Thinking Skills and the Learning of Primary History: Thinking Historically through Stories

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Thinking Skills and the Learning of Primary History: Thinking Historically through Stories

Peter Vass, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK
Abstract This paper derived from a piece of research undertaken in an Oxfordshire primary school in the summer of 2002. Part 1 introduces the question of thinking skills. Part 2 examines how thinking skills might enhance children’s learning of history via a case study of a project in an Oxfordshire primary school. The project’s focus was on the potential of narrative, and in particular counterfactuals, in this respect.

PART 1

Thinking about thinking

The perceived usefulness of thinking skills as instruments for curriculum development has fluctuated over the years, usually as a result of the stance of any one particular government at the time. The importance given to them is inclined to occur when more formal approaches to learning are perceived to have failed and, in this respect, it has become something of a holy grail. I was reminded of this recently when reading the DfES’s evaluation of the literacy and numeracy strategies which asserted that too much time in a maths lesson was being dedicated ‘to test practice and refining test techniques’(TES, September 2002). The alternative suggested was ‘a focus on thinking skills, which would move away from the present concentration on English, maths and science’. These skills, ‘based on the psychology of learning’, would ‘involve a variety of methods but all encourage pupils to grasp a topic at deeper level than simply recalling information’.

The idea of thinking skills as being fundamental to learning has a long and illustrious history. There is a considerable canon on the subject, much of it influenced recently by the work of Robert Fisher (1995a, 1995b, 1998, 2000) who seeks to establish approaches to help children develop critical, creative and imaginative states of mind. He argues that this can be achieved by improving their thinking skills, thus helping them make more sense of their learning and their lives. The work of Guy Claxton (2002) has extended thinking in this respect in order to give children a better understanding of themselves as learners. These principles have provided the focus for much recent work on thinking skills and learning history (Dean, 2002; Wallace, 2003) but Fisher’s ideal of the ‘philosophical classroom’ has been seen by some to be counter-productive to the infusion of skills within a subject-based curriculum. In an important article Beyer (2001) differentiates between solution strategies, critical thinking skills and ‘thinking dispositions’ while advocating the ‘infusing (of) disciplined thinking into history and social science courses’ (Beyer, p.321). This principle of infusion is a central precept of Carol McGuinness’s ‘Thinking Skills and Thinking Classrooms’ programme which include some of Fisher’s ideas about the ‘philosophical classroom’ but suggest strategies whereby ‘the teaching of curricular content is infused with the explicit instruction of thinking skills’(McGuinness, 2002, p.2). These positions are important and will be developed later in this paper.

Thinking about History

In history education the relationship between thinking and historical learning was given particular definition by a seminal paper by Jeanette Coltham in 1971 (Coltham, 1971). In this she extended historical thinking beyond the Piagetian into social areas of learning and understanding. This prepared the way for an important collaboration with John Fines (Coltham & Fines, 1971) which resulted in the HA pamphlet, Educational Objectives for the Study of History. Using the idea of a taxonomy, similar in principle to that originated by Bloom and Krawthwol (1956), they devised a model around educational objectives for identifying key skills for the study of history. They posited that educational outcomes resulting from historical study included features such as ‘insight’ and ‘knowledge about values’ – areas normally associated with the affective domain. The pamphlet linked thinking with developing attitudes towards learning and historical knowledge in a novel and harmonious way. At the time the teaching of history was under particular scrutiny and their intention was to re-establish the relative value and place of their discipline in the school curriculum. They also wanted the subject to be engaging, well taught and made relevant to children’s lives. There are clear resonances here with the sort of rationales that Dean, Wallace and others are advocating for thinking skills now. Jeanette Coltham’s concluding statement could be taken from any recent text:
If, by use of their interests and through work aimed to develop their understanding, children gain satisfaction from their study, then the urge to continue is kept alive and motivation is strengthened – and what more can teachers of history ask! (Coltham, 1971, p.43).

In more recent times the debate has been focused on how best to incorporate these skills explicitly within the history curriculum through consistently applied methods. The work of Cooper (1992,1993,1994) in the early 1990s focused attention on primary-aged children’s thinking in history through a series of thought-provoking books and articles. Her points of reference at the time were the cognitive psychology of Piaget, Peel and the early work of Bruner but her key principle was ‘that if children are taught consistently, applying the same teaching strategies to new material, they learn patterns of thinking which can be transferred to new evidence independently of the teacher, and that the quality of thinking improves’ (Cooper, 1992, p.12) .

The skills of learning history
In the 1990s some history educationists turned their attention to discovering ways in which a systematic approach to thinking skills could result in their productive incorporation into the history curriculum. Some have advocated (Nichol, 1999) the importance of students discovering over-arching skills that transcend the discipline and contribute to other areas of learning, whilst utilising those skills in their growing understanding of history. These are fine principles but the danger is that processes and practices will be adopted not because they are appropriate to children’s learning, but because they are deemed to have a property that solves, at a stroke, the problems of educational achievement. The central question remains as to whether it is more desirable to develop a thinking state of mind in children, independent of subject constraint, or whether thinking is better ‘infused’ into the curriculum through subject teaching.
My concern is that generic thinking skills, whilst being laudable in respect of children’s intellectual development, do not necessarily help them understand history better. What, I feel, is needed is the identification of those skills which are particular to the learning of history, and the incorporation of these into the curriculum. This, of course, raises broader and more wide ranging questions about the purpose of history education in the 21st Century – in simple terms, what history is worth knowing – but whatever the outcome of this debate I feel that the explicit use of thinking skills as a feature of historical enquiry will need to be included somewhere.

The key problem, therefore, when devising programmes that use thinking skills as an integral part of pupils’ work, is to ensure that the learning of history is kept to the fore of the activity and not subsumed in a series of tasks that, though worthy in themselves in terms of developing their cognitive abilities, do not necessarily enhance their historical understanding. Consider, for example, ‘predicting’ as a thinking skill in a broader strategy for learning. In this a number of key questions can be identified and offer a framework through which the child can ‘think through’ the strategies they need to employ to solve a problem. Some of the questions that arise will be appropriate for speculating on a historical situation e.g. Which are the most important ideas? What are the arguments for and against? Others are less so. The difficulty is that ‘predicting’, in terms of learning history, is a very specific skill requiring an understanding of the historical context, a consideration of this when weighing options and, finally, the use of the historical imagination in order to arrive at a conclusion. The student needs to recognise that any historical situation can result in a variety of ‘more likely’ and ‘less likely’ outcomes; an elaborate and particular form of historical thinking which is explicitly bound up with an understanding of the times. See Part 2 for a consideration of this mode of thinking in some detail. In the devising of programmes for teaching history it is essential that children are given an understanding of a particular time and place and also have revealed to them something of the nature of the historical process, the way history is made. This is a sophisticated intellectual activity, but not outside the capabilities of mainstream children. However, for it to be managed successfully there needs to be clear understanding on the part of the teacher and the learner on the nature of the concepts being studied.

Appropriate tasks for children?

The key factor in ensuring this comes about is task design: the devising of activities that are sufficiently engaging and interesting to give children genuine insights into the historical past. QCA (1999) have gone some way to addressing this problem. Their Scheme of Work for history at Key stages 1 and 2 provides a structure and coherence to planning as well as offering some good sessions for teachers to teach. The problem is that, in many schools, they have become the curriculum, as opposed to being a structure to enhance and develop it. For this reason it is important that the curriculum be kept flexible and open. The development of positive attitudes to learning is, of course, fundamental here. If we believe that developing children’s capacity to think is the single most important purpose of any teaching session, then the curriculum needs to be continually modified and adapted to accommodate thinking skills. It was this premise that provided the starting point for our teaching/research project undertaken last summer.

Up until recently, most studies of thinking skills and cognitive strategies in learning history have been centred in secondary education1. The development of more sophisticated modes of thinking and cognitive skills evolved as Key Stages 3 and 4 priorities in order for students become more directly involved in their own learning. However, it is easy for programmes of this kind to get bogged down in a morass of structural and organisational concepts, cross-curricular transferable skills, cognitive strategies and syntactical knowledge as well as fall foul of the current government priorities for the curriculum. Nichol (1999) recognised this when he reviewed the ‘state of the art’ in thinking skills in history and, whilst finding much to recommend, was somewhat inconclusive on how best to proceed. He writes:

The links between a thinking skills course and the teaching of history is apparent. The National Curriculum of the 21st century will challenge us to integrate history within programmes built around key themes such as literacy and citizenship. However, while working with other disciplines we need to accept that each has a unique contribution to make to the rounded education of citizens in the 21st Century. (1999,p13).

Since that time programmes for helping children to organise their learning have begun to emerge in primary history. A good example of this is the work of Dean (2002) and Nuffield Primary history. In what she calls ‘The Real E-Learning’ she identifies four key skills for thinking and learning history in primary aged children. The features she identifies - engagement, enquiry, examination and evaluation - provide a model for children to learn history whilst, at the same time, keeping historical knowledge and understanding in sharp focus. Belle Wallace has also been active in this area (Wallace, 2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2002) and has turned her attention recently to history (2003). She takes a similar structured approach to Dean through the use of TASC, Thinking Actively in a Social Context. She provides a ‘Problem-Solving Framework’ which takes the children through a series of structured stages in order to carry out an historical enquiry.

Approaches to Learning

There is currently in vogue a belief that only through meticulous and detailed planning can the process of learning be carried out, and be seen to be carried out, successfully. There is no better example of this than the use of learning objectives. In the TTA guidance for training teachers (TTA, 2000,2001) the trainees teaching history before the camera submerge their planning in a deluge of learning objectives, some related to the learning of history but many linked to associated areas, such as literacy, geography, ICT etc. It is easy to see how thinking skills could produce another batch to ultimately confuse both teacher and learner simply because they cannot all be achieved or assessed. In many ways, the approaches advocated by Dean, Wallace and others are thoroughly laudable. They provide a framework for learning that can help children organise their enquiries in a most useful manner. However, they do little for preparing children for studying the complexities of the discipline at Key Stage 2. History teachers in secondary schools have been wrestling with this problem longer than primary colleagues and we have a lot to learn from their experiences! Both Dean and Wallace recognise the importance of infusing the skills within the discipline. As Dean writes:

Thinking skills are not exercised in a vacuum: we need something to think about, and a context to think within. (2001, p.1)
However, it is important to keep to the fore of our thinking the distinction between skills which help children understand the historical process and those which help them organise enquiry. The problem with models and frameworks is that they can artificially shape study not necessarily for historical purposes but because the child (and/or teacher) feels it expedient to apply the routines rigidly. The tasks we designed tried to balance historical knowledge and understanding of period with an experience of the process through which we have come to know about these times. In this way we intended to give children the opportunity to ‘think through’ the difficulties and complexities of ‘making history’ as well recognising the process by which public knowledge comes to be known. The use of key conceptual words and phrases are essential here and in Part 2 we highlight these and explain how they were developed through the tasks.
Much of the organisation of this research /teaching topic features familiar activities, whilst others break relatively ‘new ground’. This is because we felt much of the construction of this topic was intended to examine the new orthodoxy that has been unintentionally established by the QCA and their units of work. For many schools, where performance and achievement is assessed on pupils’ standards in literacy, numeracy and, to a lesser extent, science, developing the history curriculum has become a very low priority.

The Project

The project arose from two concerns that I had about the teaching of history in primary schools. The first, as I have outlined, was the impact of QCA ‘s history units of work on classroom teaching and the second was the lack of thinking, historical or otherwise, in the activities taking place. For this reason two teacher-colleagues and I decided to devise a unit of work which would prioritise dynamic and interactive teaching methods which would focus on utilising thinking skills as an explicit element of the work. They both teach in a large suburban primary school in Oxfordshire. We chose a Year 6 class for, by this age, the children would already have a good grounding in history and we would be able to develop areas of thinking that had been part of their earlier history learning as well as introduce new ones. The topic we selected was Home Front Britain 1939-1945, as it was the only National Curriculum history topic they hadn’t already studied! We decided to teach 6 one and a half hour sessions to take place in the latter part of the summer term with an introductory session taking place before half term. Our approach was not to make thinking skills overtly explicit but introduce them as a feature of the lessons as and where they arose as a feature of the study. We also wished to make historical fiction a significant element in our sessions for the role of narrative, and in particular the relationship between fiction, faction and historical fact are important, and largely unexplored, features of the way children imagine the past2. Fictions appear, therefore, in a number of contexts: in the artefacts stories in Session 2, in the anecdotes and ‘memories’ of Charlie Vass ARP warden, and in the culminating activities, inventing the counterfactual and making the tableaux (see below). The ordering and organising of these stories was through a system we called ‘event framing’ which is explained in more detail below. We chose a range of research tools to determine the children’s learning including semi-structured interviews of six selected children, our own field notes of class discussions and individual comments, lesson observations and the children’s own writing and illustration.


In the sections that follow I highlight different types of historical thinking, describe the activities promoted them and reflect on children’s responses to them.
PART 2
Narrative, fiction and faction
Historical understanding is the exercise of the capacity to follow a story, where the story is known to be based on evidence, and is put forward as a sincere effort to get at the story as far the evidence and writer’s general knowledge and intelligence allow. (Gallie, p. 51)
When Gallie refers to the story he hints at the unknowable that is assumed to be part of any historical narrative, the part that the historian ‘invents’. Evidence, in this context, is more or less secure as attempts are made to ‘fill the gaps’ in order to create as sincere and as evocative impression as possible. Lang (2003) when writing on an extract from Simon Schama’s Citizens (Schama, 1989), compares his approach to writing narrative with that of a film maker where the central character is tracked through a landscape that the historian creates. The good historian, and Schama is a good historian, is careful to ensure that time and place are accurately represented, but bold enough to paint pictures with prose for the sake of historic evocation. This does not make the former ‘hard evidence’ or the latter ‘a flight of fancy’. In fact, the prose can often have a better grounding in actuality because it is the outcome of the historian’s reflection. As Lang writes:
What might seem the historian’s vivid but unsupported imagination at work can have a surer basis in evidence than one might think (2003, p.12).

If we want children to imagine the past they, too, must take on the mantle of the history writer. They need to experience the problems of maintaining a historical stance while allowing the creativity of the storywriter to evoke a past that will be vivid and real to the reader. We had a firm belief that narrative is still the key component to much of the learning of history in primary schools and is the way most teachers expect children to imagine the past (Vass, 1996). The techniques adopted by many teachers and the approaches suggested by Bage (1999) testify to improving practice in classrooms. However, the thinking skills employed by children when experiencing stories need to be placed in a clear historical context. Only in this way will historical knowledge and understanding be the outcomes of their labours.

Starting positions
For a definition of historical narrative we took, as a starting point, the words of Jack Hexter, who described the outcome of the historian’s labours thus:
any patterned, coherent account, intended to be true, of any past happenings involving human intention or doing or suffering’ (Hexter, p.3).
This definition fixes ‘historical storytelling’, as he describes it, at the centre of the historiographical process. Making connections, establishing coherence, creating order out of the chaos of past events are, he argues, all skills required of the historian. He allows a degree of latitude in the way historians interpret from their sources as long as the ultimate aim is ‘to convey knowledge, understanding and truth about the past as it actually was’(Hexter, p.238). That the historian’s ‘intentions’ should be to tell the truth is interesting here. Hexter recognises that ‘truth’ in history is in the mind of the historian; in the writing of historical narrative, what he or she believes to be true is about as good as it can possibly get. This, at first glance, might seem far removed from some of the fictive approaches we employed in our teaching. However, ‘truthfulness’ in our case was established by the children through their researches into the subject, not by a requirement to discover a definitive position of certainty.

If historical narratives are an attempt to convey the truth of the past then historical fiction needs to be seen as the creation of a writer, set in the past and portraying that past, but imagined by them. The thought processes involved in constructing these narratives is of particular interest here. The division of the logos from the mythos in ancient Greek thought provides a useful starting point for considering the role narrative plays in human thinking about the world. The logos encompasses those areas of knowledge that can be demonstrated through observation and examination. This distinction has provided the basis for scientific explanation that is now such a significant feature of Western thought. Mythos, on the other hand, is related to speech, dialogue and, most significantly in our context, narrative. These ideas have been developed by Bruner into what he calls the narrative mode of thinking (Bruner, 1986). It is the narrative mode, he posits, that makes experience meaningful through “good stories, gripping drama, believable, though not necessarily true, historical accounts” (Bruner, 1986, p.13). He develops this thesis further when he argues that, whilst devoting much time to teaching the sciences and developing rationality in children, we live our lives according to the rules and devices of narrative. By this he means that we make sense of experience through the stories we tell and the stories we have told to us – the narrative construal of reality, as he calls it. (Bruner, 1996, p.130f). This thinking is as true for children as it is for adults.

Evidence from artefacts
We decided that artefacts should play a major part in the formulating of the narratives. Our requirement was for children to create historical fictions from the objects, not re-tell old stories. We also wanted to establish the notion that artefacts can testify to the past in which they were made and used. More than that, they can have special meanings to individuals that can transcend place and time – family heirlooms are a good example of this. But most importantly we wanted children to recognise that objects have a provenance i.e. an origin, a history, a story to tell, and it was their stories, set in the context of war-time London, that we asked them to imagine.
For primary aged children evidence usually needs to be tangible and concrete. For this reason we chose artefacts that have become icons of their time around which to structure their stories. These included a gas mask, a ration book, a section of blackout curtain, a rattle that ARP wardens would use in event of a gas attack and an authentic World War Two teddy bear that had accompanied it’s owner on many nocturnal trips to the Anderson Shelter! Session Two began with a discussion of these items, the offering of theories as to their possible use and what they tell us about the way people were living in Britain during the war. The children were then given an event frame (see next section) and asked to organise a story about one of the artefacts set in the context of Home Front London.

Some of these objects re-appeared from an ARP warden’s haversack in the third session as props to his anecdotes and experiences during the Blitz. This teacher/role player technique was familiar to the children and they understood the conventions of confronting characters this way. There has been much progress in this approach since my plea for teachers to make this a more explicit feature of their practice (Vass, 1993). For many children these objects – the gas mask, the rattle, the ration book provided firmer evidence of the actuality of the past than the stories. Interestingly, the children accepted without question my role playing of my grandfather but the veracity of his stories was viewed more suspiciously. ‘Charlie Vass’s stories were good and I’m sure some of it was true, but how can you actually know? He was biased, wasn’t he? When you’ve got an object though, a thing, that can’t lie’. The question of provenance resulted in some interesting thinking on narrative, particularly when the children invented their own stories. ‘Because the object was real it sort of made the stories real even though we made them up.’ ‘The place was real, London was real and the Teddy was real which made the story real.’ This form of thinking history has resonance with the literary voice functioning as historical evidence rather in the way that Zemon Davies (1985) employed it in her researches into the 16th Century story of the deserting soldier, Martin Guerre.

The inter-relationship of fictive and non-fictive worlds should be as important to the historian as the mindsets of those that lived them. A phrase that emerged with the children during the course of the project was the notion of the narrative ‘feeling right’ in the context of the times. It is certainly true that some historical fictions persuade us of their veracity through the sheer power of the narrative and the writer’s attention to detail; Birdsong by Sebastian Faulkes is a good example of this. In the same way, some historical films evoke a sense of authenticity because of their look and style despite their fictive elements. Evidence, in this context, is not only about the reliability of the sources but also the persuasiveness of the narrator. As a child put it: ‘I think Jodie’s story was more like it was than mine. There was more evidence.’ The children were discovering that evidence, in historical terms, was not as tangible or obvious as they imagined.

Event Framing

The children organised their fictions using a system of event frames that the teachers and I devised. These were not unlike ‘story boards’ which has been a feature of storying in primary schools for some years now. The frames imposed quite a rigid structure and we were ambivalent initially about imposing something that might inhibit their ideas. However, as our intention was to keep historical thinking to the fore, and the deployment of a literary format enabled us to include a chronological feature which would help the children order their stories through passing moments in time. It was very important for the children to appreciate the relationship between time and narrative for this is implicit in all historical narrative. As Muntz (1997, p.852) writes:


In order to do justice to time, it must be described in a narrative form…(it) is the only literary device available which will reflect the past’s time structure.

The children’s use of the frames produced a variety of remarkable and highly imaginative narratives but it was through the ensuing discussion and debate in the plenary that the historical and generic skills they employed were identified. This focussed predominantly on questions of sequence and significance which feature in other papers in this series.

The ordering and organisation of these historical stories involved many skills which are not peculiar to history. These have been described by Nichol as being ‘cross-curricular transferable’ and have been identified by him (Nichol, 1999, p.7) in the work of Feuerstein (1980). These skills involve the adoption of cognitive strategies which can help the child better understand the concepts that underpin it. Nichol highlights seven structural concepts that provide the framework for historical thinking, namely: cause, continuity, chronology, evidence, change, consequence and situation. These structural concepts are not only central to the epistemology of history but without their presence it is difficult to argue that children are actually going through the process of ‘doing history’. For this reason we endeavoured to include them when circumstances allowed without making them central to the activities. However, cause and effect are such important features of any historical study we ensured they took precedence in the children’s stories.
Causation and Narrative
A cause is something that operates in the real world; it is what it is, whether people understand it or not. The milk turns sour because of the presence of certain bacteria. The fact that everyone believes it is sour because a witch put a curse on it affects not the milk at all. (Sandford, p.193)

This ‘scientific’ distinction between actual cause and believed cause highlights a key problem for the historian in the study of mentalities for it is belief that often provides the greatest insights into historical perceptions. For the children in our project the recognition that historical narratives are more focussed on belief than scientific certainty or ‘truth’ evolved as a major objective. Causation, therefore, began to emerge as a key element in their thinking. In Session 3 most children were able to decide on the key factor that determined the origin of the stories. In many instances it was a dramatic event that caused the central character/s to lose the artefact e.g. a rush to an air raid during which a child dropped her teddy bear or a ration book that was stolen by a burglar in the blackout. Causes were also a major feature in the structuring of the event frames. Event 2 required the children to say how the artefact came to be lost, 3 how it came to be found and 4, how the artefact got the finder into trouble.

It is interesting that in his standard text on the study of history, Sandford writes about cause in the context of ‘history as sequence’ (Sandford, p.193). In a thorough examination of both historical and philosophical positions, he not only differentiates thoughtfully between causation and explanation but also raises some key questions about causation in history. These include ‘Why do things happen as they do?’, ‘Can there be more that one cause?’ and, most interestingly in the context of the next section, ‘How can we explain unique events?’ and ‘What is meant by ‘counterfactual?’. The questions here were emerging not out of any procedural system but a genuine desire to establish the historical veracity of the narrative. What is also interesting is the close relation between the structural thinking of the historian and the historical fiction writer. The ordering and sequencing of narrative depends as much on the successful answering of these questions as it does on the careful and critical textual analysis. These questions, and others like them, provided the foundation for the reflection by the children on their Wartime London event frame narratives. The following answers are drawn from field notes and children’s interviews and we used some of Sandford’s questions as a focus.

Why do things happen as they do?


I think my story explains that. It all makes sense. How the teddy was lost, how it was recovered, how we’ve got it today. It all makes sense.

My story’s a good adventure, it’s about a greedy person and a forgetful person and someone who takes chances. People are like that now and were like that then.

How can we explain unique events?

All events are unique. No two stories are the same even in history books. Someone might write such and such a thing and someone else write something else. It depends on who is writing the story.



Do some things happen by chance?


Most things do. They did in my story. It was a chance that the air raid took place. It was a chance that Sheila forgot her Teddy and it was a chance it was found 70 years later.

There was always a good chance of an air raid in London during the war and that people would be killed and things get lost. That happened a lot. But you never know, do you?


Thinking Counterfactually

Today one need not be ashamed of telling a story, so long as it is as true as one can make it. One feels free to speculate as to how things might have gone if a crucial decision had been taken differently, or if the fortunes of war had swung the other way in a key battle, or if this man had lived longer or that one died earlier. One can give due (but not undue) weight to human choice and human error, and to sheer contingency (Woolrych, 2002 p. 52).

So writes Austin Woolrych in a review of evolving perspectives on the English Civil War. A feature of the article is that today he feels that the historiography of the period has been liberated from the ideological straight jackets of previous generations and that contemporary historians have room to speculate and imagine in a way that would not have been acceptable in the past. This attitude and approach to writing history has evolved in a climate that recognises that our knowledge of so much of the past is built upon individual, often strange and peculiar narratives, that give a complex and contrasting view of human experience. This notion of idiosyncrasy can trace its genesis back to the pioneering work of Robert Darnton (1984) who analysed the intriguing and perplexing world of ordinary people in France in the 18th Century and Natalie Zemon Davis (1985) whose speculative stories based on likeness ran parallel to the literary voice which has a key role to play in understanding particular and peculiar mindsets. The focus here is more on mentalities and belief rather than hard historical fact. In writing about her most famous book The Return of Martin Guerre Daniel Snowman says:
Davis believes that, by allowing an element of fabrication, or ‘creative fiction’, into her writing, she has probably come closer to the truth than anyone else who has written about what remains a supremely enigmatic historical episode. (Snowman, 2002, p19)

However, the process of historical speculation gained greatest credibility with the publishing of Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals by Niall Ferguson in 1997. He argues for a ‘chaotic’ model of historical forces where the actuality of the past is seen as only one of many possible outcomes. Ferguson compiled a collection of essays which speculate upon alternatives to history – ‘What if Nazi Germany had defeated the Soviet Union?’ and ‘What if Home Rule had been enacted in Ireland in 1912?’ to name but two. Ferguson’s intention is to sink, firmly and finally, the credibility of deterministic methods of historiography and in his introduction he presents a formidable indictment on the failed attempts to formulate general rules for history. This approach has its critics, most significantly Richard J. Evans (Evans, 2002) who rounds on Ferguson for using counterfactuals to lambaste the old school of left wing history and condemn their methods. Certainly it is no coincidence that many of the essays included in Virtual History come from, what Evans describes as, the ‘young fogey’ school of history. However, it is the implications these ideas had for teaching and learning history that provided particular food for thought. It was clear, from reading the essays, that these were no mere flights of fancy by the contributing historians. All their reasoning was based on a thorough knowledge and understanding of their subject and they argued that the exercise actually helped them understand it better. If this was true for historians, could it also be true for children? And if true, could the skills they employed in ‘thinking counterfactually’ be ones that give them a greater understanding of history? In order to answer these questions it is important to identify the thinking skills involved.

Thinking skills as defined in the History Update 2000 recognises the creative aspect of ‘doing’ history. The business of generating and extending ideas, suggesting hypotheses, applying the imagination and, most significantly, looking for alternative outcomes are given proper emphasis. But how can this translate into practice in classroom teaching? We decided to make counterfactuals a significant feature of our Home Front topic.


The Scenario

Making stories had already been a feature of their work in Session 2 (see Evidence from artefacts above). The business of ordering and sequencing narrative had been discussed and practised, as had the process of event framing. It was in Session 5 that the children utilised this narrative structure to organise a counterfactual narrative of their own. The decision to place this activity near the end of the project was a conscious one in order that the children could draw upon recently acquired knowledge of the subject. As the previous session had focused on The Blitz it was logical that the story we chose should centre on an air raid. The incident in question was the attack on Bethnal Green that took place on an evening in March, 1943. The firing of a recently installed rocket battery from a rooftop in the district precipitated panic as hundreds of people rushed to get off the streets. The vast majority made towards the tube station where deep underground platforms offered safety from attack. However, there was only one small entrance and in the ensuing crush 143 people, including 62 children, died.

We described the historical scenario to the children up until the point when the rocket salvo was fired and then asked them to speculate on what happened next. We told them that this was a true story and there was only one actual outcome, but that at that particular moment in time any one of a number of things might have happened. We asked the children to draw up a list of possible conclusions and then select from that list their ‘most likely’ outcome. The reasons for their choice were discussed at some length and an interesting debate on likelihood, possibility and probability ensued. We then asked the children to organise their narratives chronologically using a series of Event Frames. This sheet allowed children to select 6 key moments in the historical time of the narrative culminating in an event 30 years after the original incident. This mirrors the outcome of the actual historical scenario when the victims of the accident were commemorated with the unveiling of a plaque at Bethnal Green Station in the 1970’s.

Although this activity is far removed from the counterfactual and alternative essays collected by Ferguson, the sort of thinking required to imagine an outcome are, in many ways, the same. The starting point, for both historians and children, is the historical scenario. Certain circumstances in time and place have evolved through previous events to produce a precise and particular historical location. Clearly, the children’s scenario is not a ‘big event’ in the same way that the American Revolution or JFK’s assassination were big events but, for the children, they can be imagined in the context of a subject recently studied and understood. They were then required to suggest hypotheses, again using the historical scenario as a starting point, by reflecting on the scenario, its features and possibilities. This not only focused their attention but also helped them to understand the scenario better. For historians, a true understanding of an historical moment can only be achieved when there is speculation about the alternatives that were available at the time. As Ferguson writes:
to do this (construct plausible alternatives) is a historical necessity when attempting to understand how the past ‘actually was’….. as we must attach equal importance to all possibilities which contemporaries contemplated before the fact, and greater importance to these than to an outcome which they did not anticipate.(Ferguson, 1997, p.87)
History Update uses an interesting word in the creative aspect of thinking. It suggests that children might look for alternative innovative outcomes in their history activities. Given that innovation is about ‘novelty’ and ‘change’ it seems that unless tasks are specifically designed by teachers for this purpose they are unlikely to have this experience in the normal course of ‘doing history’. Our counterfactual activity gave them that opportunity and they responded remarkably.

Learning History – understanding the context

A requirement of the narratives created in the event frames was for the children to make them as true as they were able in the context of the particular historical time. We found very few anachronisms or ‘howlers’ and, in the vast majority of cases, the final frame in the 1970s was invariably appropriate by being different without being contemporary. The range of ideas produced by the children was testimony not only to their imaginations but also their newly-acquired subject knowledge. They included an American plane being hit by accident (interesting modern parallels here), a curious girl who pulled back the blackout curtain and precipitated an air raid and a gas attack that was hushed up for fear of creating panic. All the stories had qualities of ‘likeliness’ that meant that the children had clearly understood the historical context. The vast majority (91%) were variations on a theme of destruction. They ranged from rockets hitting the planes that then crashed on Bethnal Green to a phosphorous attack resulting in a firestorm and a deadly gas attack. When asked to consider likeliness the children thought, and predicted, logically. Their enquiries into the Blitz and the likely outcomes of an air raid, led them to believe that the narrative that followed would be one of material destruction of buildings and the death of many people. For most children the 30 year frame correctly predicted commemoration although 7 concluded their narratives with the discovery of something archaeological – the wing of an aeroplane, a fuselage and, in one case, an unexploded bomb …. which blew up!

The event framing activity gave the children the opportunity to consider carefully the outcomes from a particular moment in time. The decision, on our part, to put times to the frames did, to a certain degree, shape the narratives they constructed. However, the children were prepared for this as we had discussed earlier the relationship of time to historical stories and how the writer/historian selects significant elements for inclusion. We emphasised that their decision making, though imaginary, used the principles adopted by historians to create their historical narratives.

It was the rockets that did it

An interesting outcome of the event framing activity was the degree to which it intensified interest in the real event. By the time we got round to telling the children the actual outcome of the ‘raid’ on Bethnal Green, there was a powerful and excited air of anticipation. The overall reaction was one of genuine amazement. Many were surprised at the ‘un-war’ like nature of the accident. ‘I was expecting something…. that was more like the war. I expected bombs to drop and hit something, something important, perhaps’ said Jade, while James commented, ‘Yes, I could imagine my story but your story didn’t seem to be in the war. It didn’t seem like it happened’. The sessions we taught and the enquiries the children undertook seemed, in some cases to have created in their minds a stereotype of war. The Blitz was a rolling event of raid, destruction followed by a sort of recovery before the next raid. Anything outside that pattern wasn’t contemplated and why should it be? It’s not the stuff of popular history. It might also be argued that this is testimony to the success of the government’s propaganda machine at the time. The children were quick to pick up on this. One child commented in the plenary, ‘You just hear the war stories. Stories like that (Bethnal Green) might make people question what the government was doing so they’d have to keep it quiet’. Most children felt their stories were much more likely than the real event and they were, of course, correct in that. However, the most telling statement came from a boy who had thought long and hard about the new rockets and asked a number of questions about them. He said: ‘It was the rockets that did it. The sirens worried the people but it was the rockets going off that caused the panic. You said when you told us the beginning that the rockets were new. People had never heard that sound before. It made them panic. It was the rockets that did it.’


Notes


  1. My initial interest in this area stems from the work of a secondary teacher colleague who was studying for an M.Ed. with me at Exeter University in the late 80s under Jon Nichol. His dissertation adapted Feuerstein’s programme for Instrumental Enrichment and the Somerset Thinking Skills Course for use in the teaching of history.

Hoare, J. (1989) The Potential of the Somerset Thinking Skills Course for the Teaching of History University of Exeter, M.Ed (History) dissertation.

Fuerstein R. et al (1980) Instrumental Enrichment Baltimore Univ. Press.


  1. The March 2003 of Teaching History has some very interesting articles on this subject, most significantly Sean Lang’s ‘Narrative: the under-rated skill’, pp8-17. Teaching History 110.

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Zemon Davies, N. (1985) The Return of Martin Guerre Harmondsworth, Penguin.


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