A introduction to historical geographical systems for history teachers

Thanks to PGCE trainee Gareth Owen (@GarethEROwen) for this post. Gareth has experience in historical geographical information systems (HGIS) from his time as a history postgrad. Here he explains how they can be useful for history teachers. On the HA websiteyou can find more ideas about using digital resources in the classroom. Do, please, get in touch to share your expertise in this area via blogpost for #OBHD.

The use of historical geographic information systems (HGIS) in research is not new. For at least twenty years, historians have used it as an aid to – or a means of – research.[1] I have spent a year of my life playing around with it at postgraduate level and this blogpost is designed to give teachers a rough working knowledge of what it is, and how it might be employed in the classroom.

What is it?

To begin with a definition: HGIS is basically a database. When manipulated correctly, this database can be turned into a research tool. It’s a piece of software you can download.  The main attraction of HGIS is that it can turn a menacing spreadsheet into a beautiful map. Having learnt how to navigate its userface, the intrepid historian can upload a database of information (the spreadsheet) and visualise this data into a map.[2]

Though it is not explicitly about historical GIS, this short video by the Ordnance Survey provides a snapshot of what visualisations can look like. Think of HGIS as a research tool for conducting ‘spatial history’. Of course, historians have been using maps as a visual aid and a research tool for generations. What makes GIS different is the sheer amount of information being digitised by historians and archivists, and the sophistication of the technology, means that new questions can be asked. Any information that can be linked to a geographic area or polygon can be expressed spatially as a map.

The spadework of creating HGIS projects is complex and we can leave that to professionals. But HGIS is a useful addition to a history teacher’s toolkit of resources.

What can I do with HGIS?

As a group of trainees we were fortunate to hear Matt Stanford and Corrinne Goullée draw on the work of Dave Martin,[3] and Geraint Brown and James Woodcock[4] to showcase how they use databases to drive high-quality enquiry in history at Key Stage 3. I want to suggest that we can add work with HIGS to this.

You might want to check out this project by National Archives Education Service on the dissolution of the monasteries. It is beautifully presented alongside more traditional sources such as portraits and letters and this project contains some fantastic HGIS work. After just a few minutes of browsing, the possibilities for enquiries approached via local, regional, and national lenses become apparent. Have a play with it yourself. What jumps out at you? What patterns or gaps can you see? These maps might be used as a springboard to explore topics as varied as the dissolution’s impact on the provision of health care or education.

What else should I know?

I would caution against working from a database you find online without conducting your usual due diligence. Like any other source, the quality of the history will only ever be as good as the quality of the data. So if it’s an open source database that anyone can add to without quality control by an overall editor, think twice before conferring the map with the status of a ‘reliable source’. Furthermore, bear in mind that maps are a product of contestable knowledge – even if they are generated from apparently reliable data sources. As Mark Monmonier sets out in this classic book, it is surprisingly easy to lie with maps!

Finally, as Christine Counsell reminds us,

High quality ICT use is dependent on our own clarity about the kind of historical thinking and historical knowledge we want to develop in pupils.[5]

This means that we must ask ourselves some important questions. This advice from Stanford and Goullée’s is a good place to start:

  • What historical learning are we focusing on and how will ICT add value and enhance this?
  • How will the ICT be embedded in the planning context – the enquiry question, the concepts and the processes.
  • What will the pupils (rather than teachers) be doing with the ICT and how does this relate to the history learning focus?[6]

The quality of the historical reasoning that we can elicit from our pupils requires that we carefully reflect on these questions. I will be turning them over and over in my head as I begin mulling how such an enquiry might fit into my new school’s curriculum.

1] Dave Martin, ‘Relating the General to the Particular: Data Handling and Historical Learning’, in C. Counsell and T. Haydn (eds.), History, ICT and Learning in the Secondary School (2003).

[2] Geraint Brown and James Woodcock, Relevant, rigorous and revisited: using local history to make meaning of historical significance’, Teaching History, 134, pp. 4-11.

[3] A. K. Knowles (ed.), “Historical GIS: The Spatial Turn in Social Science History”, special issue, Social Science History, 24, no. 3 (2000).

[4] At this point it is worth pointing out that there are other forms of visualising data, such as network visualisation. For more on this, check out the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University, here: https://tinyurl.com/yc6ru945.

[5] Counsell, History, ICT and Learning in the Secondary School.

[6] Matt Stanford and Corrinne Goullée, Improving pupils’ historical thinking using ICT: How can databases be used to promote high-quality enquiry in history at Key Stage 3?, Presentation delivered to University of Cambridge PGCE cohort, 24/1/2020.


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