Te Kete Ipurangi Navigation:

Te Kete Ipurangi

Te Kete Ipurangi user options:

New Zealand Curriculum Online navigation


Engaging with historical significance by creating sound walks

Focus key competencies: Thinking (historical thinking); participating and contributing

Learning area context: Social sciences, history


In this unit of work the teacher focused on the concept of historical significance. He wanted to provide his year 11 students with opportunities to understand: that history operates on the basis that some events are more important than others; that different people will have different ideas about what is historically significant; and why people may hold different ideas about what is significant from the past (see, Lomas, T., 1990). The teacher wanted his students to do more than demonstrate an understanding of a place or event of historical significance to New Zealanders—he wanted them to engage in the concept of historical significance itself. In other words he wanted his students to develop an understanding of disciplinary knowledge in history and to experience thinking like historians.

The teacher began by providing his students with criteria (see figures 1 and 2 below) for determining historical significance* and some small pieces of text to which the criteria could potentially be applied. (*History educators have shaped several different sets of these specifically for school students to use. See, for example, Pearson (2012), who provides three examples, one of which was used in the unit described here.) The students’ task was to determine whether the author was using any of the provided criteria to determine the historical significance of the place being described, which criteria were being used, where in the text the criteria were being used, what criteria were not being used, and whether any criteria were used that would not typically be used by a historian.

After practicing identifying statements of historical significance and the criteria they were based upon, students were taken to different sites within inner-city Wellington. These sites were all relatively close to the school (in downtown Wellington). They included: Haining Street in old China town; the old prison site at Massey University; the Te Aro pa site; Trades Hall; Suffrage Steps; and the National War Memorial. Students then had to choose one location and create a sound walk for it. (Sound walks are audio recordings that guide a person around a place and help them to discover their surroundings in a new way. Sound walks are created in the physical location concerned. It is not possible to create a sound walk independently of the physical location. This gives the listener a sense of presence in the environment and a sense of immediacy.) Their sound walk needed to direct potential viewers around the memorial site and argue a case for its historical significance. The teacher deliberately chose sound walks as the mode of presentation because he wanted his students to understand place as the interplay between people and an environment. He was not as interested, for example, in the question ‘Why is Gallipoli historically significant?’ as the question, ‘Why is the national memorial significant as a place?’

To carry out this challenging task, students needed to research the events being memorialised, incorporate this information into the argument, and consider the relationship between the events the form of the memorials, and the experience of moving around the actual site.

At the end of the unit the sound walks were saved on a Google site: Wellington City Sound Walks. Students were asked to listen to a selection of each others’ sound walks and provide feedback.

The teacher collected information on his students’ attitudes towards learning New Zealand history before, and again after, the unit of work. Students rated their interest in New Zealand history much higher after the unit of work. About half of the students indicated that the point at which they became highly interested was when they went to visit the locations; and for about half, it was when they were back in the library, researching the locations they had visited. From these findings the teacher concluded that making the familiar strange by taking a micro look at a local environment was a successful way to engage students’ interest in New Zealand history.

Table 1: Criteria used to establish historical significance

(From Counsell, 2005)

Remarkable The events/development was remarked upon by people at the time and/or since.
Remembered The event/development was important at some stage in history within the collective memory of a group or groups.
Resonant People like to make analogies with it; it is possible to connect with experiences, beliefs, or situations across time and space.
Resulting in change It had consequences for the future.
Revealing Of some other aspect of the past.

Table 2: Criteria used to establish significance of the place

(The teacher developed this second set of criteria himself (inspired, in part by Taylor, 2004), which he thought were more suited for a place based judgment of historical significance.)

Powerful The site reveals power relations in society. Its meaning for some people might have been silenced or marginalised in the past. Perhaps some people felt or continue to feel a sense of belonging there while others are excluded.
Legendary The site is “storied”. People tell legends there; it is used to sustain myths and memories.
Affected by change The site has changed drastically from one state to another.
Contested The site was or still is argued over.
Evocative The site is one where you can “feel” history. It is eerie, almost as though time has slowed.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

Within the social sciences, a place-based approach to history provides opportunities for students to learn about “how people perceive, represent, interpret, and interact with places and environments” and “the ways in which people and communities respond are shaped by different perspectives, values, and viewpoints” (NZC, p. 30).

As they created sound walks for a range of historical sites in Wellington the students had opportunities for thinking like historians; they used disciplinary criteria to argue for the historical significance of these places. They participated and contributed as they made their sound walks available for others to listen to.

Students also expanded their competencies in using language, symbols, and texts by considering historical sites as texts that are open to interpretation as representations of historical events. “Reading” the meaning of a memorial site is context specific, can change over time, and involves using the tools of historical inquiry to draw evidence from the text, the context, and one’s own prior knowledge and experiences.

The challenges involved in making a case for the historical significance of a particular site provided students with opportunities to learn and practise the “discourses” associated with being a historian. They learnt how historians interact, value, think, believe, speak, read, and write (Gee, 2008) as they work with representations of the past, including historical sites. Such historical thinking involves questioning where stories have come from and what evidence they are based on. It is much more demanding than just telling stories, that is, transmitting the “events” of history, as if the meaning of these is self-evident. (Well known history educator Sam Wineberg (2001) has described historical thinking as an “unnatural act”. By this he means that students need explicit support to learn how to do it—they are most unlikely to stumble upon the disciplinary inquiry tools of historians unless they are shown what these look like and how to use them.)

Reflections on effective pedagogy

As they used criteria developed by historians to determine the historical significance of local memorials students made connections between:

  • Ÿhistorical locations and events of historical significance
  • Ÿspatial, audio, visual, and print modes of making meaning
  • Ÿthe function and form/medium and message of various historical sites
  • Ÿtheir own experiences and others’ experiences of places of historical significance
  • Ÿtheir own experiences of places of historical significance and the historical events as represented in print text.

The unit of work provided students with opportunities to take initiative as they chose and shaped the content and form of their sound walk.

The unit of work provided students with the challenge of:

  • Ÿapplying criteria used by historians to argue for the historical significance of a historical site
  • Ÿproducing a sound walk for a particular purpose and audience and to the standard needed for use in the public domain.

Discussion starters: What does it mean to be a knowledge-builder?

In his book, Making Learning Whole, David Perkins argues that students should learn to play “junior versions” of the “whole games” of knowledge-building as undertaken by adults. Picking up on his metaphor we could say that this teacher provided students with opportunities to “practice the hard parts” of historical thinking within the context of a “whole game” of creating a sound walk. What were these hard parts (and what made them hard)?

What does participating and contributing look like in the context of a whole game such as creating a published sound walk? How do the learning experiences on offer compare and contrast with those students experience during participation in classroom-based activities such as group work?

The sense of being “ready, willing, and able” to take concrete action in a real-world context is sometimes called “action competence”. What sorts of competencies for action might these students have developed? Which other stories provide opportunities to develop aspects of students’ action competence?


Counsell, C. (2005). Looking through a Josephine-Butler-shaped window: focusing pupils’ thinking on historical significance. Teaching History 114, 30–36.

Gee, J. (2008). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (3rd ed.). London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Lomas, T. (1990). Teaching and assessing historical understanding. London: Historical association.

Pearson, J. (2012). Where are we? The place of women in history curricula. Teaching History 147, 47–52.

Perkins, D. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Taylor, L. (2004). Sense, relationship and power: uncommon views of place. Teaching History 116, 6–13.

Wineburg, S. (2001). Historical thinking and other unnatural acts: Charting the future of the past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Published on: 15 Apr 2014