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How do children understand the history of Scotland?


Faculty of Social Sciences

About the Project

One often hears the complaint that ‘children don’t know any history’ or, at the very least, that they know less that they should. Such complaints contain the implicit assumption that historical knowledge is intrinsically important – that, as Osborne (1991) has argued, membership of a democratic community entails a knowledge of that community’s past. However, these deficit framings are not particularly helpful; there is a danger that we spend so much time worrying about what children don’t know, we forget to ask what they do (Wineberg, 2001).

The proposed research would avoid this deficit framing and ask instead what, in fact, Scottish children do understand about the past. The only existing work in this area (Wood & Payne, 1999) apparently uncovered significant misconceptions; such as the claim that ‘37% believed that the unification of Scotland and England was the result of English conquest’ (Wood, 1997, p. 4). However, not only is this research now some twenty years old; but, in using multiple choice questionnaires, it was also methodologically suspect. As Wineberg has shown (2004), such tests are a poor guide to children’s historical understanding; both because they generate erroneous data by encouraging children to guess, and because history is, in any case, more than an agglomeration of atomised facts.

The proposed research will develop a PhD candidate to research children’s historical knowledge in a more sophisticated way, by bringing together methodological expertise of a supervisor in the social sciences and the epistemic insight of a trained research-active Scottish historian. The research question will be:
How do children understand the history of Scotland?
In common with the ESRC-funded ‘Usable Pasts’ project in England (Foster, et al., 2008) this research will use qualitative methods to comprehend children’s epistemic frames in their own terms. Although the successful PhD student would devise her/his own research instruments, possible tools include respondents producing an initial ‘narrative’ of Scottish history, follow-up interviews and a discussion of historical problems within pupil focus groups. As the data is collected, the insight of an expert historian will be essential in helping the researcher to propose analytical categories or models of children’s epistemologies. The study would focus on pupils in S5 (aged 15-16) and the sample will include a cross section of those who discontinued their study of history at the end of the compulsory junior phase (S2/S3) and those who took/ are taking qualifications in the subject.

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