Skip to main content

Tips from TV for primary teaching

Television programmes mix entertainment and education. Bored children switch off their minds in the same way that bored adults switch off a set. Entertainment starts with enthusiasm; if teachers exude the same enthusiasm as presenters, it's infectious, and children respond.

Television historians are offering knowledge on a plate, all we have to do is select whichever morsels are best for children. So, if our understanding of the broad sweep of history is a little sparse, why not let History of Britain (BBC2) historian Simon Schama fill in the gaps?

Television history is designed to keep us watching and listening, to feed our curiosity: exactly what we want to do in the classroom. Often programmes begin with a question. How did the Romans make straight roads? Who is in the Anglo-Saxon grave? Was Anne Boleyn guilty as charged? The questions cannot always be answered with certainty: an important lesson for children who need to learn that there is always more than one opinion.

A useful television style to copy is the mixture of talking heads (not too many at a time) visual images, question and answer interaction, and the use of real sites and artefacts.

Teachers have ready-made mental pictures of Roman soldiers, Greek temples, or Victorian schools, but children don't. Television, CD-Roms, video, posters and photographs all help to make history more accessible.

More immediacy comes from recreating the past. Programmes that show what it was like to be a servant in an Edwardian country house, to be in the trenches in the First World War, or to live in Forties houses help pupils make comparisons with the past, an important but gradually learned skill.

On a small scale we can replicate this in class by enabling children to handle artefacts, letting them first try to work out their purpose for themselves, and by encouraging role play. Most authorities have a loan service, and theatre groups and local museums offer workshops where children can dress up and assume roles.

The best artefacts are genuine, but good replicas are also valuable. Twentieth-century items can often be borrowed from grandparents, who may be willing to be an oral history source themselves. Children enjoy trying to identify and age a selection of mystery objects (scouring your own home or parents' home may produce a wealth of small domestic objects no longer in use).

History is more interesting the more active it is. A group could make their own Time Team (Channel 4) archaeological dig in the school grounds by burying a specially broken piece of pottery which another group has to carefully excavate and reassemble.

Other groups might try to copy Adam Hart Davis's explorations of Roman technology (the BBC's What the Romans did for us), and see if they can use simple technology on a small scale to work out how ancient people moved large stones or transported water from one place to another. Keep it in perspective, though. Burying your own time capsule is good but don't attempt to construct a hypocaust system.

So settle down, put your feet up and watch a bit of TV.

Helen Hodgson teaches in Leicester schools and works for Leicestershire City Museums as an educational project leader

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you