Facts and Skills: Archaeology in Teacher Training

By Pretty, Kate | Antiquity, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Facts and Skills: Archaeology in Teacher Training


Pretty, Kate, Antiquity


Key-words: Britain, history, curriculum, Cambridge, teacher training, Homerton College

Most archaeologists start with the premise that the more people who know about archaeology the better. When challenged to justify this premise they have a number of responses ranging from the conservative 'to know more is to understand more', or the conservational 'to preserve our heritage', to the enlightened self-interest of 'public knowledge or interest means public spending' and thus the preservation of the archaeologist as well as of the archaeological record. Whatever the justification there is no consensus about how to enable people to know more, let alone a general agreement about what should be known, given that all human activity in the past lies within the scope of archaeological enquiry. There is, however, an assumption that to be effective we should capture the interest of the young and therefore that knowledgeable teachers will produce a knowledgeable future public.

It is perhaps unfortunate that every other discipline shares the same view and also wishes to cram trainee teachers with knowledge in the hope that some part of that knowledge will be transmitted to their pupils. How can archaeology be made digestible to these poor crammed trainees and what should be or can be fed to them within the short amount of time available? To use an archaeological analogue -- it is as difficult to select and create a usable knowledge of archaeology for teachers in training as it is to reconstruct a whole antique city within a four-week field season. There are the same choices between depth and breadth, between core and periphery, between time and space and the same constraints of time, effort and expenditure with the same compromises in the outcome.

What follows is based partly on my experience of teaching trainee primary teachers at Homerton College, Cambridge, where students specializing in History get about 18 hours of contact time specifically with archaeology in the first year of their course. They may (and some do) go on to take a more specialized archaeology paper in the Cambridge University Tripos, but in practical terms the first-year course must offer enough knowledge and understanding of archaeology to provide the framework which will sustain the student throughout a career in teaching and, moreover, offer the basis for teaching archaeology in school.

Other people teach short courses in archaeology and half the readers of ANTIQUITY will have faced the dilemma of a choice of subject matter from the immense range which archaeology offers. Yet there is a peculiar difficulty or responsibility when choosing what teachers should know. Certainly what they know and teach to children can and will be augmented by other sources of information, particularly the media, but because teachers are so often the first sources of information they set the scene for what follows. Most children sort out the concept of time-depth around the age of 9 and the imprinting of ideas about the past is particularly strong in the later years of primary education. What a teacher teaches at that stage may persist for years and will never become totally eradicated as a first response to the idea of a period, whatever the level of later sophistication of knowledge. If the adult never re-encounters that period of time again, the child-like knowledge will persist. Thus, if you first encounter the medieval period at age 9, through a set of images of extravagantly pointed hats and shoes, you are likely to have pointed hats and shoes imprinted for ever as a first response to the idea of 'medieval' whatever your later knowledge of the real fashions of the day. The persistence of these images and their use as icons can be infuriating to archaeologists. A good example is the Viking horned helmet, which owes its origin to a particularly dubious source of Germanic folk history -- as well as Hagar the Horrible of the American strip cartoon -- but which is endlessly reproduced in school textbooks and by teachers and recognized by society as a whole as the epitome of Viking. …

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