Why Learn History when you can DO History


Why do we teach world history? So students can answer a daily double on the fertile crescent? So students will know when what happened to whom?

Most curricula have "Cluster 0" outcomes; over-arching skill development focusing on process in the context of whatever content each unit happens to present. These are skills like, "consider the context of events", "interpret primary sources", "formulate questions leading to investigations", "record, compile and display observations," and so on.

Several years ago my teacher candidate, Ben Clendenning, assembled a unit for ancient Greece using primary source materials - artifacts and literature for students to analyse. They sought answers to the question, "What does this artifact tell you about the civilization from which it came?"

Responses to this coin, for instance, initially were, "they bought stuff," or "they had horses".

Eventually we thought beyond the finished product. They knew how to train horses. They had a written language. They created stamps or presses to mint the coins. They mined and processed minerals to create the coins. They must have had specialized workforce. They used currency to represent a unit of work.

click for full size image

Standard of Ur, War Side

The Standard of Ur is a terrific artifact for this purpose. It is a trapezoidal box-like object with two panels on the main sides. One illustrates a period of peace, the other a period of conflict. We start with the peace side and the question, "What does this say about the civilization from which it came?" and the follow-up, "Why do you think that." The iconography on the artifact is clear and artistic conventions make it easy to determine who is who and what is happening.

click to see full-size image

The Standard of Ur, Peace Side

Students make hypotheses. We compare ideas, talk through possibilities, and we ask questions. Students begin to understand the importance of context. Where was this found? How old is it? What do we already know about the people and places of that period? All the while, we work toward an understanding of an archaeologist's work. We begin to appreciate the importance of site surveys, careful excavation, documenting, photographing, recording. We develop observational skills.

Once we have processed the artifact ourselves, we hit the internet. BBC's production, "The History of the World in 100 Objects" includes a page and podcast on the Standard of Ur. Students can rotate, zoom, and explore the image in greater detail, read archaeologists' interpretations of the object, and listen to the 15 minute podcast.

I have some resources curated on my Early History and Archaeology Pinterest board (milesmac). One notable resource is a YouTube video by SmartHistory and the Khan Academy. It is a super description of the Standard of Ur in accessible language focusing on the process of observation and reasoning as Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris describe the artifact.

Working with social artifacts provides opportunities to think, explore, question, hypothesize, and reason. Students find the "doing" of history much more engaging that the "learning" of history.



  1. Simon says:

    I completely agree. Using authentic source material as a basis for discussion is an excellent way to promote pupils' interest in the subject. When coupled with thoughtful and probing questioning pupils' understanding can be greatly enhanced. I find they also appreciate it when the teacher assumes the position of "co-learner," working with them to gain an understanding rather than simply telling them what they need to know. This also promotes real thinking in pupils.

    Great article-thanks!

  2. […] RT @milesmac: Why Learn History when you can DO History milestomes.com/?p=653 […]

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