SHP and 'What is history?'


Published: 6th March 1998

In the 1970s a new approach to history teaching was developed through the auspices of the Schools Council History Project (SCHP) later named the Schools History Project (SHP). In order to engage pupils (and reverse the perceived danger of a declining uptake of history amongst pupils) the project authors designed activities that were intended to motivate pupils and enable them to think critically. The approach, which involved sifting sources, making inferences and deductions, selecting evidence and reaching conclusions was designed to replicate in part that of the historian. The underlying philosophy was also influenced by debates about the nature of history and about how pupils learn history.

Year 9 pupils studied a ‘What is history' course which involved a number of units, including:

  • Mark Pullen: In this unit pupils were asked to use clues to work out what happened to a student called Mark Pullen. The objective was for the pupils to reach conclusions based on evidence in a similar way to an historian.
  • Bodies in the Bog and Sutton Hoo: Pupils were then asked to apply the skills they had learnt in the previous unit in genuine historical contexts: the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the bodies found in the Danish peat-bogs.

The approach used in the SHP course influenced both textbook writers and examiners. Textbooks included units on ‘What is history' and used historical contexts such as the murder of the Princes in the Tower to enable pupils to solve mysteries from the past. The SHP O level (later GCSE course) included further units designed to enable pupils to use what were termed ‘primary' and ‘secondary' sources to investigate a topic in depth and to pursue a local study. GCSE examinations sometimes included a source paper in which pupils were given sources relating to a unfamiliar topic. (In SHP this was Paper 2.) These were carefully crafted to allow pupils to pursue an enquiry, such as ‘Who was King Arthur' and to draw conclusions in the examination based entirely on the evidence drawn from the sources.

With the advent of the National Curriculum, the ‘What is history?' approach often disappeared because of the weight of content to be taught. (Although it was suggested that it the approach could be translated into new content areas.) The revision of the GCSE criteria in 1998 included a greater emphasis on the need to make links between wider contextual knowledge and the evidence that can be derived from sources. This spelt the end of the ‘unseen' Paper 2 of the SHP GCSE. More recently the greater flexibility in the 2000 history order  led to the inclusion of the ‘What is history?' approach in some textbooks.

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