Think about the awesome Roman Empire every day? Excellent. Here’s what else to do

By Lucy Macnaught and Erika Matruglio

It’s not (ancient) history. A viral post on TikTok revealed we think about ancient history all the time, even now. But it’s how we think about it that matters. That’s why what students do when they bring Ötzi, The Iceman, out of the ice, that really matters.

Our aim is to develop historical thinking with high school history students.

If students think history is only about dates and battles, then they are not fully appreciating the purpose of studying history. What is not necessarily obvious to students is that they need to use concrete details for the purpose of saying something more generalised about them. Each time they write about an artefact, historical event or figure, that content is an opportunity to display their historical thinking.

In writing about Ancient History, the NSW syllabus says students must be able to shift from concrete particulars to more abstract historical concepts. This means, for example, getting Ötzi, The Iceman, out of the ice. In writing about the details of how Ötzi was discovered and preserved, students need to connect to recurrent processes and cultural practices that are not only about Ötzi.

To examine how students can successfully connect details with more abstract concepts, our research investigated what happened when students wrote about Ancient History under timed practice exam conditions. We were part of an ARC funded research project and collected data from schools, including one with a lower Index of Community Socio-educational Advantage (ICSEA) in Western Sydney. In this school, a teacher was motivated to join the study because she felt her students could express their historical knowledge in classroom discussions but struggled to move beyond description in their writing. 

Here’s an example from our data set (original wording from students). It is a response to the short-answer exam question of: How are human remains preserved?

Student one
If the weather is either freezing cold or hot and dry, bacteria cannot survive and the body doesn’t decompose. An example of a body found in the freezing cold is the Iceman who was found in the Alps.

Here the student includes contextual details about environmental conditions, but they are not yet repackaging this knowledge in a more abstract form. 

In the next example, a student demonstrates better control of relating concrete details to more abstract concepts: 

Student two
Human remains can either be preserved by natural or artificial process of mummification. For a body to decompose, bacteria must be present in order for the decaying process to occur. Certain conditions may disallow bacteria to use a human body as host and as a result, a preserved human remain is left.

Naturally mummified bacteria occur by accident and are dependent on the conditions of the environment of which the body lies. An example is the iceman who was frozen in ice, those frozen are not suitable for bacteria to flourish and as a result the body was preserved.

Artificial mummification, or embalming was for such reasons like religion and an example are the ancient eqyptian mummies where the body was preserved with chemicals for the “after life” and religious sacrificial purposes.

Student One’s text about Ötzi was descriptive – i.e. it stayed stuck in the ice. Student Two foregrounds abstract processes, such as mummification. They then connect a concrete example (the iceman) to this process. From the perspective of an examiner, Student Two is more successfully demonstrating historical thinking because they are not only describing concrete evidence, but highlighting its relevance and significance beyond the context in which it was found.

One way to understand why this more elaborate response would be awarded a much higher grade in Ancient History is to examine student texts with tools for analysing English texts. In our project, we used a theory from within the sociology of education, called Legitimation Code Theory (LCT). This theory, developed by Professor Karl Maton at the University of Sydney, is about understanding the bases of achievement in social practices. This includes theorising differences in what kind of knowledge is seen as legitimate, how it is learned and who is valued as an appropriate authority. 

The part of this theory that we used involves the concept known as semantic gravity. When analysing student writing, semantic gravity can be used to compare and contrast how tied to context something is. For example, writing about the details of the arrowhead found in Ötzi, the Iceman has relatively strong semantic gravity as it discusses a specific artefact in a specific setting. In contrast, writing about the process of natural mummification has weaker semantic gravity as it is not bound to one artefact or setting but rather discussed in general terms. When analysing student writing, we used the convention of (SG+) and (SG-) for stronger and weaker semantic gravity. 

As we analysed student texts, we plotted the relative strength of semantic gravity as it changes throughout a text. This creates what is known as a semantic profile. Points at the top of the semantic profile represent more abstract and generalised meanings, whereas points at the bottom represent meanings that are more strongly tied to context. Here’s an example from Student 2’s successful text.  

Figure 1: Plotting a semantic profile from an exam response

What this semantic profile tells us is that students need to frequently shift between stronger and weaker context dependence. This kind of movement has been described as semantic waving, as visualised in Figure 1. Writing in waves enables students to connect concrete evidence clearly to more abstract historical concepts. For writing about mummification in Egypt, semantic waving enables students to not just describe fragments of physical evidence, but say something about its significance. Put another way, physical evidence becomes a stepping stone for elaborating on non-physical concepts, such as recurrent processes or religious beliefs and practices. This kind of connection is crucial because it provides a way to connect fragments of evidence to something more abstract. (See our article for precise categorisation of how context dependence may shift in relative strength from one word or group of words to another).

How students connect physical evidence to non-physical and more abstract concepts is also evident in how they deal with time. While they of course need to situate physical evidence in the past (e.g., was frozen), they also need to ‘get up and out’ of that single example and context. One option is to relate physical evidence to a potential or possible occurrence which is relevant to multiple artefacts and events  (e.g., …can be preserved…). Student Two clearly does this when connecting evidence to the recurrent processes of natural and artificial mummification. Controlling time in this way makes it easier to elaborate on the relevance and importance of the evidence. In LCT terms, these temporal choices contribute to widening the semantic range of a text. (See our article for precise categorisation of how context dependence may shift in relative strength from one clause to another).

The kind of analysis that we have briefly shared here aims to illuminate the ‘rules of the game’. If, for high achievement, the ‘rules of the game’ include saying something non-physical about physical evidence, and also relating physical evidence to recurrent processes and cultural practices, then we argue that this can and should be taught. It can be taught to students so that they know how to display more abstract reasoning and thinking in their writing, and it can be the focus of discussion and professional learning for teachers. 

Controlling context dependence has implications for subjects other than Ancient History and for further education. In Modern History, students might study World War One to learn how complex social forces may contribute to a situation in which international diplomacy breaks down and a war breaks out. In English, students might study poems of Wilfred Owen to learn how specific techniques such as alliteration, onomatopoeia and personification (among others) are used to convey meanings infused with emotion. In physics, students might race toy cars down ramps to learn about forces and motion. In each case, relative shifts in context dependence are essential to exploring and writing about something broader in the world or in the realm of human experience.

This ability to manage abstraction is also critical at the tertiary level, where students must be able to use all kinds of evidence, including their own experiences and research findings, to make knowledge claims in a wide range of writing tasks. It therefore seems likely that better supporting students to use evidence, in subjects like Ancient History, could provide a robust foundation for controlling degrees of context dependence in their future tertiary studies.

Lucy Macnaught, senior lecturer and learning advisor, Learning and Academic Engagement team within the AUT Library, collaborates with the Graduate Research School and faculty to integrate academic literacies in programs. Her research draws on theories of Systemic Functional Linguistics and Legitimation Code Theory to investigate what students are expected to create. She designs teaching making these expectations clear.  Twitter @lucy_macnaught and LinkedIn

Erika Matruglio, senior lecturer, School of Education, University of Wollongong, draws on theories of Systemic Functional Linguistics and Legitimation Code Theory, and on Design Based Research, to research literacy practices in schooling. She has published on the nature of classroom discourse, conditions which enable cumulative knowledge building, disciplinarity and the demands of writing in the disciplines. Twitter @Lingitude and LinkedIn.

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