Signs of the Times:
Inquiry with Memorial Plaques

Canadian Pacific Railroad Cairn

Craigellachie, British Columbia, Canada.

“On November 7, 1885 the last spike of the CPR line was driven in to complete the rail line linking Canada from ocean to ocean.”


Chief Seathl Memorial

Seattle, Washington, USA.

“The American Indian leader after whom Seattle was named in 1853. Famous for his departure speech in which he outlined his people’s attitude towards and relationship with the Environment.”


John Gardiner Monument

Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia.

“On this hill John Gardiner built the first house in the district after crossing the Yarra at Dight’s Falls with a herd of cattle he had driven from New South Wales, December, 1836.”


Gavin Faichney

Most teachers of elementary social studies want to do more than lecture. We wish to involve our students in the learning process, in what Bruner calls “the enactive mode for learning.”1 Consequently, we are always looking for additional ways to motivate our students in order to encourage their involvement and elicit excitement about learning. I would like to suggest that the use of memorials and monuments can provide such an opportunity.2

In most communities, one might find several examples of commemorative memorials or plaques erected to record events of special significance in the life of the community. Often these historical markers are so familiar that they are taken for granted. We drive by or walk by without stopping to read them or point them out to our children. Both the memorial and the event it represents or celebrates is never made clear for our young students, and may even be misunderstood by those who have no direct interest in the happenings being recognized by such a monument. The markers might be able to provide insights of historic, geographic, political, economic, and anthropological interest concerning life of the community.

How can such markers assist us in our teaching? My experience working with groups of elementary students, in grades four to six, has led to the development of the FILM strategy, based on pictorial resources and a series of questions that can be used to motivate young people towards finding out information for themselves (which they can also share with others), and to explain the Function, Importance, Location, and Meaning of such markers.

The FILM strategy uses a series of questions to involve the students in their investigation of historical markers.










Sponsor a field trip to a marker (a statue, cairn, or memorial) in the community that is related to the topic of study. Or obtain a photograph for study, or visit a website with an image of a historic marker. Use the FILM strategy to assist students in investigating the significance of the marker. The idea is to involve the students in seeking answers to the questions listed. This may involve research through observation, reading, and listening to information on the person or event concerned. Research activities might involve deciding on the most appropriate source of information, looking up newspaper files, searching local (and other) government records using the Internet, visiting local history groups, and speaking to older members of the community.

While this strategy focuses on student participation and involvement through such an approach, it is not suggested or implied that the teacher’s role is redundant. On the contrary, it would be expected that the teacher would also be involved with the students’ investigations in advising students on appropriate sources of information, setting up initial contacts for the students, and ensuring that the information gained will help the students answer the questions adequately. The FILM strategy would mean that the teacher does not need to know everything, but is able to participate in the reciprocal nature of learning by sharing her or his knowledge with the students and in turn learning from them. In addition, as the students complete their investigation the teacher may suggest ways in which the students could record or communicate their findings.3


Memorial Makers

There are two levels of research that a teacher can help with. On one level, students can learn about the event that is commemorated. On a second level, students can research the event of creating the monument itself. Both of these levels are implied in the FILM strategy. In his book Lies Across America, James W. Loewen shows that historical markers often contain errors that are interesting because of what they reveal about the people that made the monument.4

Such activities will help students develop both research and communication skills as they seek answers to these questions. An outcome of this activity will probably be students gaining a greater appreciation and understanding of their local community and important events that have played in its development. The FILM strategy has several other advantages as an inquiry activity:

1. It should not be expensive, because markers can be found locally or studied as photographs;

2. It can involve many of the seven learning intelligences described by Gardner, particularly those relating to linguistic and spatial intelligence;5

3. It can provide an opportunity for both students and teachers to have fun while learning about their local community; and finally,

4. Students could also stage a reenactment the event commemorated by the marker and videotape their production. (This would enable the integration of other key learning areas—such as art and drama—with social studies.)


In terms of the NCSS Curriculum Standards, such investigation by students could lead to further development of three of the ten strands—1 Culture; 2 Time, Continuity, and Change; and 3 People, Places, and Environments. Using the FILM Strategy with monuments like those depicted here, students could further their development in elementary social studies by addressing these standards.6

Using this FILM strategy has enabled students to become more aware of the history and development of their community, state, and nation. It is an opportunity for teachers and junior historians to practice their craft.



1. Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Learning (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).

2.The rationale for this strategy is based on Hunkins’ work relating to the use of questions to enhance children’s understandings. Francis P Hunkins,. Questioning Strategies and Technique (Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1972). It is also reflected in the Victorian Department of Education guidelines, Curriculum and Standards Framework, which outlines the approaches to teaching and learning in SOSE: “Underpinning courses in SOSE is the inquiry-based method of learning. This encourages students to ask questions and to actively search for their answers.” Curriculum and Standards Framework: Studies of Society and Environment (Carlton, Victoria, Canada: Board of Studies, 1995): 15.

3. See the DRAFT process outlined by Nancy P. Gallavan, “Achieving Civic Competence through a DRAFT Writing Process,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 10, no. 2 (1997).

4. James W. Loewen, Lies Across America (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

5. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

6. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).

7. Juan Paez, Cabrillo’s Log 1542-1543: A Voyage of Discovery, Translated by J. R. Moriarity and M. Keistman (San Diego, CA: Cabrillo Historical Association,1968).



Rosalyn Ashby, Peter Lee, and Alaric Dickerson. “How Children Explain the Why of History: The Chata Research Project on Teaching History.” Social Education 61, no. 1 (1997).

Barton, Keith C. “‘I Just Kinda Know’: Elementary Students’ Ideas about Historical Evidence.” Theory and Research in Social Education 25, no. 4 (1997).

Gabella, Marcy Singer. “Beyond the Looking Glass: Bringing Students into Conversation of Historical Inquiry.” Theory and Research in Social Education 22, no. 3 (1997).

Seixas, Peter. “Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance.” Theory and Research in Social Education 22, no. 3 (1997).

The Social Education Framework P - 10. Victoria, Canada: Ministry of Education, Schools Division, 1987.


Gavin Faichney is the chair of Social Education in the School of Social and Cultural Studies in Education, Deakin University in Burwood, Victoria, Australia.

Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, California 

The Cabrillo National Monument depicted here is located in the Cabrillo National Park, at Point Loma, near San Diego, California. Using the FILM approach suggested in this article, students could investigate the significance of this monument with regard to the Spanish settlement of California in the l8th century.7


“This monument commemorates the exploration of the west coast of North America in 1542 by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo more than 220 years after his voyage of exploration along the western coastline of the North American continent.


“This voyage resulted in the first European contact with the Native Americans on the west coast of the present day California.


“On Thursday September 28, 1542, two months after commencing their voyage, they arrived at “a very good enclosed Port,” where after anchoring they went ashore. The port was named ‘San 25 Migue#146; by Cabrillo, however, now it is known as ‘San Diego.’”