3. Thinking critically about evidence

This part is intended to extend your ideas of how to help pupils use oral history as a resource for finding out about the past. You will encourage them to think critically about the validity and reliability of such evidence, and to compare oral testimonies of a historical event with written evidence of the same event. Investigating the similarities and differences in the two types of evidence provides an exciting learning opportunity for pupils.

Case Study 3: Collecting oral testimonies

Mrs Monica Boakye teaches history to Class 6 at a small school just outside Accra. Many families in the area participated in the events of the June 4 1979 uprising. Ms Boakye has invited two men who participated in the uprising to come to the school, and speak about their experiences. They will come on consecutive days as they do not know each other and have differing views about the role played by the men from the air force.

Mrs Boakye warns her class that these two men are now very old, and that an older person’s memory is not always very good. Before the guests arrive, the pupils prepare some questions that they want to ask the men. Over two days, the visitors come and tell their stories. The pupils listen carefully and ask them questions.

In the next lesson, Mrs Boakye and the class discuss the similarities and differences between the two accounts. They think about why the two men have different views of the events.

Mrs Boakye lists the key points that came out of their stories and also stresses that, when they were young, being members of the armed forces was very important to these men, and they may have romanticised their involvement. She explains that while these oral histories may give pupils some understanding of the June 4 1979 uprising, they may not always be accurate, and the stories that different people tell may vary considerably.

Mrs Boakye believes her class learned a valuable lesson in the uses and problems of gathering oral evidence of history.

Key Activity: Comparing oral interviews and written texts

  • With your pupils, identify an important historical event (such as a local feud or uprising) that took place in your area in the past. If you can, find a short written text about it. Resource 4: The Yaa Asantewaa War of 1900 gives one example you could use if you cannot find another event.
  • In preparing this activity, you need to gain an understanding for yourself (as a teacher) about what people in your community know about the uprising or event in question. These ‘memories’ are the oral stories that have been passed down from person to person. Identify some key people who your pupils could talk to at home or could come into school.
  • Send your pupils out in groups to interview these older people. Ask the pupils to record ten key points made by each interviewee. (Make sure that pupils only go in groups and that they are safe at all times.)
  • Back in class, ask your pupils to feed back their key findings.
  • Ask each group to design a poster of the event, including the key events and using some of the visitor’s comments to give a feeling of what it was like to be there.
  • Display these in class.
  • Discuss with your pupils whether they think they have enough clear evidence about what happened from the people they spoke to. If not, how could they find out more?

2. Investigating a historical event

Resource 1: Oral history