Less generic analysis and more case studies: teaching about sources in schools

I have written in this blog on a few occasions how I think source-based questions in schools need to change. Although we have come a long way from the horrors of 1990s ‘sourcework’, where pupils were given short extracts of text and asked to assess the ‘reliability’ or ‘utility’ of the source based on brief information provided in italics under the extract, our GCSE and A-Level exams still suffer from a rather distorted model of historical practice. Not that I would ever recommend this to a pupil, but the only historical answer to a standard exam question is “I cannot answer this without knowing a great deal more about the source”. Historians do not walk into an archive, get presented with three extracts from sources, and, after reading these for about five to ten minutes, write their latest book. To the contrary, historians will often spend a great deal of time immersing themselves in their source material, learning all of its intricacies, teasing out the meaning of what they see. It is about as far removed from an exam situation as one can imagine. If the purpose of a GCSE or A-Level exam is to assess how well pupils have understood the practices of the discipline, then they fall woefully short.

I am increasingly convinced that there are several things that can be done to resolve this problem, but they require a considerable re-think of how we approach sources in the history curriculum. In brief, I think that

  • we should specify particular sources on a curriculum about which we want our pupils to learn
  • we should teach these sources as a ‘case study’ approach, looking in detail at the sources and how they have been used by historians to construct interpretations of the past
  • we should move away completely from ‘unseen’ sources in assessment, and instead ask specific questions about the case studies that pupils have learnt

I have set out below some possible case studies that could be learnt in this way. Many will be familiar to history teachers, but it is rare indeed for specific sources to be set out in a curriculum as cases to be learnt, and unheard of (at least in public exams) for pupils to be told “for this specification you have to have in-depth knowledge of the cartoons of David Low”, or something to that effect. I have focused here more on Key Stage 2 and 3 as I think this is where this is currently the greatest scope for curriculum and assessment development. I shall I due course put together some examples of what I think a good GCSE and A-Level specification and examination might look like.

 Case Study 1: The Vindolanda Tablets: daily life on the edge of the world

 Case Study 2: Sutton Hoo: an Anglo-Saxon grave 

Case Study 3: Alfred’s Domboc: law codes in the early middle ages

Case Study 4: Coin hordes: the economy of late Anglo-Saxon England 

Case Study 5: The Luttrel Psalter: an insight into medieval life

Case Study 6: The Paston Letters: the English gentry of the fifteenth century

Case Study 7: The parliamentary speeches of Oliver Cromwell

Case Study 8: Births, Marriages and Deaths: the demographics of the industrial revolution

Case Study 9: Political pamphlets of the nineteenth century: abolitionism and electoral reform

Case Study 10: The cartoons of David Low: political satire in the twentieth century

I would envisage spending around three or four weeks looking at each case study, and in that time going into quite a lot of detail about what the source material is, how it survives, and how it has been used by historians to form interpretations of the past. For my next post I’ll have a go at writing a end of year assessment based on this model.




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