or between modern and Tudor weddings; intersecting sets to analyse the similarities and differences between a Tudor map and a modern map; matrices to analyse Roman trade routes in the context of the needs of rich and poor, Romans and Celts; a trans-parent overlay of Roman Winchester to use with an aerial view of the town today - showing which areas could be further excavated.

There is a healthy post-Dearing approach to assessment. Teachers are advised to select from the suggested activities and to modify them, extending or simplifying them as necessary, and reminded that assessment is a formative and ongoing process integral to teaching.

Each source sheet could be used with a whole class, by groups or by individual children, or a combination of organisational strategies could be used. This allows for the possibility of progression from learning the skills of discussion and analysis as a whole class, practising them in collaborative groups then working independently - "scaffolding", to use Bruner terminology.

The packs are a splendid example of secure subject knowledge translated into subject application, based on an understanding of how children learn, and the use of a variety of teaching strategies, including higher order questioning.

This is high on the Ofsted agenda of expectations for key stage 2 teachers and central to the competences expected of Newly Qualified Teachers. The elegant and economical Brunerian approach might just fit into the nominal 45 hours a year for each foundation subject.

Why then do we also need the pupil's book and a teacher's book? Each pupil book investigates a key question: how much did the Romans change Britain? What was important to Tudor people?

But, like so many similar books, they are packed with a daunting quantity of information, poor illustrations, "Things to do", "Things to think about" and questions on every page.

The Teacher's Books each consist of 30 photocopiable "resource sheets" of further investigations. No less than five of the Tudor resource sheets explore the intricacies of the Pilgrimage of Grace, weighing its religious, economic and political causes and its effects.

This is not going to excite the most scholarly primary school child. Why this inconsistency? Can we detect the influence of the teachers from the big school who still do not understand what constitutes excellent primary practice?

Hilary Cooper is a lecturer at the University College of St Martin, Lancaster

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