Constructing History 11–19


Edited by: Hilary Cooper & Arthur Chapman

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    This book is an exploration of practice in the teaching and learning of history within constructivist theoretical frameworks. It explores ways of developing independent learners who are involved in the processes of historical enquiry in increasingly complex ways.

    So the first people to whom the editors are grateful are the teachers who contributed the case studies and the pupils they taught, many of whose work illuminates the book and the related website: Mike Pincombe, Head Teacher of Lowther Endowed School and Year 5/6 teacher Sarah Lee, Dom Field, Head of History at Ullswater Community School and his colleague, Simon Bishop in Chapter 1; Joanne Philpott and Johannes Ahrenfeld and pupils at Neatherd High School Dereham in Chapter 3; Dr Jane Facey and students at Esher Sixth Form College in Chapter 4; Dr Barbara Hibbert and students at Harrogate Grammar School and Suzie Evans, Subject Leader for History at Truro College, and students at Truro College in Chapter 5. We are also grateful to Caron Walker of Baines School Poulton Le Fylde and her A2 students for peer assessing the websites produced by the students in Chapter 4 and to Katie Allen, Head of History at Lancaster Girls' Grammar and Dr Alan Booth of the University of Nottingham for reading and commenting on earlier versions of Chapter 5.

    We should particularly like to thank David Lloyd, Director of ICT at Esher College, for his support and assistance with the website project in Chapter 4 – for helping us overcome initial technical difficulties and for proposing very effective and user-friendly solutions!

    We thank colleagues from English Heritage at Brougham Castle, The Royal Armouries and the Tower of London, for looking after these important sites and their contents so well and for enabling the kind of engaged and excited learning that took place at them.

    We thank the student teachers from the University of Cumbria who volunteered to participate in the case study on Lowther Castle: Leanne Garbett, Faye Apsden, James Tennison, John Baxendale, Darren Astley and Thomas Goodchild.

    Finally, we should like to thank Professor Barry Coward and Dr Gareth Pritchard for giving so generously of their time and for supporting the students whose work they assessed with such detailed and positive feedback, and for modelling historical thinking so admirably for the students.

    This book is the product of its authors' engagement with the vibrant, energetic and creative ‘community of practice’ that is the contemporary history education community, and many of ‘our’ ideas are, of course, ideas generated by dialogue and debate within that community of practice. We have endeavoured, throughout this text, to acknowledge the sources of our ideas and hope that we have done so as comprehensively and consistently as possible. If readers disagree, we have no doubt that they will let us know: we look forward to continuing the dialogue.

    Notes on Contributors

    Johannes Ahrenfelt is a History Subject Leader in a mixed 11–18 comprehensive school in Norfolk. He has been involved in developing the use of information and communication technology (ICT) for more than six years and recently published a book on the subject: Innovate with ICT.

    Arthur Chapman is a Lecturer in History Education at the Institute of Education, University of London. He was previously a Senior Lecturer in Secondary History at the University of Cumbria and taught for twelve years in Surrey and Cornwall where he was head of a history department and of a humanities faculty. He is a co-editor of Teaching History.

    Dr Hilary Cooper is Professor of History and Pedagogy at the University of Cumbria. She graduated in history and taught for many years in London schools. Her doctoral research was on Young Children's Thinking in History, undertaken as a practising class teacher. She was a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmith's College, London University before becoming Head of Professional Studies in the Education Department of Lancaster University. She has published widely on the teaching and learning of history.

    Dr Terry Haydn is Reader in the school of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia (UEA). He is curriculm Tutor for History and for several years was Director of the Secondary Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) at UEA. His research interests focus on the history curriculum, the use of ICT in secondary schools and the working atmosphere in the classroom. Before moving to UEA in 1996, he worked in teacher education for several years at the Institute of Education, University of London. Previous to that he spent 20 years teaching history at inner-city schools in Manchester. He is co-author of Learning to Teach History in the Secondary School and has written widely on secondary history teaching in the UK.

    Dr Jane Facey studied history at Cambridge. Her PhD thesis was entitled John Foxe and the Defence of the English Church under Elizabeth I, supervised by Dr Peter Lake. She has lectured and tutored on Early Modern History at Royal Holloway College, University of London. After a PGCE course at Roehampton, she taught History at Esher Sixth Form College and was awarded a DfES Best Practice Research Scholarship, entitled ‘Teaching for Progression: Strategies for the Development of Student Understanding and Handling of Evidence in History AS’. An email debate with Farnborough 6th Form College was featured in TES Teacher Magazine, November 15, 2002. Jane was made Head of the History Department at Esher in 2003. In July 2004 the Department was put forward for a Becta award for ‘Rewarding Excellence in the effective use of ICT’. She co-authored an article on ‘Placing History: territory, story, identity – and historial consciousness’ for the September 2004 issue of Teaching History, Jane has taken on additional responsibilities at Esher College and is now also the Critical Thinking Course Leader and Extension Studies and Extended Project Co-Ordinator.

    Dr Barbara Hibbert has taught for many years and is Head of History at Harrogate Grammar School, a large 11–18 comprehensive school. She has recently completed a PhD on the nature of the study of history at A level and at university. Her research has led to involvement with various institutions of higher education and, as a teacher leader, with the Prince of Wales' Education Summer Schools. She is a member of the General Teaching Council.

    Professor Jon Nichol's research interests include all aspects of history education, the theory and practice of teacher education and professional development, the application of ICT to the theory and practice of teaching history, citizenship history and political education and cognitive acceleration in history. He has published widely and is Director of the Nuffield Project on the Teaching and Learning of History. He teaches at the University of Plymouth and previoualy at the University of Exeter. He is editor, with Hilary Cooper of the International Journal of History Teaching, Learning and Research, published by the Historical Association ( In 2004, with Hilary Cooper, he set up the History Educators' International Research Network; conferences have been held in Cumbria, London, Capetown, Istanbul and Yaroslavl.

    Joanne Philpott is an Advanced Skills Teacher and former Subject Leader at Dereham Neatherd High School (11–18 comprehensive) in Norfolk. She regularly delivers in-service training (INSET) across England on many aspects of teaching and learning. She has published several articles, as well as developed materials for Hodder Murray. She is currently Regional Subject Adviser for the New Secondary History Curriculum and Local Champion for the Schools.

    Liz West is PGCE Co-Ordinator for the History Secondary PGCE course at the University of Cumbria. She also tutors on the Citizenship PGCE course and has contributed to school and academic texts on Citizenship, as well as Continuing Professional Development in planning for Citizenship education, including Gearon, L. (ed.) (2007) A Practical Guide to Teaching Citizenship in the Secondary School. She is currently researching the uses of assessment practices across a range of European contexts as part of a European project. Prior to this she was an Assistant Head teacher of a large 11–18 city based comprehensive school and led a training school.

  • Afterword


    We explained in the Introduction that the aim of the case studies in this book was to induct students into the knowledge, skills and discourse of the discipline of history through constructivist approaches, building on what students knew, and addressing misconceptions, working collaboratively, and through doing so, developing independence. We summed this up as to:

    • develop a constructivist approach to teaching and learning, building on an understanding of what we know about how children learn and aiming to maximize opportunities for meaningful and pupil-centred learning;
    • develop pupil metacognition, or thinking about their thinking, in order to raise pupil awareness of the kinds of thinking that doing history well involves;
    • focus teaching and learning through the construction and presentation of enquiry outcomes in a range of media and for specific audiences;
    • focus teaching and learning through collaborative pupil work;
    • develop a varied range of teaching and learning strategies in order to promote inclusive learning.

    Each of these aims reflects an aspect of constructivist approaches to learning. (see Web Preface) Bruner (1963) set out the principles whereby a discipline should be structured so that the questions and methods of answering them and the concepts which lie at its heart can be tackled from the beginning in their simplest form, then in increasingly complex ways. Problems, he said, must involve the right degree of uncertainty in order to be interesting and learning should be organized in units, each building on the previous one. In 1963 Bruner was clear that this had yet to be done in the humanities, so he may find the case studies in this book gratifying! If we accept the Piagetian idea that each student has a different ‘mental map’ on which to build, because of differences in background, experience, maturity and ability, and Bruner's notion that we can, with appropriate resources and teaching approaches, enable each student to engage with the central questions of a discipline, then a range of teaching and learning strategies is essential to promote inclusion. Vygotsky (1962) was a social constructivist who first emphasized the ways in which students, through collaboration and discussion and through trial and error, can take each other's thinking forward, sometimes to a level none was capable of alone. This has subsequently been endorsed by a great deal of further research, investigating different types of collaboration and dialogue (for example, Alexander, 2005; DfES, 2007a; Howe and Mercer, 2007; Wells, 1999). Cooper (1993) analysed the relationship between whole class and group discussion in history). Alexander (2006) identified the essential features of dialogic teaching. Vygotskian theory, therefore, provides a useful link between recognizing individual differences and respecting and encouraging active independent learning and understanding how this can contribute to fruitful collaborative work.

    Now that the case studies are completed we have reviewed some of the ways in which these constructionist aims were met; often, of course, the categories overlap. The chapters are referred to sequentially but it was not our intention to trace progression because of the variations between case studies.

    Engaging in the Processes of Historical Enquiry

    In Years 5/6/7 pupils refined their understanding of what can – or cannot – be known or inferred from visiting a castle, and began to develop arguments using ‘because’ and ‘so’ to support their hypotheses. Throughout the case studies in Chapter 2, Year 8/9 pupils develop skills of analysis, synthesis and hypothesis. They learn to categorize questions which enables them to structure and organize information as a coherent narrative, modelled by the teacher, in order to engage with the significance of a challenging historical text.

    In Chapter 3, Year 10 students engaged with concepts of chronology, change, continuity, and causation and interpretation through relating enquiries based on case studies to broader issues relating to crime and punishment. Chapter 4 focuses on causal explanation and the understandings that this requires to respond to the question, ‘Why did the Parliamentarians win the Civil War?’ This required developing a number of conceptual understandings – understandings of the nature of history (as argument to sustain claims about the past), understandings about the complexity of causal relationships and understandings of the language needed to model these relationships and of strategies to use when thinking about the roles and relative importance of causal factors. Students present their findings for peer and expert audiences, and receive feedback from both and expert modelling of historical thinking from an eminent historian. In the case studies in Chapter 5 AS and A2 students focus on criteria that make good history – and thus on developing their notions of history as a discipline. They examine historical claims and learn to evaluate them by thinking comparatively about the claims that historians make and by thinking inferentially about evidence. Students develop their disciplinary understanding through virtual assessment of various kinds – by giving and receiving formative feedback in student groups and by receiving feedback from a history educator and by having expert historical thinking modelled for them by an expert historian.

    Presenting Accounts to an Audience

    In each case study pupils present accounts of their enquiries for an audience. In Chapter 1 they do this using posters, models, virtual models, and PowerPoint presentations for their peers. We had hoped that a representative from English Heritage might come to the presentations and even use some of the students' work to support information about the site but this was not possible. In the second set of case studies, in Chapter 2, pupils learned to write in different genres. In Chapter 3 accounts took the form of booklets, interactive web-based presentations, essays, story boards, posters and diaries. The students also planned and taught their own ‘mini lessons’ to their peers. In Chapter 4 students presented the accounts of their investigations as documentary videos and as website explanations and these are virtually assessed by peers in another sixth form and by an eminent historian. In two of the case studies in Chapter 5 students worked with their peers to develop their own criteria of assessment, in one case study students assessed each other's work and the work of a historian and in two of these studies student work was presented and assessed by academics – a history educator and an expert historian.

    Key Constructivist Approaches
    Building on What is Already Known

    In each case study students built upon what they already knew, their existing mental maps. In Chapter 1 Year 5/6 and Year 7 pupils start by reviewing what they know about castles, make deductions and inferences about a site new to them, Brougham Castle, then built on both sets of knowledge to plan their own questions about Brougham, methods of investigating them and recording and presenting their findings. In Chapter 2 students learn the skills needed to analyse a complex historical document about the princes in the tower through developing the necessary skills in interesting and more familiar contexts: a contemporary outrage involving a child, then a Victorian murder and by investigating the death of a student who (allegedly) died in a car crash. They learn to communicate their analyses in different genres through discussing the writing of, for example, J. K. Rowling.

    In Chapter 3 teachers explored ways of building on Year 10 students' experience of exciting, independent learning in history at Key Stage 3, through strategies which included shared planning, scaffolding learning by responding to students' questions with further questions and through encouraging creative outcomes. The unit begins with issues familiar to the students, newspaper accounts of robbery, by considering enquiries based on sources relating to Dick Turpin, then relating these to larger issues concerning law and order, crime and punishment over time, and in the eighteenth century in particular. Chapter 4 focuses on constructing new knowledge through collaboration and e-learning and Chapter 5 focuses on developing understanding through dialogue and peer and expert evaluation.

    Scaffolding Learning

    In Chapter 1 children's learning was scaffolded through whole-class teaching, to work out who built Brougham Castle, why and when. Year 8/9 pupils' ability to analyse a sixteenth-century document was scaffolded by learning necessary skills in response to more familiar material. In Year 10 ‘a keen eye was needed to support pupils who found independent and peer group learning alien and extremely difficult’. In Year 11, ‘teachers and a teaching assistant moved between the groups of students every 20 minutes while they were making their websites to help them to improve their use of supporting evidence’. In Chapter 5, as in Chapter 4, scaffolding is provided by peers and peer groups.

    Independent Learning

    We have argued that independent learning makes an important contribution to collaborative learning; that it is ‘the other side of the coin’. This is stated at the beginning of Chapter 1 and in quoting 2020 Vision (DfES, 2007b). The relationship between independent and collaborative learning is first illustrated in Chapter 1. Enquiries are planned and carried out in groups in this study, but the contributions of individual children to the groups comes through clearly. For example, two boys independently developed electronic three-dimensional models of the castle yet amicably agreed which one to use in the presentation and suggested how other members of the group could contribute to the presentation in other ways. Four children, two boys and two girls, under pressure of time, agreed the outline of a story set in the castle, then each wrote their own chapters.

    In Chapter 2 pupils learned individually to frame questions and plan an enquiry in order to work in teams as history detectives. Individual differences are taken into account, when reading a challenging text, using genre theory to break into text from a number of different perspectives.

    In Chapter 3 independent learning was defined, not as working on your own, but as ‘working independently of the teacher with the teacher as facilitator’. At Years 8 and 9 history was to be seen as a subject in which ‘you seek your own answers and ideas and independent solutions’. It is interesting that students at AS and A level worked almost exclusively in peer groups. Group work seems to have been regarded as the most appropriate strategy for developing higher-order thinking.

    Collaborative Group Work

    A social constructivist approach involves collaborative work:

    • collective – teachers and pupils addressing learning tasks together;
    • reciprocal – teachers and children listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative viewpoints;
    • supportive – children articulate their ideas freely;
    • cumulative – teachers and children build on their own and each other's ideas;
    • purposeful – teachers plan and facilitate dialogic teaching with particular aims in view.

    Mercer (1995) identifies three ways of typifying talking and thinking: disputational talk characterized by disagreement and decision-making, cumulative talk in which speakers build on what each has said, and exploratory talk in which partners engage critically but constructively with each other's ideas. It would be interesting to try to apply these categories and types of teacher and peer support to talk throughout our case studies.

    In Chapter 1 children worked in groups, supported by teachers and student teachers, throughout the enquiry; they planned questions to investigate, ways of doing so and of presenting their findings. In the case studies in Chapter 2 there are examples of interactive, whole-class teaching, of working in small groups, in pairs and individually for different purposes. In Chapter 3, in the witchcraft enquiry, for example, students decide on a key question as a basis for teaching ‘mini-lesson’ to their peers, creating the content for film and video used in the lesson themselves, critically appraising each other's mini-lesson. They felt that this gave them more ownership and a fuller understanding of their work. In Chapter 4 students worked collaboratively in ways that enabled them to progress their understanding of historical argument and their abilities to argue effectively about causes: collaboration demonstrably improved students' perceptions of their learning and, in their teachers' estimation, had a dramatic impact on the learning environment and students' ability to learn. In all three case studies reported in Chapter 5 collaboration had positive impacts on learning in general and demonstrable impacts, in the case of some of the case studies, on the quality of student work: the final case study in Chapter 5, which gave students an insight into what it means to study history at university, allowed students to work collaboratively and to comment, in some cases through tenacious debate, on the qualities of each other's work in ways that focused students' thinking on the nature of history.

    Developing Metacognition

    Through self and peer evaluations students comment on and shape the process of learning. They take responsibility for their own learning. In the case study in Chapter 1 they plan, carry out and present enquiries within realistic parameters set by the teacher. A number of the pupils chose to continue developing their presentations at home. Enquiries in Chapter 2 are pupil led within supportive frameworks created by the teacher and pupils are actively involved throughout, with a clear sense of direction and purpose. In Chapter 3 the teacher reported that the more students peer-reviewed their work the more motivated they became. They filmed reviews as an aide-memoire for subsequent reviews. They planned their own enquiries and used Bloom's taxonomy as a framework to monitor their own development. Students in case studies in Chapters 4 and 5 devised their own criteria against which their work would be judged by peers or applied criteria to each other's work and, in the process, were explicitly focused on thinking about what makes history good history. Both of these chapters also focus in part on expert assessment and on the role that modelling by an expert can have in developing students' thinking about what they are engaged in doing.

    Addressing Misconceptions

    In constructivist approaches to learning, students form, then build on their own schema, or mental maps, and in the process modify them. The role of the teacher is to support them in doing so, to be aware of misconceptions which may arise and to enable students to correct them. For example, when a Year 6 pupil put a local nineteenth-century castle in the same defensive category as medieval castles, this provided an opportunity, through discussion, to broaden the concept of ‘castle’. In the same case study the Year 7 pupils were able to draw on previous learning about castles and to apply this to form hypotheses about Brougham Castle, although their chronology, in relation to the Roman fort nearby, had to be challenged. In Chapter 2 the author explains that pupils' understanding develops from what they bring to the record of the past; the role of the teacher is the provision of ‘a surrogate second record, which is everything they use in making sense of historical evidence’. In the Dick Turpin case study in Chapter 3, pupils were familiar with the concepts of robbers and robbery and were familiar with publicity and media reports about Dick Turpin, but knew little about him, so their enquiries both built on and contested what they already knew. In this case study teachers also made sure that students had assimilated key information and concepts in each lesson through the introductory and plenary discussion. In the Chapter 4 enquiry into the Civil War the misconceptions that are targeted are misconceptions about explanation and about historical argument: the teaching here focused on pre-empting simplistic list-like notions of historical explanation and the idea that historians are ‘telling history’ rather than arguing a case to be assessed and evaluated. Students were encouraged to work collaboratively and in ways that would allow them to master and apply historical concepts using card sorts of varying degrees of complexity and an extended analogy, and students were encouraged to review and redraft their thinking. In Chapter 5 any misconceptions which arose are dealt with by peers, or, if not, by the academic historians with whom they are working: the complexity of historical thinking was modelled for students, who were encouraged to see evidence as something that can be read in a number of ways and about which we must argue probabilistically and contextually.

    A Range of Teaching Strategies Which Promote Inclusion

    A constructivist approach requires using teaching strategies which enable all students to engage with the thinking processes, key concepts, questions and ways of answering them, which lie at the heart of a discipline. This book shows how far we have come in making enquiry in history accessible in different ways and at different levels. The pupils in the enquiries in Chapter 1 represented a huge range of levels of maturity and ability. Group work enabled them to contribute at different levels, older or more able children correcting and explaining. The site visit involved the senses – vividly imagining the smell and feel of the garderobes(!), experiencing the height and strength of the keep, the chill of the inner rooms, the feel of brick and stone. Some recorded their experiences as notes, others as drawings, others as video or photographs. Pupils chose their own strategies for presenting the enquiries. Some worked on a complex virtual model, others made a model of the castle from cardboard boxes or painted swords and shields for a freeze frame to support a presentation. One group, who were clearly of a literary persuasion, worked frantically on their laptops to write the ghost story, writing one scene each. But everyone was engaged with the highest level of thinking in their group.

    The first case study in Chapter 2 examines teaching as a performance art. The second case uses Bruner's categories of ‘enactive, kinaetic and symbolic’ to transform knowledge from one form to another, working as history detectives on a Victorian murder (Bruner, 1966). Pupils are involved enactively, visually and symbolically.

    The case studies in Chapter 3 use the detective metaphor to develop a raft of skills and protocols as investigators of historical problems. Stories about individuals are used to reflect on broader themes of law and order.

    Chapter 4 includes such strategies as kinaesthetic group activities to establish relationships and hierarchies between factors, mind-mapping, card-sorting, diamond-making, as well as movie-making and web-making. The student comments clearly highlight the importance of working in these ways to making history memorable and intelligible, and to making it matter and show how sites (websites and site visits) can make history exciting.

    Chapter 5 is entirely text based. Texts are co-constructed here; however, groups work on them together. Texts are also made meaningful by becoming interventions in contexts – vehicles for interaction with peers or with external experts and vehicles, therefore, for developing a sense of a learning community (Donovan et al., 1999: 224–6).

    Making History Relevant

    Making history relevant is a strategy for making it inclusive. Making the past ‘present’ may be done through local context. The pupils in Chapter 1 all lived close to Brougham Castle but none had visited it. It was now included in their local study. Case studies in Chapter 2 enabled pupils to interrogate a Thomas More text by learning how to do so through texts more clearly relevant to them, a newspaper account of the Brixton Nail Bombing, an account of Victorian murder and a J.K. Rowling text. Students found the use of media forms had immediate currency. They used cameras, made websites, and throughout they used video recording. And the case studies show how using these technologies both motivated students and led to more sophisticated thinking. Relevance is also created here by engaging with contexts beyond the classroom – through visits but also through virtual contact with experts: the point here is to show that history is not just an academic activity but a subject that has an ongoing life of its own ‘out there’ beyond the classroom walls.

    The case studies in this book have explored the ways in which constructivist learning theories apply to learning history from 11 to 19. This is important for several reasons. First, until relatively recently history was taught as a didactic subject – causes and effects listed and learned – and forgotten (see Sellars and Yateman, 1931). Second, the pressure to achieve high examination grades encourages a return to this approach. Above all, a dynamic and multi-perspectival understanding of the past is essential in a democracy: to which previously Communist and Fascist countries, and countries where history has been a contested subject, aspire.


    The International Journal of History Teaching Learning and Research ( (volumes 1–10; contains many papers exploring the creation of constructivist approaches in international contexts.

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