How do children learn history?

If you were a teacher, would you take your children somewhere where you knew they were going to be shouted at and made to do household chores for no pay? Perhaps that’s best left as a rhetorical question.

On school trips to Holdenby House in Northamptonshire, where Charles I was held prisoner by the Scots, that’s exactly what children get. They come dressed up as Victorian urchins and are yelled at by a fearsome housekeeper called Mrs Bunbridge and her rather stern colleagues, the cook and the butler before being tried out for imagined future work as ladies’ maids or kitchen hands.

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I went there dressed as Mr Scratching, a government inspector come to discover what kind of child was being turned out by the local workhouse (see picture for evidence). Or that was my cover story, at least. Really, I wanted to find out what children learned about history from this kind of ‘immersive’ experience. Bottom line: they’ll learn what ‘elbow grease’ is – both the phrase and the hard reality. And the kids I talked to were also very aware of the differences between the Victorian period and now, although one of them (only 8 years old it has to be stressed) told me she thought the Victorian era was 13 years ago and when I told her it was more like 120, she fell about laughing.

Whatever events in history children are supposed to learn about, as prescribed by the national curriculum, what really makes a difference to children is how the subject is taught. And that, in turn, depends on why you think we bother to teach history at all. If history is about battles and kings, a day with Mrs Bunbridge won’t cut it. But if it is about developing a sense of the past as a foreign country, then dressing up may be the way forward: history as experience, versus history as a coherent story.

For ‘How Do Children Learn History?’ on Radio 4, (to be broadcast on Tuesday April 15 at 8pm) I went into classrooms to watch some surprisingly different approaches. The children at Millbank School in inner London, whose (very charismatic) teacher builds their factual knowledge by getting them to follow along as he reads out a passage from a book will remember a very different kind of school history from those who have teachers who get them to figure out the answer to problems as if they were detectives.

‘Once we were monkeys; now we have iPads’, as one girl at Whitwell primary in Derbyshire told me. ‘And you want to know how we’ve evolved.’ You do indeed. But exactly how we tell that story is far from obvious.

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