Amazing adventures in time and space

It's easy to get children excited about history and geography. Just focus on methodology, and the facts will look after themselves
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The humanities – geography and history – may not be classified as core subjects in the national curriculum, but there is no doubting their significance in our education.

The humanities – geography and history – may not be classified as core subjects in the national curriculum, but there is no doubting their significance in our education. From history, we are able to understand how the past has shaped us. We are also able to make sense of the present and what the future might hold. From geography, we gain an appreciation of our physical world, both natural and man-made, and how location and climate impacts upon human life.

In both subjects, teaching has changed significantly over the past 20 or so years. Geography, for instance, has moved away from straightforward learning of capital cities and facts about individual countries. "There's much more enquiry and more emphasis on practical and field work outside, doing things like surveys, questionnaires, and mapping land use," says Roger Carter, acting chief executive at the Geographical Association.

"And it's a much more visual subject now. In a typical geography lesson, children will be looking at photographs, satellite images, maps, tables and charts, as well as text, to find out more about the place they're studying. And, with the help of the internet, they can conduct quite close studies of how people live in different places and what they do."

From ages five to 14, the national curriculum for geography involves a lot of geographical enquiry, built around questions to ask about places – where is the place, what is it like, how did it get like this, what's special about it, how does it compare with other places and connect to other places, and what would it be like to live there?

"We're trying to give kids a sense of different places," explains Carter. "Very often, teachers find that children talk very excitably about where they've been on holiday but, when it comes down to it, there's very little sense of place coming out of it. They get on a plane and go somewhere, they do things, then get on another plane and come back."

From Key Stage One onwards, geography also involves a gradual broadening of outlook, a change in scale from the very small and immediate to regional, national, international and global issues as children grow older. This involves both the physical and human world.

Young children might start with locality studies around the school, or looking at the local park or shops or their home, or planning routes and exploring alternative ways to get somewhere. This gradually generalises into the idea of settlement patterns or transport systems. There is also a lot of work on processes, with younger children examining and recording elements of the weather or looking at a local stream or studying a pond.

By Key Stage Three, this has moved on to exploring phenomena such as mountain formation, volcanoes, earthquakes, tides and coastal weather, as well as human processes such as how towns grow, how industries and places change, migration and so on.

In history, too, there has been a profound shift away from the rote learning of dates and events that dominated the curriculum a generation ago, explains Dr Anna Pendry, an Oxford lecturer in history education: "As well as getting children to find out what happened and why, there is now much more emphasis on 'how do we know?'– examining the nature of historical knowledge and how it's actually constructed.

"Children can then understand that knowledge rather than simply being asked to just believe it, whereas, 20 years ago, pupils had no idea how historians constructed their accounts of the past. Where there were two different accounts of the same event, for example, in the past children were told that one is right and one is wrong, whereas now they're told that both have some validity."

Even from an early age, your child will be encouraged to think in the same way about history as when they do GCSE, she explains. "Right from the beginning of Key Stage One, we get them to look at the nature of historical evidence and how you use evidence to construct pictures and versions of the past, and examine why things in the past happen and what that caused afterwards. There's much of an emphasis on engaging in activities and using whatever media are available, which has compensated for less time in the curriculum for visits to historical sites."

In history, the national curriculum now means that, across the country, children learn about the same periods and gain the same skills at more or less the same time. At Key Stage One, for example, your child will learn how to place events in chronological order, recognise why events happened and identify differences between ways of life at different times.

At Key Stage Two, children will begin to look at certain periods, such as the Romans, Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, life in Tudor times or in Victorian Britain. By the time they are at secondary school, children are ready to analyse and explain the reasons for historical events, and identify connections and trends between various world events, as well as studying in more depth various historical periods, including the British medieval period, and the expansion of trade and colonisation during the time of the British empire.

At all levels, in other words, history and geography are both concerned not just with the accumulation of information and knowledge but with the development of particular ways of thinking, and it is this that makes the kind of non-curricular activities outlined below and on the next two pages so valuable. Once a child has learned to enjoy thinking historically or geographically, the facts can look after themselves.