We asked John Fines to tell us how books can support the history curriculum and to recommend some titles for Key Stage Two.
There’s a real difference in learning styles between being told and finding out, but this is seldom observed in the information books I have looked at for this article.
Of course, not all children are capable of finding out, even though they have questions in mind. Some are very literal minded about the process – if the answers don’t hop off the page with blinding obviousness, they’re prone to say `the answer isn’t here’. One reason they cannot succeed is that they find scanning a very difficult art. Searching widely and roughly, selecting and rejecting on the basis of relevance seems like a kind of reading they have always been told not to do.
Teachers, of course, can help by framing questions with reference processes in mind: `Find as many Roman Emperors as you can in this book and try for their dates, as we want to make a time-line -just ignore all the rest.’ But books should be helping too. Information should be easily found, using a rational presentation with good headings and pointers not just relying on an ill-thought-out index bunged in at the last minute (a child looking for `Emperors’ won’t notice ‘Hadrian’, dear indexer, and will give up).
Every history text should take seriously the requirement to set the subject into its context of time and place, make clear the role and nature of significant actors in the main events, demonstrate the nature and extent of changes and the forms and workings of their causes, consider what’s significant in all this and why, pay attention to different interpretations . . and above all explain. All this, of course has to be done with access in mind so that young readers can get quickly and easily at relevant material.
Change and causation are hard to deal with and may need explaining along a developing scale, from simple to complex. Thus we might start with a straightforward answer to the question ‘What changed, from when to when, how, affecting whom, and why?’ This simple statement might be followed by an enlargement that gives a more sophisticated, multi-faceted approach which could satisfy the needs of an abler pupil, or of the Oliver Twist who simply wants more.
Some of the problems of dealing with issues like significance and interpretation can be best tackled in terms of layout, so that the student can physically see the argument laid out on the page. One side of a spread, for instance, might show an Anglo-Saxon view of the battle of Hastings, whilst the other shows a Norman view. Texts should provide fuel for debate as well as simply answers to questions.
How much text should there be? Well, we must remember that History is an information subject, it lives off its facts, however you define them, and there is never an end to the need to know – everything within the field of study could prove to be relevant. Since I very firmly believe in accessibility, though, I think what we should be doing is what I have been hinting above – presenting information on two levels, a short form and a follow-up form.
In the majority of books I’ve seen, documents and pictures have been used as illustrations. Now if we are to induct pupils into the rules of and use of evidence in teaching History, we must reform our practice here. Illustrations and documents should explain or prove, or be the sources of explanation or proof, which requires their full integration within the text as an active part, something the pupil must tangle with. Of course they must be interesting and appealing as well, but far too often pictures and documents are chosen merely for their surface glamour.
Finally the vexed problem of language. This should be keyed to the reader, which means getting the pace rather than the level of difficulty right. I feel strongly that proper language should be used and explained within the body of the text, reserving the glossary for technical language only. Books should build vocabulary not restrict it – all good texts should be an induction into better, more professional use of language, but few find the space, anxious as ever to rush on and cram in just that little bit more `History’.
Seventeen publishers were kind enough to send me copies of their publications for this review but few met the criteria I’ve outlined above. I first divided them according to the topics in Key Stage Two and then attempted to select one or two titles to recommend in each category.
Ancient Greece is not very well served but Anton Powell’s The Greek World (Kingfisher, 0 86272 284 5, £8.95) is very good. Full yet light, scholarly yet not overblown. The pictures are not bad either. Much better on pictures is Peter Connolly whose many books on the Romans are probably better suited to Key Stage Three, but whose Roman Army (Simon & Schuster, 0 7500 0055 4, £8.99) would be very useful on an Invaders course. The illustrations are superb, particularly those that are geared to explain some complex arrangement. The text is scholarly and gives real history, unbowdlerised, but is too full, and not well suited to the child reader.
Exploration and Encounters is represented by quite a good range of books but there is little on those explored. The Aztecs (1 85434 052 2) by Rob Nicholson and Claire Watts for Two-Can is a useful text at, surprise, a really reasonable price – £2.99 pbk. See – it can be done!
Surprisingly there’s little to recommend on the Tudors and Stuarts but there is a host of good books from which to service a study of the Victorians. One of the nicest books of all I received was in this group – Tony Triggs’ Victorian Britain (1 85210 582 8) from Wayland’s `History in Evidence’ series. It is interesting throughout with exceptionally well-chosen illustrations and good simple prose. Above all it is restrained – not overpacked but showing everything in a roomy and uncluttered setting. It has a list of places to visit and books to read further, both really useful. At £6.50, this is a model text.
There are lots of good books on specific topics. Alison and Michael Bagenal’s `Music from the Past’ series may seem an odd choice for an information review, but The Victorians (Longman, 0 582 18829 6, £2.99 pbk) in, this series is not just full of songs for singing – they illustrate Victorian life and attitudes so well they are also a research source (the accompanying cassette costs £10.99). Ruth Thomson’s Washday (0 7136 3183 X) for the A & C Black `Turn of the Century’ series is beautifully done. Again it has a list of places to visit, and (a feature of this series) an outstanding example of a time-line. Good value at £5.95.
There are so many books on Britain in the 1930s and after that I found it difficult to make a choice. Perhaps half the books in this pile were about the war, and there seems to be an unhealthy interest in this topic, but it shouldn’t be avoided. My favourite was a book by Neil Thomson in Franklin Watts’ `When I was Young’ series about Charlie Jones, young in World War II (0 86313 873 X, £7.95). These books are very rich in sources, superbly presented (I even approve of the index!) with good big print and simple language. Above all they encourage the notion that you can listen to History, and it can be Grandad telling it, or the lady next door.
Another excellent series is `The Home Front’ (Wayland, £6.95). They’re a bit pricey for 32 pages with not much colour, but their very interest carries them through – I would particularly recommend Rationing (1 85210 975 0) and Prisoners of War (185210 976 9), both by Fiona Reynoldson.
Coming a little more up to date (bravely defying the snarls of the Secretary of State for Education) there are some good books on social topics. Batsford have two useful series on fashion which include coverage of the recent past: `Costume in Context’ (all by Jennifer Ruby, £9.95) and the much more designer-magazine style `Fashion of a Decade’ (£9.95). Yvonne Connikie’s The 1960s (0 7134 6437 2) in the latter series, is over full but it does tie the subject into the history, and is interesting throughout. I know I’m obsessive, but what’s the point of an index entry that reads `Mashed potato 29′, especially when there is no reference to the subject on page 29 that I could find?
The worst served unit of National Curriculum History at Key Stage Two is undoubtedly Local History – I suppose publishers think this is too individual for them to cover, and leave it to teachers to manage on their own. This might be the best course in truth, but there are one or two helpful books. As an example I have chosen John Porter’s History in Landscape from Oxford’s ‘Presenting the Past’ series (0 19 913348 4, £4.95 – a good price). This only comes through to medieval times, and tends to show famous sites rather ‘than those that could be found anywhere, but it’s a useful beginning.
There are some excellent books to help in dealing with thematic studies (though not all stretching 1,000 years, thank God!) All through this review I have spoken of pictures and we often learn our information best from pictures. Just occasionally a book uses illustrations in an especially creative way. Outstanding amongst all the books I’ve been examining is A Town through History (1 85210 991 2, £9.95), a Wayland version of an Italian publication which traces in 14 huge and meticulous drawings, the changing face of a town from the 4th century BC to the future. An able child, and patient less able children, could work for hours from this outstanding quality resource.
For the final unit, on ancient civilizations, with a commitment to teaching archaeological method there are some useful general books. Catherine Charley’s Hunting for Treasure (Salamander, 0 86101 513 4, £6.95) tells the story of some remarkable discoveries, and illustrates them well. She deals with recent finds not just the more famous. Mike Corbishley is rather more sure-footed in Secret Cities (Evans, 0 237 60277 6, £8.50) and one hears the voice of the archaeologist here. The illustrations and design are good but the price is high, as with another book in the same series, Margaret Berrill’s Mummies, Masks and Mourners (0 237 60276 8), which faces the fact that archaeology is mostly about digging up graves.
Key Stage Two presents many challenges, and although one could complain at the work load they entail, there are positive gains. Much more History will be taught in Primary schools. It will be based on a commonly agreed rationale. It will be assessed and reported on in roughly standard ways. To achieve these goals entails a lot of hard work from teachers … and they will need help from publishers. We need books more focused on the attainment targets, with material that not only attracts the able but copes with the whole range of pupils. Above all we need more real history reference books that answer questions and supply the right sort of detail for good work to be done. Also, if I may finish where I began, we need more books that recognise the difference between being told and finding out.
John Fines is an academic historian and a classroom teacher. He’s spent 30 years doing both, much of his career being based in teacher training. He is Director of the Young Historians Scheme of the Historical Association and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.