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Carmel Young outlines an inquiry-based approach to investigating heritage issues

Young, C. ‘Heritage — matters to think about when farming the historic environment’, Teaching History, History Teachers’ Association of NSW, Vol. 26, No. 4, 1992

An 'inquiry chain' approach for developing skills in investigating heritage issues

Investigating controversial issues in the teaching of history can be a hazardous enterprise at any time. However, inquiry of this type can be undertaken in a productive and systematic way, utilising a range of values-based teaching strategies that allow for a calm unpackaging of the central issues and possible resolution of these issues. The following model is one approach to investigating a contentious issue associated with the historic environment.

Woven into each stage of the inquiry chain approach is a list of teaching/learning strategies to assist students in clarifying, analysing and making judgements about the various viewpoints of interested groups and individuals involved in resolving the issue under study.

Step 1: Choosing the issue – media watch; reportage in newspapers, on radio and television

The issue should:

  1. be relevant to students' lives
  2. reflect divergent views on the issue
  3. involve students in inquiry related activities

As a means of illustrating this model in action, a newspaper article has been chosen. Newspapers are an excellent source for locating information on current or past controversial issues associated with heritage reportage has the advantage of being fresh, immediate, on-going in many instances and presented in a form accessible to teachers and students.

The newspaper article attached, Unearthed! Our industrial birthplace, reports the concerns of archaeologists, local historians, community groups and others over the discovery and future of a convict industrial site uncovered in mid 1987 in a Newcastle redevelopment area. This discovery is now six years old. I have chosen this site because it allows students to compare and contrast the processes and decisions they may make in working through an issue that has actual outcomes.

The article provides much of the information students would require to determine the nature of the dispute, the parties involved and their central concerns.

Step 2: Determining the nature of the issue

Student discussion activities should focus on central questions arising out of the issue:

  • Who are the various stakeholders? Consider the various roles played by each in the conflict -interest groups, government bodies
  • Why are they involved?
  • What do they hope to gain?
  • Why is this issue important?
  • What is controversial about the issue?

This part of the investigative chain is an ideal point at which to generate questions related to the selected issue.

Students may consider:

  1. When did the issue emerge? What actions have led to this dispute?
  2. What groups have been significant in drawing public attention to the issue? Are prominent groups and individuals involved?
  3. Why are groups and/or individuals in conflict over this issue?
  4. Who does the issue affect?
  5. What is unique or significant about the site?
  6. Are/have there been similar disputes of this type elsewhere?
  7. What other sources may be required to provide further information on the issues involved? Where can these sources be located?

Teaching/learning strategies for collecting data on and clarifying differing viewpoints of those groups involved in the dispute over harbourside land

Students develop the skills to identify viewpoints and positions as they relate to the historic environment.

  1. Small group and teacher directed discussion – discussion may range over the above questions noted for consideration; brainstorming questions with summaries of relevant data about the issue compiled for future reference.
  2. 'I' statements – students may assume the positions of or identity of each of the major players and present their viewpoints on the issue, for example as archaeologist, as historian, Dr John Turner, as State Rail Authority representative, as a member of the local resident group.
  3. Unfinished sentences – this is a variation on the 'I' statements approach, and encourages a logical and systematic presentation of the range of positions adopted on the issue, for example

The dispute in the question is over...

The major groups involved in this dispute are...

Archaeologists are involved in the dispute over the site because...

Local historians are involved in the dispute because...

The State Rail Authority is at the centre of the dispute because...

Completed sentences may be written on separate pieces of butchers paper and placed around the room. Information collected during Step 3 concerning the reasons why particular players hold varying viewpoints can be added. This allows for the 'fleshing out' of various positions with factual and opinions based information.

Step 3: Researching and analysing various viewpoints

Students may consider the following matters:

  • Whose views are included?
  • Whose views are omitted?
  • What evidence is used to support the various views offered?
  • Does the reportage support or undermine any of the views presented?
  • Which viewpoints are in agreement? Which differ? Why?
  • What further information concerning viewpoints on the issue may be required?

Teaching/learning strategies for researching and analysing the various viewpoints of groups involved in the dispute

Students locate their own views and positions and those of others and consider the consequences for the maintenance or otherwise of the historic environment.

  1. Small group and teacher directed discussion – students return to the newspaper article to locate further information on why participants in the dispute hold the views that they do. This information can be added to butcher paper summaries. Conch discussions with the passing of a shell or other object around the group or class may be used to elicit students' personal views on the issue. This allows for reflecting on other views and feelings.
  2. Interviews and surveys – students may interview or survey various class members on their positions on the dispute. Students may assume role of various groups and individuals involved in the dispute.
  3. Discussion related to media coverage of the situation – fish bowl technique, paired discussion and sharing.

Step 4: Evaluating alternative viewpoints and their consequences, making judgements

Student discussion and activities may centre on the following points of inquiry:

  • What may be the consequences of these viewpoints on the site or issue in question?
  • Where can further information on similar situations and their outcomes be located? What happened in these other instances? How might such information inform and affect decisions on the issue in question?

Teaching/learning strategies for judging various values positions

Students judge various viewpoints and positions and give consideration to and determine sound actions in relation to the historic environment:

1. Moral dilemmas - what is to be done?

A set of alternatives is offered:

A significant historical site has been unearthed by archaeologists on the shores of ?Newcastle Harbour. The conflict concerning the future of this site centres on the following issues:

  • if the land is sold by the State Rail Authority its future is uncertain and the historical significance of the site may be lost
  • if the site is included in the foreshore park development, its historical significance could also be lost
  • archaeologists and historians have requested time to fully excavate and record the site because of its significance as an early convict industrial site, thereby holding up the sale of the property by SRA and having a say in the future use of the site.

2. Alternatives and consequences: students may assess the various solutions concerning the future use of the site


Alternatives Consequences
Sale of the site by SRA Retaining the site as part of a foreshore park redevelopment Archaeologists to fully excavate the site and have a say in determining its future

3. Rank ordering: students make considered choices by ranking a series of possible positions according to their preferences, most to least desirable.

Rank the alternative futures for use of the foreshore site in order of preference.

This is a personal view:

  • Sale of the site by the SRA
  • Site to be incorporated into a foreshore park
  • Site to be recorded and conserved and its future left to archaeologists and historians
  • Site to be incorporated into a foreshore park and open air museum

4. Voting: Students, after locating the various alternative future uses of the site may vote on the future of the site.

6. What if' activities.

Step 5: Inquiring into possible resolutions to the issue – alternative futures

(Possible, preferred and probable futures – conscious choices, participation and purpose action, nothing is predictable or predetermined).

Students may hypothesise on the following matters:

  • What resolutions are suggested by the parties involved?
  • What are the alternative ways of reaching a solution to the conflict – informal agreements? formal resolutions through legal means? What types of legislation exist to protect places of historical significance? Consider negotiation, persuasion, legal action, political action – what might be the outcomes of each of these resolution procedures? What have been the outcomes in similar solutions?
  • What various groups could be called upon for assistance in the matter?
  • Investigate what actualIy happened in this case in Newcastle. Compare the actual outcomes with those suggested by students.

Teaching / learning strategies for acquiring values

Students acquire a concern for the historic environment, considering alternatives, and are aware of responsible action and the processes involved and attempt to apply these by:

1. Writing newspaper articles, press releases, telegrams stating their concerns; outlining and supporting their position.

2. Constructing cost/benefit charts – indicating the outcomes of action and providing reasons why they consider their decisions to be responsible ones.

3. Students may be involved in further research in finding out about the outcome of the Newcastle dispute.

A few words about this model...

The processes and questioning employed in this model are intensive. Pick and choose from the model as you wish. Some of the stages of inquiry may be treated briefly, others more intensively. The model may provide the basis for a quick (several lessons) coverage of matters concerned with conflicting views of heritage, or may form the basis for a unit of work on the topic.

The model is intended to demonstrate that in dealing with controversial issues associated with heritage concerns, a systematic unfolding ot the dews and positions of the participants is essential. This enables students to arrive at some understanding of:

  • why groups and individuals act as they do
  • that decisions concerning the future of the historic environment may be the result of weighing costs and benefits and trade-offs
  • that decisions of this nature must be made carefully and involve negotiation, persuasion and at times, the intervention of various legal processes.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Carmel Young.


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