Tuesday 28 February 2023

Historical thinking: using the census in primary teacher education

This blog is from a guest contributor. It is based on an article written by Tony Pickford, Visiting Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Chester, about using the Census in primary education.

Local History is a required area of study on the primary school curriculum. When educating would-be teachers, I have always encouraged them to empathise with historical characters and to try and think like them as well. A key resource in promoting this ‘historical thinking’ is the census. Site visits, images and written documents such as diaries all have potential for prompting ‘historical thinking’ - in teachers and older primary pupils alike - but census extracts provide a unique window into real lives and life experiences in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A census has been conducted in this country every ten years since 1801 (except 1941). The first only gathered population figures for villages or towns, but details of the members of each household were collected and recorded from 1841 onwards. In every census year, heads of households were instructed to complete forms giving details of everyone who slept in that dwelling on census night, which was usually a Sunday in March or April. The forms were collected a few days later by an enumerator, who entered the information into enumeration books.

For the period up to 1901, enumeration books recorded people’s place of birth, their age, occupations and relationships. In 1911, because of rising standards of literacy, forms completed by householders were retained for the first time. Accessing the pre-1911 records is now a relatively straightforward task: transcribed and digitised versions of the schedules are available via the online subscription services Ancestry and Findmypast, which are provided for free at Cheshire Record Office in Chester. Some transcripts of census records are also available free of charge on

Younger primary children can find it difficult to read 19th century handwriting, and this is easily addressed via transcriptions mentioned above. But older children often enjoy the challenge of deciphering original documents. The authenticity provides a tangible link to the past and helps to foster ‘historical thinking’. To promote this principle further, I developed some census-based activities for students.

The first activity aimed to combine history and information technology. Students had to imagine a time machine bringing back an enumerator from the past to do a final check of the census. They had to ‘become’ the residents of a street and use census information held on a database to find information about ‘themselves’, such as their address, relationship in the household, occupation or place of birth. When the enumerator appeared (myself or a colleague wearing a Victorian top hat!) we would discuss what they had learned. It became clear that while this task and role-play was useful at demonstrating how to use a database, it was less useful at immersing students in the period and getting them to relate to the people in the census.

As a result, I changed the activity to include more immersive role-play to try and achieve the goal of ‘historical thinking’. We visited the streets listed in a chosen census and students had to identify buildings through photographs of features on buildings. Finding a suitable street was not a difficult prospect being based in Chester, with an abundance of streets built in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Cheshire Record Office has a searchable online database of local images (Cheshire Image Bank). This, with supplementary work like sketching buildings, or listing key words to describe the people who lived and worked there in the past, had a more positive outcome.

Back in the classroom, students were given copies of the census, and were surprised by the range of different households in the locality, and their inhabitants, that the census revealed. Alongside wealthy middle-class families with servants, there were boarding houses, public houses, small hotels and even a bank. Students were then given a key task that I hoped would lead to ‘historical thinking’: working in small groups to create a short conversation between the residents of ‘their’ property – a conversation that might be overheard by a passer-by and give some information about who lived there. We would discuss the type of language that would be used - words and expressions that would and would not have existed in 1901, for example - and strict instructions to avoid slang and expressions such as ‘okay’ and ‘yeah’!

We recorded these conversations and, after sharing them with the wider group, students were asked how they had approached the task. Had ‘historical thinking’ been used to underpin the conversations? The answer to this question was not simple.

Some conversations produced a great deal of information. Others conveyed individual characteristics with some humour (such as using an accent or imagined personality traits linked to a person’s profession) but gave little detail about relationships in the households. A few conversations suggested students had genuinely explored the views that characters might express – differing opinions about issues of the time that might arise in the households, for example. There were glimpses of ‘historical thinking’ - not enough to claim that the role-play had achieved its aim in full, but the conversations showed more engagement and immersion in the census material than the previous database activity. To that extent, this second activity was successful.

The session concluded with students translating the activity into a series of lessons for a chosen age-range of primary school pupils, and the audio files were shared on the University intranet. Overall, the second activity showed that census extracts, when supplemented with other sources like a visit to the houses and streets documented in that census, can provide the cognitive scaffolding that might support student teachers – and the children they are intending to teach – in ‘getting inside the head’ of people in the past.

Thank you to Tony Pickford for offering us his article.

Cheshire Archives and Local Studies published another blog about the census in 2022. ‘A “New” Census’ can be found here.

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