The National Maritime Museum recently hosted a NACE member meetup exploring approaches to working in depth for the more able. Following on from the event, the museum’s Ben Weddell explains how an enquiry-based approach to history can be used to inspire and challenge learners of all ages and abilities.
Recently the National Maritime Museum (NMM) learning team were lucky enough to host a NACE member meetup. Following a presentation on SOLO Taxonomy and a “speed sharing” session, we had the opportunity to share the museum’s approach to teaching historical enquiry and how this can translate to the classroom, based on my experiences at the NMM and as a secondary history teacher.

History as an investigative process

A fascinating aspect of learning about the past is the realisation that we have to discover it. Far from a list of dates and occurrences to be memorised and regurgitated, history can – should – be an investigative subject of discovery.
This is a far more interesting and engaging approach, and one which provides opportunities to personalise and differentiate, by giving learners agency for the routes they take in uncovering the past.
Indeed, for history to have any meaning as a subject I would argue that it has to be investigative. It is through the skills which constitute a historical methodology that “history” comes to make sense as a coherent single subject. 

Defining a historical method

If challenged about the scientific method, most teachers would be able to outline the “hypothesis, experimentation, new hypothesis” model. Is it possible to repeat that for history? If there is a scientific method that learners can grasp, surely there has to be an equivalent for history.
Historical enquiry is the skill that fills this gap. This starts from the premise that we don’t know what happened in the past and have to discover this for ourselves – a great learning opportunity as this is where learners themselves begin. Rather than treating learners as passive vessels to be topped up with historical information, this approach challenges them to uncover the past themselves. 
Furthermore, there is an expectation in the national curriculum that enquiry will be taught:
“Pupils are expected to understand the methods of historical enquiry, including how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed.”

This process builds from KS1 to KS2 and 3, developing skills in dealing with isolated blocks of evidence and then establishing links between these, culminating in the ability to assess, ask questions of, and reflect on a large bank of potentially contradictory evidence and come to sound conclusions.

Harnessing the power of objects

One way to engage learners in this journey is to incorporate object-based enquiry. History teaching often focuses around the spoken and written word, resulting in a teacher-led approach. Using objects, especially in a multisensory capacity, can add interesting new dimensions to learning:
  • Increased motivation and curiosity
  • Accessibility, through the ability for learners to raise their own questions
  • Multisensory approaches providing different access points for a range of learners
  • “Realness” – aiding understanding of abstract ideas through a focus on tangible objects
  • Cross-curricular opportunities for literacy, incorporation of other forms of evidence and other subject areas
It is possible to build enquiry opportunities using a huge range of objects, so developing a specific object bank is useful but not essential. Whether making use of printed resources or actual physical objects, the process of conducting an enquiry is what brings the object to life.

Let learners find their own challenge

Larger enquiries offer extensive opportunities for teachers. The key is to provide a limited amount of initial evidence and then allow learners to formulate their own responses. This creates effective differentiation and provides unique opportunities for learners to create their own working level, including the more able.
Furthermore, a creative introduction to the initial information – say roleplaying an archaeological discovery or a new finding in a document or database – provides motivation for learners to set themselves a challenging question.
It is then possible to expand investigations with the introduction of new evidence. There is flexibility in the range and scope of evidence you introduce, which will be determined by learners’ needs and level. For instance, a limited suitcase of objects could be investigated by KS1 learners, whereas by KS3 a teacher could overload learners with objects, so they have to differentiate between useful evidence and red herrings or irrelevant information.
In practice this could take the form of:
  • One-off mysteries (KS1/KS2): a collection of objects to consider and a simple guided outcome, for instance “Whose suitcase might this be?”
  • Developed enquiries (KS2/KS3): building on initial discoveries to develop an entire scheme of work, for instance “Why was this object found in the Arctic?”, leading into a wider investigation of John Franklin’s doomed final voyage to the Arctic, linking more widely to Arctic exploration.
  • Self-led enquiries (KS3): initial collection of evidence and a problem, leading to a project including opportunities for learners to define their own questions and route, selecting appropriate evidence from a wide range and engaging with controversies.  
All of these models follow the same process – starting with initial evidence, developing a hypothesis, testing with additional evidence, then repeating with a new hypothesis and so on. The cyclical nature of this process is marked by increasing degrees of certainty in learners’ findings as they increase the depth and range of the evidence they have based their ideas upon.  

Enquiry as part of a wider pedagogy

Making enquiry a central part of learning has a number of benefits. It revolves around approaching topics with a focus on teaching skills that can then be used to access content, as opposed to a discrete delivery of content and skills. In turn, this means that history begins to make coherent sense, challenging some learners’ misconception that it is “just stuff that has happened”.
The skills acquired will also be more easily transferable and encourage a cross-curricular approach. Significantly, these skills are highly applicable to a wider world in which the ability to assess and sift incoming information is becoming ever more crucial.  
Historical enquiry fits well with other pedagogies, such as SOLO Taxonomy or other progressive models such as Bloom’s. As the enquiry progresses, individual learners move through different stages of thinking skills, with initial stages of identification and definition, progressing to description of evidence, classification and analysis, through to evaluation and hypothesising around a wide range of evidence.
This approach forms the basis for historical enquiry sessions at the National Maritime Museum. These sessions include KS1 investigations into where breakfast comes from, full-day secondary study sessions incorporating original archive materials, and expert research sessions for post-16 students. You can find out more about these sessions on our website or through our guide to school programmes, which can be found here.  
Useful links:
  • National Maritime Museum for schools – including information about school visits, CPD opportunities, downloadable resources and more.
  • Royal Museums Greenwich collections – searchable database of the Royal Musuems Greenwich collections, ranging from maps and charts to a taxidermy penguin! Includes images and information which can easily be adapted as resources for teaching and learning.
  • Spartacus Educational – free-to-use site hosting historical resources and materials, useful for creating banks of evidence to build an enquiry.
  • Thinking History – website of Ian Dawson, one of the founders of the Schools History Project, with a huge array of fantastic enquiry-based sessions available for free.
Ben WeddellBen is a learning producer at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, where he specialises in historical enquiry programmes for learners of all ages. He previously worked as a history teacher in secondary schools and a sixth form college, with a particular interest in opportunities to build historical enquiry into the curriculum.
To find out more about Ben’s work and how your school could get involved, contact NACE and we will put you in touch.

Upcoming member meetups…

The next NACE member meetups will be held at the English Speaking Union on 6 March 2018, and Shakespeare’s Globe on 8 June 2018. Full details will be announced via our monthly email newsfeed and in the members’ area of our website. You can also follow us on Twitter for regular updates.
Wednesday, January 3, 2018