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Can the whole of the National Curriculum be taught through Archaeology?

I have been known to say that I think every learning objective in the National Curriculum for England could be taught through the subject of archaeology and, whilst most archaeologists have nodded their heads sagely, other people have scoffed (can you believe it?!).  So, I thought it was about time I put it to the test.

Now, I realise that there are various things afoot concerning the National Curriculum, and a new one will be in the offing from September 2014, but I thought I would apply my bold statement to the curriculum as it as it stands now.  However, just to qualify, I am going to use the subject of archaeology in its widest sense – not just the digging holes in the ground that everyone associates with the discipline – but archaeology as, arguably, synonymous with the concept of ‘Heritage’ meaning predominantly, but not only, the material remains of the past – those above ground and still standing, as well as those underneath the ground.  I also include historical documents and other less material forms of the past such as oral traditions and folk tales.

I have no idea how this might pan out and how tenuous some of my ‘applications’ might be, but I will go ahead anyway, and systematically work my way through the curriculum subject by subject until I get to the end.  Please feel free to point out any errors or omissions on my part and of course contributions are welcome!

As there are 11 compulsory subjects and 2 (or 3) non-compulsory ones at KS1 & 2, and 15 compulsory subjects at KS3, this may take a while!

Compulsory subjects at KS1 & 2 are:

English; maths; science; design and technology; history; geography; art and design; music; physical education (PE), including swimming; information and communication technology (ICT); RE (religious education – schools have to provide it, although pupils do not have to study it).

Non-compulsory ones at KS1 &2 are:

modern foreign languages; personal, social and health education (PSHE); citizenship (although the programmes of study for PSHE & citizenship are identical).

Compulsory subjects at KS3 are:

English; maths; science; history; geography; modern foreign languages; design and technology; art and design; music; physical education; citizenship; information and communication technology (ICT); religious education; sex and relationships education; careers education.

I shall begin with English at KS1:

EN1 Speaking and Listening:

Studying archaeology gives plenty of opportunity for children “to speak clearly, fluently and confidently to different people”.  They have the opportunity to do this in class with each other, their teacher and teaching assistants, but if they are given the opportunity to take part in archaeological fieldwork or community digs, then the opportunity to speak with a wide range of people from university professors, students, professional archaeologists to volunteers from all walks of life, is often presented.  It was pointed out to me at the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day 2012 that one of the major benefits, of involving young people in archaeological digs, is the chance for them to mix with members of different generations, especially those from the older generations, with whom they might not otherwise have the chance to mix.  Y5s from Calow Primary School will be visiting us at Arbor Low this year, and one of things I have encouraged them to do is to talk to the archaeologists and volunteers they meet, and ask them what they think Arbor Low was used for and why?

All of this speaking will more than enable children to practise the following: a. speak with clear diction and appropriate intonation b. choose words with precision c. organise what they say d. focus on the main point(s) e. include relevant detail f. take into account the needs of their listeners.

Along with speaking of course comes listening.  The above scenarios also provide opportunities for children “to listen, understand and respond to others” and whilst doing so,… a. sustain concentration b. remember specific points that interest them c. make relevant comments d. listen to others’ reactions e. ask questions to clarify their understanding

For children to “f. identify and respond to sound patterns in language [for example, alliteration, rhyme, word play]” requires a little more thought, but looking at ancient texts within the contexts of Ancient Greeks, the Romans, Anglo Saxon sagas, traditional tales, and so on, could provide more than enough material.

Now, in the programme of study for English, ‘Group discussion and interaction’ is treated separately.  Much archaeological work is undertaken in groups.  Taking part in an excavation can often be a steep learning curve for students, when they have to live and work and get on with the same group of people for up to a month.  Whilst I am not suggesting primary school children should do this, taking part in a real excavation over a short amount of time, or a mock-excavation in their school, means they will have the perfect arena in which to develop the following skills: a. take turns in speaking b. relate their contributions to what has gone on before c. take different views into account d. extend their ideas in the light of discussion e. give reasons for opinions and actions.

Still under the umbrella of Speaking and Listening comes Drama.  Now, as archaeology is predominantly concerned with the things left behind and archaeologists have to make sense of what these things mean, I believe there is a lot of scope for children to “participate in a range of drama activities” in order to explore ideas about what may have actually happened.  For example, when investigating Early Bronze Age burials, children can examine the evidence, such as the artefacts with which people were buried, and then explore how they might have been put into position through… a. using language and actions to explore and convey situations, characters and emotions b. creating and sustaining roles individually and when working with others c. commenting constructively on drama they have watched or in which they have taken part.

In a very real sense, drama can help children to put themselves in the minds of people who lived in the past and to develop connections to them.

Within the above – whilst talking and listening to others, and using drama to explore what might have happened in the past – children can be taught and encouraged to use “5. the main features of spoken standard English”.

Through speaking and listening to a wide variety of people, they will also learn “6. about how speech varies… a. in different circumstances [for example, to reflect on how their speech changes in more formal situations b. to take account of different listeners [for example, adapting what they say when speaking to people they do not know].

The breadth of study for Speaking and Listening has really already been covered above, but, for the sake of being thorough, I will go through them, so:

For speaking – 8. The range should include: a. telling stories, real and imagined: Ancient stories (Greek and Roman myths, sagas etc), own stories about the past, stories about artefacts answering questions such as who? what? why? when? b. reading aloud and reciting: from texts of the above, as part of drama exercises c. describing events and experiences: what they did on a dig or field trip, describing a past event. d. speaking to different people, including friends, the class, teachers and other adults: the variety of people they need to speak to whilst partaking in archaeological activities, in the classroom or on a real excavation.

For listening – 9. The range should include opportunities for pupils to listen to: a. each other: in groups as they undertake mini-excavations, explore evidence, tell each other their ideas. b. adults giving detailed explanations and presentations [for example, describing how a model works, reading aloud]: professional archaeologists giving instructions on how to excavate, teachers, others they may come into contact with on a site, or in museums. c. recordings [for example, radio, television]: there are more than enough TV and radio programmes, podcasts etc. on archaeology including, of course, the wonderful Horrible Histories series.

Ok, I need to stop there for today.  So, I’ve not completed the subject of English yet, and I have only looked at KS1 so far, but it’s a start!  The task I have set myself is obviously going to take more time than I thought, but I am finding it useful, and it’s refreshing my knowledge of the National Curriculum.  And of course I have a point to prove!  Only thing is, when I’ve finished, I will have start again with the new curriculum.  In fact, this may prove very interesting indeed…


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