How might improving links between the school and community increase year 9 engagement with local and social history?
Miss E. West
Local history can be defined as ‘the study of the past of some significant local unit, developing as a community, in its context and compared with such other units’ (Rogers, 1977: 4). Stephens (1977) defined local history as the study of a limited area within the compass of a short journey, using materials to which the pupil has ready access. (The Incorporated Association of Assistant Masters in Secondary Schools (IAAMSS), 1975:217). Local and social history often come hand in hand as students consider the history of their local communities in relation to both national and international events. Therefore, for the purposes of this study the social history of the local area will be the continuing focus.
This paper aims to explore how one method of improving links between the school and community has significantly increased year 9 engagement with both local and social history. Year 9 has been chosen as the test group because it is typically the year where engagement in lessons drops despite it being the year in which GCSE options are chosen. The research will be presented and rooted in relation to the existing literature of this area of history education, as well as outlining the research methods used and a reflection of the data collected. The paper will also offer some suggestions for ‘next steps’ and a conclusion on the research findings.
In the UK, the local history has been considered a key element of history education since the beginning of the twentieth century (Plymouth, 1933). In 1908 the Board of Education issued a circular on the teaching of history in secondary schools. The Board said, ‘It is essential that in each school attention should be paid to the history of the town and district in which it is situated’ (cited in Finberg, 1967:25). In these early days this was limited to highlighting important national events in a particular locality or local associations with nationally important people (Skip, 1967; Stephens, 1977). However, there is now a great amount of emphasis on maintaining a balance between local, national, European and world history (Slater, 1995).
Although local history is mainly taught at primary level, it is arguable that local history teaching is likely to be more effective in secondary education, since older children are already more knowledgeable about general history and are, therefore, more capable of understanding the significance of local developments (Stephens, 1977; David and Huggins, 1992). The Department for Education advocated the study of local history for the local illustration of national, European and world history, and for comprehensive studies of local areas and its community (DES, 1991). Examples given for the local history in the Curriculum are: education; population movement; houses and housing; religious practices; treatment of the poor and care of the sick; law and order; sport and leisure. (DfEE and QCA, 1999:19). More recently, the Department for Education has continued to place great emphasis on local history and have suggested that this type of historical analysis is vital ‘in order to gain historical perspective by placing knowledge into different contexts, understanding the connections between local, regional, national and international history; between cultural, economic, military, political, religious and social history; and between short and long-term timescales (DfE, 2014). Thus, in order to comply with DfE guidelines, we must seek to incorporate local history into our practise at DCGS and to link these ideas with other areas of
national, international, military and indeed social history, so that our students gain the depth of historical perspective that we sometimes lack in our current curriculum.
Literature Review: Understanding the Strengths & Challenges of Local History
It has been suggested that one of the strengths of local history is that it secures partnerships with the local community and can help to break down the barriers between school and the world outside (Douch, 1967; Giese, 2000). One way of doing this is by establishing relationships with experts such as museum curators, archivists, archaeologists and members of local historical societies, and working with them to ensure that local history projects and field trips are as enriching as possible (IAAMSS, 1975; Stephens, 1977). Collicott (1993) argues that local history attracts and interests pupils. He thinks that seeing local maps and reading evidence which mentions places that pupils know will excite them and involve them in historical studies. In addition, Douch (1967) argued that instead of a vague sense of time by simply referring to significant events, teachers should link past, present and future events to encourage the growth of an awareness of change and a sense of development over time.
Furthermore, local history studies can create opportunities for using inquiry methods such as observation, discovery, collection, evaluation and classification of evidence, deduction from evidence and presentation of conclusions (Mainstone and Bryant 1972; Anderson and Moore, 1994). The same point is emphasised by Slater (1995:38): If local and regional history are going to be taken seriously, young people will have to walk and look as well as read and write. Local history studies encourage pupils to research, analyse and report their observations. As a result they acquire ‘more real, as opposed to merely verbal, knowledge, and often leads to the development of more logical thought’ (Douch, 1967:8). Douch (1970:109) said ‘children need to be involved in history, to see it, not as a film which they simply watch, but as a continuing play in which they themselves are actors’.
Despite support for local history, as an essential part of the school curriculum since the early years of the twentieth century, its adoption in primary and secondary schools has been surprisingly slow, given the aforementioned benefits of teaching and learning about the history of the local area. However, since 1945, the study and teaching of local history have become very fashionable, and the educational value of the historical study of the locality in its own right was being widely accepted in secondary schools (Hoskins, 1984). However, one of the problems mentioned in the literature about using local history is resource problems. Again, it might be difficult to find guidance about some practical questions such as: ‘What can be done? How is local history to be fitted into our syllabus? How can particular pieces of work be organised?’(Douch, 1967:11).
Another challenge in teaching local history in secondary school is the shortage of teaching time. The use of local history for schools’ benefits assumes that ‘teacher and students are prepared to invest time in doing research, in writing and in revising their reports’ (Metcalf and Downey, 1982:206). As Anderson and More (1994:199) emphasised ‘for learning to take place outside the classroom, sufficient preparation must take place inside the classroom.’ They also added that fieldwork visits must be followed up with appropriate activities to reinforce students’ learning. Because of these factors, teachers have difficulties finding
enough places for local history in the heavily loaded curriculum, and to decide how local history can be fitted into the history syllabus in a way that is meaningful rather than a National Curriculum ‘tick-box’ exercise.
The final challenge is that if local history topics are not identified with national or international trends, there is a danger that pupils will exaggerate the importance of their own locality. Pupils will need to be aware of the normality or uniqueness. The pupils should not leave school only knowing the history of their own region or having a distorted view of the significance of their own locality in the past, therefore when teaching local history, balance is absolutely crucial.
Moving Forward: Methods and Actions
Having considered the strengths and challenges of local history studies, as outlined in the academic literature, the following principles were taken into account when considering how to move forward (Bage, 2000:134-135):
- Local history is resource-led. Teachers should know whether there is sufficient or appropriate evidence to support an educational enquiry.
- Local history should be child-centred. The teacher should allow pupils to do more work than himself/herself.
- Local history should be enquiry-led. Researching familiar local areas can give students good opportunities to ‘act as historians’ and teachers should use this opportunity widely.
- Use the widest range of historical sources possible. Local history studies can use different sources such as, museum and site visits, oral history, artefacts, maps etc 5. Find romance. Most children love a mystery and finding small clues such as ‘faded
lettering on a wall, a bump in a field, an entry in a school logbook, a name on a map’ (Bage, 2000:135)
- Evaluate evidence. Local history projects should evaluate evidences during the project.
- Involve local experts. Local authors, amateur archaeologists, archivists, antique dealers, builders or architects etc
- Involve local community. Sources from local community such as, record offices, libraries, websites, buildings, parish magazines or newsletters, letters home etc 9. Aim for an end-product. The results of any local history project can be shared in many ways: an exhibition, open evening, publication, school museum, radio programme and group presentation in assembly.
In light of these recommendations, I created a scheme of work which would allow students to grapple with primary sources (Lesson 1), investigate social/women’s history (Lesson 2) undertake field work (Lesson 3) and create an electronic/interactive map (Lessons 4 & 5) as an end project, which could then be used by members of the public and other local schools. I had previously been contacted by the local museum, who were interested in creating a handling-box of primary artefacts for WW1. After meeting with them we decided to focus on
social and women’s history for the box, which eventually included artefacts such as silk postcards and butter pats.
After having completed two lessons on local history in Amersham, both of which were group work tasks, one using the handling-box to gather initial information, and the other using a pack of information on women in Amersham to create ‘significance posters’ on individual women, the next part of the project was to conduct the fieldwork. The fieldwork itself consisted of the students collecting information about the role of different buildings and the people who lived in them during WW1, which they could then use for their end project. They were encouraged to reflect on their findings in small groups, so that they were actually thinking, rather than just copying. I also included some local poetry in their field work packs to further provoke thought, engagement and conversation.
Example of a completed field-work pack
Creating the final project was an excellent end to this intervention and proved very successful in increasing engagement both in local and social history. The level of engagement for this project indicates that the key ingredients suggested by Bage were accurate in the case of this intervention. Although it is difficult to measure ‘engagement’, the objectives of increasing a positive perception of local history have been achieved.
Examples of completed final projects
As seen in the images above, the final projects were completed to an extremely high standard. From my observations, it was clear that some of the less engaged or able students enjoyed working towards an end project, and were able to/wanted to produce a map of a high standard. Likewise, more able/typically engaged students were able to push themselves by creating instagram pages and incorporating more of their own research. It also gave them the opportunity to take on leadership roles. All students liked the fact that they were working towards a project that would be used in the local community, and many said that they were more concerned about ‘doing well’ because they wanted to make a good impression to the museum and to the community as a whole.
Data Reflections and Conclusions
All students in year 9 were asked a series of questions with regards to their engagement and perception of history. They completed the questionnaire twice, once before the intervention and then again after the intervention. This revealed a number of interesting results relating to local history.
As shown in the above pie-charts, those students who participated in the local history intervention regarded this type of history as significantly more important than those who had
not. Although local history is still regarded as the least important out of the three categories, the 6.4% difference does suggest that the project did have an impact.
Likewise, when considering the impact that the project has had on ‘interest’ (above) in local history there was a significant difference of 6.5%. This is crucial when assessing the influence of the project in increasing engagement as ‘interest’ levels and ‘engagement’ levels are intrinsically linked.
Therefore, having considered the project outcomes and data reflections the aims of exploring how one method of improving links between the school and community might increase year 9 engagement with both local and social history has been largely successful. Year 9 proved to be an interesting year group to study as it was noticeable how much longer engagement in lessons was maintained as a result of the project work. As previously mentioned, by establishing a connection with local experts the students were provided with good quality and authentic artefacts which simply would not have been possible if this connection had not been made. Additionally, the idea of a ‘end project’ to be shared with the local community was paramount to the students ambitions to do a professional and accurate job of creating an electronic map. However, there are some aspects of this project which would benefit from some fine tuning which will now be discussed.
The key area I would like to develop further with regards to the specific research question is to achieve an explicit focus on women’s history. On reflection, it could be argued that this aspect of the project took a back seat after Lesson 2, which was not the intention. Therefore, I will ensure that women’s history is at the forefront of the final project when it is completed next year. Furthermore, I am going to adjust timings of the project start date next year, so that Easter does not fall in the middle of the intervention. This may have had an impact on engagement and is possibly why the focus drifted away from social and women’s history on return from the Easter holidays. Students became too focused on creating the interactive map and less focused on the key individuals. Additionally, by allowing time for the students to present their work to each other and for informal feedback, I feel that the project itself could see an increase in academic rigour. These tweaks will ensure that all elements of the intervention have been considered, which I predict will result in even greater levels of
Secondly, levels of engagement in year 9 would also be improved by ensuring that a taste of local history is present in years 7 and 8 as well. Therefore, I will continue to work with Amersham Museum to develop a whole KS3 programme focussing on local and social history. Consequently, the final project in year 9 will have been gathering pace over time, and the students knowledge of Amersham will be greater. They will be able to root WW1 in the wider history of their locality and will better understand the development of Amersham since the medieval period. Furthermore, the students will feel a greater connection to their local community and so will feel an even greater sense of wanting to ‘do well’ in their end of year 9 project.
Thirdly, I would like to expand resources to include online census work. This is because I feel that the students were extremely engaged when looking at individuals, especially when they could find a link between themselves and that person. Census work would allow the students to find out who lived in their houses, or on their street which would further increase engagement. It would also provoke a sense of curiosity about the development of Amersham as a town and could be used to draw links between their locality and the wider world. For example, who might have lived in a house that had been built in WW1? Who might have lived in a house that use to be the home of a WW1 soldier? These are questions that the students could ask and access with the incorporation of census work, which would also allow them the chance to investigate their own history, for themselves.
Finally, the link between local experts and the school has been crucial to the success of this intervention. I would like to share this success with teachers from other curriculum areas so that this extremely positive connection can go beyond history lessons and can actually increase engagement on a school-wide level.