How Children Explain the "Why" Of History
The Chata Research Project on Teaching History

Rosalyn Ashby, Peter Lee, and Alaric Dickinson

Many teachers accept the notion that children's existing ideas play an important role in the teaching and learning process. Activities in history classrooms in the United Kingdom are increasingly being designed to enable teachers to gain access to these understandings. Learning is then organized to enable children to build on their ideas, and teachers to tackle misunderstandings. However, the vast body of knowledge and experience possessed by individual teachers needs to be transmitted more effectively to the profession as a whole.
Much educational research now seeks to support teachers in the classroom through both the documentation of their experiences and the dissemination of findings that focus on areas of teacher concern. The first phase of the Chata Research Project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, addresses some of these issues. It aims to learn more about children's tacit understandings in history, and about how these understandings change and develop. It asks the question: Can we find a pattern of progression in children's ideas?

Our central concern is not with existing factual knowledge or substantive historical concepts such as democracy, trade, or peasant, but with the second order concepts of evidence and explanation in history. What assumptions about the discipline of history, and about how it works, do children use as they tackle history in the classroom? This emphasis on second-order concepts arose from changes that have been going on in history classrooms during the past two and a half decades.

The Piagetian framework of investigation into children's thinking, particularly in its mechanical application to history, had traditionally provided a rather pessimistic outlook for the classroom. It limited the aims of school history to the learning of facts and stories about the past. However, during the 1970s, teachers increasingly came to believe that pupils studying history ought to have to do much more than collect, remember, and regurgitate information.

A far more optimistic period began. New curriculum developments translated into public examinations and gave history and the teaching of it a new sense of purpose. Teachers began to look at their pupils' responses to tasks in a different way. They looked at the historical content not only in terms of substantive concepts and details, but additionally for indicators of second order understandings such as cause, motive, evidence, and interpretation. The Schools History Project expanded teacher's experiences and understandings in connection with these key ideas, supported by Denis Shemilt's History 13-16 Evaluation Study in 19801 and a succession of smaller scale studies that followed.2

In the late 1980s, these changes in thinking about school history became a focus for debate over the national curriculum in the United Kingdom. The debate became simplified and polarized. On the one side, it was argued that history should be concerned with the transmission of historical knowledge, meaning the key facts of, and stories about, events in Britain's past. On the other side, it was claimed that history teaching should be primarily concerned with developing pupils' historical understanding, with an emphasis on how the discipline of history works: how we know about the past, how the past is explained, and how historical accounts are produced and justified.

The longer term curriculum changes taking place in classrooms and within the examination system meant that many teachers in secondary education had for some time practiced a balance between both these approaches. This practice has now been reinforced and extended through the national curriculum, which set out a programme of study determining historical content and listing teaching objectives (key elements) directed at understandings about the nature and status of historical knowledge. Descriptions of achievement at different levels were designed to correspond to these teaching objectives.

Focus on Children's Understanding
Research has an important role to play in expanding our knowledge of children's underlying ideas about history, and how these develop between childhood and early adolescence. Chata's focus on children's understandings of historical evidence and explanation, and its concern with the progression of ideas, is of direct interest to teachers at work in the classroom.
Previous research suggested that children employ relatively stable sets of ideas to handle historical tasks, and that these sets of ideas can be powerful in dealing with the problems children encounter in doing history. More powerful ideas solve problems that less powerful ideas do not. The Chata research project involved children in a variety of paper and pencil tasks, using different content in three separate task sets, to enable us to say something about the stability of these sets of ideas.

The age range of the sample allowed us to consider levels and progression within and between age groups. The sample consisted of 320 pupils, of whom 55 were in year three, 75 in year six, 100 in year seven and 90 in year nine. (In the UK, year-three children are 8 years old at the end of the school year, year-six 11, year-seven 12, and year-nine 14.) A total of 122 children from the sample, including all the children in year three, were interviewed on all three task sets. In addition, video data was collected on 96 children (not in the same sample) working in groups of three, each group using one set of tasks.

Many of the tasks to which children in the history classroom and in public examinations are expected to respond require them to provide historical explanations. Teachers are aware that what is involved here is much more complex than knowing some history. To select and deploy knowledge purposefully and successfully, it is necessary to have some understanding of the nature of the question to which you are responding.

The Chata research project explored several strands within the areas of historical explanation and historical enquiry. One aspect of our research was the examination of children's ideas in connection with fact, reason and cause. What distinctions, if any, did children make here? What light could this shed on their understanding of how things happen in history? What might this mean about their understanding of historical explanation? We also wanted to know how far children recognize that any kind of explaining in history is different from giving information.

Fact, Reason, and Cause
Experience from teaching and research suggested that, in giving historical explanations, children often made no distinction between reasons for action and the conditions and causal antecedents that explained the outcome of the action. When asked to explain why something occurred, they were likely to say why some agent or agents wanted it to happen, not why those agents were able to get what they wanted.
On our first task set, we gave the children two sets of material (much of it in cartoon form) about the Roman Empire and the way of life of the Britons prior to the Claudian invasion of Britain in AD 43. We then gave them a brief account of the invasion itself. The task was presented in the form of a paradox:

The initial question asked for an open response, followed by the task shown in Figure 1. Children were asked to choose the two boxes "which are best for making the Romans able to take over," and to draw lines joining their selected boxes to Box A.

To enable us to understand children's choices, we asked some further questions. We asked how the two boxes they had chosen explained why the Romans were able to take over most of Britain, and whether the boxes they had not chosen were "some good" or "no good" for explaining the Roman take-over. In addition to this, we asked them to judge what other children would do: Might they choose the wrong ones? What might make them do that?

Among those who chose the two causes, Box 1 and Box 5, there were (unsurprisingly) varying degrees of sophistication in the way they were able to explain their choices. Wayne, year nine, was very clear about his choices:

Ben, year six, chose Box 4 and Box 6:

Conversion from Reason to Cause
Some light may be shed on what is happening in responses of this kind by children who made a further move, which we came to call "conversion" from reasons to causes. Becki's response (in Figure 2) shows how conversions worked. Becki explained that Box 2, The Roman Emperor Claudius decided to invade Britain in AD 43, did not bear directly on an explanation of Roman success, but that it might have an indirect relevance. She thought Boxes 3 and 4 could play a similar role, because determination and wanting to succeed were likely to make a difference.
Sara, year seven, converted one of her best choices by suggesting:

Conversions are interesting and important, but they by no means account for all the cases where reasons seemed to stand in for causes.

Jonathan, like Ben, did not convert (see Figure 3). It appears that Jonathan either made no distinction between explanatory tasks (treating explanation as a global and generalized reduction in uncertainty), or was aware of the explanatory target but assumed that wants somehow make things happen. There were many responses of this kind, in which a reason was offered as an explanation of Roman success, and they were more common among younger children.

Figure 4 shows the distribution of choice combination (F = fact, R = reason, C = cause) by age, adjusted for conversions. (The small numbers who opted for two facts, a fact and a reason, a fact and a cause, or two reasons are treated as one category in this figure).

The Progress of Historical Explanation
What evidence is there here of changing ideas about how things happen in history? Are there signs of progression in ideas about the nature of historical explanation? Children's ideas about how things happen in history seem to change along the following lines:

The following progression in children's ideas about the nature of historical explanation is suggested by the analysis of responses to this task.

Two practical questions arise immediately. Should we give children tasks that pose direct problems for the idea that wanting makes things happen (perhaps along the lines, "The Britons desperately wanted to stop the Romans from taking over, and they were determined to win. So how is it that the Romans won instead?") And, to what extent do we need to ensure that children can make distinctions between facts, reasons and causes before we ask them to produce explanations, even if we have taught them all the substantive historical information needed to produce one? It may be valuable to raise with children questions about what explanations are, how they are different from statements of fact, and how they differ depending on what exactly is being explained.

The Meaning of "Because"
A brief comment on one other task children tackled may suggest that more explicit talk about how explanations work in history is something that teachers could develop. We gave the children two boxes, marked simply Box 1 and Box 2 (see Figure 5).
One box contained a pair of factual statements, and the other contained the same statements with the addition of "were able to," and joined by "because," to produce an explanation. We asked: Is there any real difference between these boxes, or do they say the same thing really? Explain why you think yes or no. From our sample of 320 pupils, 134 children said there was a real difference between the boxes, and 186 children said that there was not. Figure 6 illustrates the very wide variation in the level of the responses.

Wayne concentrates on the content of the boxes, ignoring the function of the sentences in the two boxes. James took a different tack. In pointing out that "in some cases" Box 1 could be true and Box 2 false, James was commenting on the difference in the conditions that must be satisfied for statements of fact and for explanations to be acceptable. This is especially important because, from the responses to tasks exploring ideas about testing historical explanations (not reported here), it is clear that many children think that you can test an explanation by showing that the factual statements from which it is made are true. This is exactly what James was denying.

Children frequently made the distinction between explanation and statement of fact very sharply, without raising further issues. Carolyn, year 3, wrote:

A few of the children who said the boxes were different made explicit or implicit reference to the special claims made by an explanation. In so doing they drew attention to what more than half the children seemed unable, even tacitly, to acknowledge. It is possible, of course, that for some children the matter was simpler: they may not have been convinced that explanation has a role in history. History happens the way it does, so what is there to explain? However, children's choice of reasons and causes in order to explain the Roman take-over of Britain might suggest that a safer interpretation is that even young children have a general understanding of the need to explain things in history, but this is generalized to "cover" information too.

It is usual to end a paper like this with conclusions, but for us there is still much work to be done before we can conclude. Our concerns are not just with our findings, but also with demonstrating how we came by them, and justifying through discussion of examples why we feel able to say certain things. If research is going to mean anything to teachers, it must connect with their problems, and draw on the questions they raise and the experiences they so richly have, but do not have time to formalize.

In the UK, history teaching has moved towards asking children to understand how history works, so that they can think about their current world in historical ways. Understanding children's understandings is therefore increasingly central to many (although by no means all) teachers' concerns. The important questions for us now are about what further research is necessary to support teachers, and how teacher experience can feed into research projects to extend our knowledge and understanding of children's ideas and possibilities for raising achievement.

1. D. Shemilt, History 13-16 Evaluation Study (Edinburgh: Holmes McDougall, 1980).
2. Rosalyn Ashby and Peter J. Lee, "Children's Concepts of Empathy and Understanding in History" in C. Portal (ed.), The History Curriculum for Teachers (Basingstoke: Falmer Press, 1987); M. B. Booth, et al, Empathy in History (Eastleigh: Southern Regional Examinations Board, 1986); H. Cooper, Young Children's Understanding in History, unpublished PhD. thesis, University of London, 1991; Alaric K. Dickinson and Peter J. Lee, "Understanding and Research" in Alaric K. Dickinson and Peter J. Lee (eds.), History Teaching and Historical Understanding (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1978); Peter J. Lee, "Explanation and Understanding" in Dickinson and Lee (eds), History Teaching and Historical Understanding; D. Shemilt, "Beauty and the Philosopher" in Alaric K. Dickinson, Peter J. Lee and P. J. Rogers (eds), Learning History (London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1984).

Rosalyn Ashby, Peter Lee and Alaric Dickinson are faculty members at the Institute of Education, University of London.