Reliving history through tech

Steph Neale, Head Teacher of Beatrix Potter Primary School in Wandsworth, London, discusses how digital technology can bring the past alive for pupils

The digital revolution has significantly impacted the development of how we learn about the world, but no more so than in how we understand the past.

Digital tools and resources have transformed how children access the past and revolutionised their understanding of history. This continues with newer technologies such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality that are beginning to make these experiences even more immersive, generating even stronger emotional connections and responses to information and artefacts. Rather than just reading or listening to information, imagine being able to walk up to a virtual soldier from WWI and ask him those questions directly?

As teachers, we often experience that moment when pupils do or say something that causes us to completely rethink how we teach. Often, in retrospect we reflect on quite how profound that moment was.

In my case it happened on a visit to the local cemetery in 2003 to collect conkers with a reception class. Being autumn, the majority of the graves had poppies laid on them in preparation for Remembrance Day, but the children noticed that there were a couple of large plots containing multiple graves without poppies. As 5-year-olds frequently do, the obvious question to ask was ‘Why?’.

And so began a 15-year project that has had an enormous impact on the pupils and their understanding of history, the teachers and how they teach history, but more incredibly on a whole community on the other side of the world.

Without access to digital technology, it is likely that the original question posed by those 5-year olds would have remained unanswered.

The graves turned out to belong to brave soldiers from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who fought and died from injuries sustained on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in Beaumont Hamel. They were brought to Wandsworth Hospital to be cared for and were buried alongside their nurse, Bertha Bartlett in Earlsfield Cemetery, Wandsworth.

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Finding out about the lives of these soldiers was not an easy task initially as no information existed about them in England. 20 years ago, or more, the project would undoubtedly have stopped there, but modern technology opened the door to a whole new way of research. Trawling the internet, the pupils began to slowly uncover documents online relating to the soldiers and their lives. By pairing this with digital learning resources such as Discovery Education Espresso pupils were able to understand the background to the war and what life was like for a soldier on the front line and at home. Collections of poetry helped them to understand the emotional responses to those events, and historical film and images, gave them graphic detail of the realities of war.

Using multimedia resources allowed them to create their own emotional responses in a number of ways, from repurposing the video content to creating artwork from the digital images. They even created an interactive, multimedia performance using tools such as iMovie which included the pupils’ own poetry, diary writing and physical theatre. This has been performed in front of the local secondary school, visitors and guests to their own school, the Canadian High Commission, and even more recently, the families of the soldiers who died, as a result of the pupils being invited to Memorial Day in Newfoundland as guests of honour.

Without access to digital technology, it is likely that the original question posed by those 5-year olds would have remained unanswered. Instead, not only did the pupils gain a deeper understanding of these events and their impact, but they even touched the lives of whole communities thousands of miles away, a hundred years on. By focusing on history with such detail, it becomes so much more than a list of events in a book. It teaches the children how history is the story of individual peoples’ lives and the impact on society as a whole.

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