Learning about the past

Some many original documents are becoming available for public reading. I have always talked about primary documents to students but in the past trying to get example has been difficult. The students have also always really responded well to history when they can relate to it. Often it is information that can be compared with their lives today that fascinates them the most.


Now there is another interesting source of information about the past. The British National Archives has published the digitised form of the 1911 Census. There is a fee but you can search for information about the almost all the people in England and Wales. 

 The 1911 census for England and Wales was taken on the night of Sunday 2 April, 1911. The count included all individual households, plus institutions such as prisons, workhouses, naval vessels and merchant vessels, and it also attempted to make an approximate count of the homeless.

It offers a fascinating insight into the people of the time and the way they saw themselves.  Citizens of the time were assured that the information they supplied would be kept confidential but would they mind that is made available almost 100 years after the fact? This would also be a useful tool if you are researching your family tree.

One interesting note is mentioned in the “about section”: it was about the suffragettes. I have always found the stories about these women fascinating and their determination to change the voting laws also extended to the census.

  • Frustrated with the government’s refusal to grant women the vote, a large number of women boycotted the 1911 census by refusing to be counted.
  • There were two forms of protest. In the first, the women (or their husband) refused to fill in the form, often recording their protest to the enumerator. In the second, women evaded the census by staying away from their home for the whole night.
  • In both cases, any details relating to individual women in the households will be missing from the census.
  • For the family historian the active refusal to fill in the form (accompanied by a protest statement) at least registers the presence of a woman/women in the household, whereas the women who evaded the count are simply untraceable via the census.
  • The exact number of women who boycotted the census is not known, though some people have estimated that it may be as many as several thousand.


Our own National Archives of Australia also provides a wealth of information about our own country. This resource is constantly being updated and new material is added regularly.

On-line resources include:

  • Education pages – find out how to book your visit, access teachers’ notes and information regarding our exhibitions, obtain teachers’ kits and more.
  • Mapping our ANZACs
  • Vrroom – a virtual reading room designed specifically for students and teachers learning to use archival records. A partnership with The Le@rning Federation has seen the addition of education value statements to a range of records. The Learning Federation is itself a great resource.
  • Australasian Digital Recordkeeping InitiativeDeveloped and hosted by the National Archives of Australia, the Australasian Digital Record-keeping Initiative website is a collaboration between all ten national, state and territory public record institutions in Australia and New Zealand.
  • Documenting a Democracy website – discover 110 key documents that are the foundation of our democracy.
  • Australia’s Prime Ministers website – understand Australia’s national leadership and political history.
  • Uncommon Lives website – provides stories about famous and not-so-famous Australians as revealed in the National Archives’ records. Our latest addition, Muslim Journeys, tells tales of adventure, adversity and opportunity in an unfamiliar land.


The other source of information I have used this year is the State Library of Victoria. I have discussed this wonderful resource before and it is, at the moment, providing our students with useful material on Ned Kelly.

Students of all ages have a wealth of information at their finger tips. Unlike students of the past, where trying to find information was the big hurdle, our students almost too much information. We need to make sure we teach them how to find the most relevant, the most suitable sources. Once they have that information they then have to be able to take that information and read/interpret/apply/create, etc., all the higher order thinking skills that they need to be part of the modern world.  

This is the harder part of education today. Making sure that the tasks we set our students encourage them to go beyond the simple find and repeat (passive) type of tasks to active learning, to being responsible for their own learning and, my aim, also to help them see that learning is enjoyable/interesting.  

This later discussion is enough to write a thesis on so, instead, have a look at these sites and learn about our past and all the ordinary/great/ unusual people and events that shaped the lives we live today.

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