Developing an Historically Enquiring Mind in Children

The ability to think critically and analytically then confidently reach their own conclusion is one of my main homeschooling goals for the children.  We are learning lots of history and that’s great but my desire is to use history to teach the children more transferable skills, rather than simple knowledge.  We are about to start the knights and castle era of British history, but how did this begin?  And how do historians know?

History is not an exact science; only a level of certainty can be gained with any assertion.   I wanted to introduce the idea to my children that historians can only be somewhat certain of their postulation, never completely certain.  This will change the face of our future studies in history.  The children, so far, have accepted pretty much anything a book has told them although they are a little more critical of films and historical fiction.  I have taught them about primary and secondary evidence and their related strengths in ascertaining truths from the past, but I have not drummed in the importance of hypothesising and re-hypothesising as new evidence comes to light.

I did a search on the web and came up with just what I was looking for.  This idea came from a school based website in the UK.  The activities needed to be changed somewhat for us as home schoolers, but I think the concepts behind their ideas are fabulous and could be reused for many eras.

First I asked them to sit on the floor with their eyes shut, and I placed some items I had relating to finds at Riccall, North England.  The items included a bone with slice marks on it, teeth, an axe and Viking helmet
First I asked the children to sit on the floor with their eyes shut, and I placed some items I had relating to finds at Riccall, North England. The items included a bone with slice marks on it, teeth, an axe and Viking helmet
I told them they were archeologists, unearthing, for the first time, artefacts from the soil.  I encouraged them to pick up a pretend trowel and start digging carefully
Telling them they were archeologists, unearthing for the first time artefacts from the soil, I encouraged them to pick up a pretend trowel and start digging carefully
I asked them to open their eyes and examine their finds!  They were having so much fun!
They had to open their eyes and examine their finds! They were having so much fun!
I asked them what type of questions would they be asking if this was real.  They came up with the obvious ones, along with a few less obvious (sometimes leaning towards the ridiculous!).  We used a who, why, where, what, how dice to encourage improved questioning.
I had them think about the type of questions they would be asking if this was real. They came up with the obvious ones, along with a few less obvious (sometimes leaning towards the ridiculous!). We used a who, why, where, what, how dice (shown next to the helmet) to encourage improved questioning.
This is C10, our very verbous, highly creative and imaginative.  She came up with more imaginary scenarios of what happened to the person who owned the bone than any questions!!
This is C10, our very verbose, highly creative and imaginative child. She came up with imaginary scenarios of what happened to the person who owned the bone rather than asking any questions!!
The two most important questions, we felt, were who died here and how did they die.  I left the children to come up with a hypothesis to answer these questions
The two most important questions were: who died here and how did they die. I left the children to come up with a hypothesis to answer these questions.  They all came up with similar answers, some more succinctly than others(!!).  They thought it was a warrior and he died in battle.

This was my time to introduce them to a couple of clues:

Clues that told the children that Riccall was on the route the vikings took back to their ships after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, having been defeated by the Anglo Saxons; and that their was no grave yard burial site in the area
Clues that told the children that Riccall was near to the site of two battles, one being the Battle of Stamford Bridge; and that there was no grave yard burial site in the area

The children were asked to make another decision about who they thought the remains belonged to and how the person died.  This time they were introduced to many words which could be used to show varying degrees of certainty:

DSC_0397

I showed them our certainty continuum line – from UNCERTAIN to CERTAIN.  The children had to make a new theory based on the evidence they had been given and then stand on the certainty line to show how sure they were of their theory.  The children picked up that it was possibly a Viking or Anglo-Saxon and that maybe they died of wounds from the Battle of Stamford Bridge or in another, undocumented, battle:

UNCERTAIN card is on the left, CERTAIN card on the right
UNCERTAIN card is on the left, CERTAIN card on the right

Next they were given all but one of the other clues and asked to re-evaluate and re-hypothesise who had died and how they had died:

They now
These clues told the children that Riccall was on the route the Vikings took to reach their boats after being defeated by the Anglo-Saxon at Stamford Bridge; they also learnt that the weapons found were consistent with those used by the Vikings and Anglo Saxons; and lastly the bones had been sent off to scientists for analysis and the marks found on them were confirmed as marks made by weapons such as axes.

The children re-hypothesised.  They were now fairly certain that the person was either Anglo-Saxon or Viking and had died after the Battle of Stamford bridge.  C10 had some elaborate fate for this poor warrior who had an infected leg bone and died of septicaemia!!  They were asked to show their degree of certainty:

All the children were more certain, all having moved up the continuum to the CERTAIN card
All the children were more certain, all having moved up the continuum to the CERTAIN card

And finally they had their last clue:

The teeth, when analysed, came from a person who lived in the Norwegean areas marked on the map
The teeth, when analysed, came from a person who lived in the blue areas marked on the map

The children, having covered Viking history fairly thoroughly, knew that these were areas of Viking settlements.  They fine tuned their theory, asserting that it was a Viking warrior, who had died on his way back to his ship, either from battle wounds or from fighting that occurred on the way as the Anglo Saxons pursued them.  C10 stuck resolutely to her theory and was 100% certain she was spot on!

L10 remains unsure.  This reflects her personality.  C10 was absolutely sure she was right.  This reflects her personality.  T10 was the only one I felt really grasped what I was trying to teach.  It could be a maturity thing, being 9 months older.  He understood, no matter how sure he felt his theory was, he could NEVER be completely certain, because other information might come to light and he would need to change his theory again.
L10 remains unsure. This reflects her personality. C10 was absolutely sure she was right. This reflects her personality. T10 was the only one I felt really grasped what I was trying to teach. It could be a maturity thing, being 9 months older. He understood, no matter how sure he felt about his theory , he could NEVER be completely certain, because other information might come to light and he would need to change his theory again.

We discussed why C10 may not have been completely right and looked at other possible scenarios for his demise.  I think she got it, but simply felt her ideas were the most interesting!  The younger one’s had returned by this stage, so although there is a follow-up activity I could have done, we didn’t have time.

The children LOVED this activity and I saw how much it encouraged them to think.  It was also good because there wasn’t a right or wrong, simply a great learning experience.

7 comments

  1. What a great idea! I also want to teach my children to be independent thinkers. What age range do you feel this activity is appropriate for? My sons are 9 and 7.

  2. My daughters have recently turned ten, my son is eleven today. He definitely grasped what I was trying to teach much quicker than the girls. However, they all really enjoyed it and I think, to varying degrees, learnt something from it. HTH!

  3. I’m looking forward to returning to the Ancients next year to be able to do some of this. You can do some with the 20th century, but there’s not really archeological digs, but I can do pictures of actual events, and have similar things.
    Yesterday we started WW1 and had fun with that……..

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