ICT as a tool for facilitating graveyard research

I looked at the various ways in which ICT can support children’s learning of history this week. This paper describes one of several ventures in a graveyard research project I ran while teaching in the Albany area of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.

Do women live longer than men?
Using computers to investigate graveyard data

James R.M. Paul

Department of Education, Rhodes University

Colette Kaiser

Victoria Primary School
Grahamstown, 6140, Republic of South Africa

Published in Learning and Leading with Technology (The ISTE Journal of Educational Technology Practice and Policy) May 1996
Republished in Micromath,  Summer 2005


Using computers for interrogating data can play a major part in facilitating the kinds of educational change that constructivists are calling for, empowering teachers and pupils by providing them with the information handling skills required by the Information Age. The Schools Graveyard Research Project, run by the Education Department at Rhodes University, South Africa, provides teachers and senior primary pupils at schools in Grahamstown with the opportunity to use computers as research tools. The groups involved visit regional graveyards, where they capture headstone data. This data is entered into an electronic database provided by the university and investigated using the various query tools that databases provide. This is followed up by work with an electronic spreadsheet, which provides children with the opportunity to tabulate and graph their results to develop new insights from original historical data. The exercise has three main objectives:

  • to provide the children involved with an opportunity to study history in a new way, with emphasis on active learning
  • to provide an opportunity to use computerised database and spreadsheet software as investigative tools
  • the development of an electronic database of graveyard information from graveyards in the Albany area of the Eastern Province, South Africa.

While the project has involved a wide cross section of learners, this paper will concentrate on the findings of the research as it has related to the 66 standard five (12 year old) pupils from Victoria Primary who researched three local graveyards. The Albany area was settled by several thousand British immigrants in an immigration scheme funded by the British government in 1820. Local inhabitants are proud of their settler roots, and many are able to trace their lineage back to these early times. This made the exercise particularly relevant to the girls involved.

Data Collection.

00-stone2The children worked in pairs and were allocated to specific rows of graves so that the data could be collected systematically. A data collection sheet was used and data collected in the categories indicated. This part of the exercise was relatively straight forward but did require the pupils to use their mathematical skills to check ages at death or to work them out for graves where this information was lacking.

Data Input.

Once the data had been collected the children were divided into three groups, each of which spent three two hour sessions using the computers at the university’s Education Department. The first session involved entering the data into the database. The database had already been set up and mirrored the data sheet, so the activity involved a simple transfer of the data into the relevant data fields. The children had recently started computer literacy lessons at school and had a fair knowledge of the key board. Even though this exercise did not require high order thinking it was valuable as it consolidated these basic computer skills. Children who had more regular access to computers at home were able to complete this task with very little difficulty. For those who had not had exposure the exercise provided opportunities for hands on keyboard experience and sufficient repetition to build up their confidence.

Data Query.

lab1A facilitatory approach was taken throughout this process, putting the responsibility for learning where it belongs – with the pupil. The pupils were asked to consider the data that they had captured, and to suggest what kinds of useful information they thought the data might provide. The basic key strokes for ordering and selecting data were demonstrated, and the pupils were encouraged to scroll through the data so as to get an overall ‘feel’ for it. The data was looked at as a whole to begin with, and sorted alphabetically by surname to get an idea of the families represented. Attempts were made to draw up family trees from the data, but it was found that the information required to do this was too scanty. The children were then asked to suggest other ways of looking at the data, and encouraged to form hypothesis and then test them. Common hypotheses were that women live longer than men, that people live longer in the 20th century than the 19th century and that most people today die in their 70’s. The data was then sorted by date of death and by age at death. This allowed the children to make a physical count of occurrences within specific age or year categories, and to draw up tables and graphs representing their findings. The select feature was then used to look at the data in more detail. 19th century data was selected and analysed and then compared to similar 20th century data. The same was done with the data as it referred to men and women, and to those records with an age of death less than 10. The information was entered into tables  for analysis and then graphed (see accompanying graphs). This was done manually to begin with, with the girls working in pairs or small groups to generate their own pie, bar or line graphs. Being able to categorise and graph the data made the information much easier to understand. Victoria Primary uses an integrated curriculum approach and the exercise reinforced the connectedness of school subjects, particularly the way in which history and mathematics is linked.

Once the pupils had drawn their graphs, they compared and discussed their findings in a larger group. The variety of graphs drawn was an indication that the data was a valuable information source which could be examined, compared and interpreted in a great variety of ways. It also became clear that some of the data was difficult to compare. The reason for this was that the sample sizes were very different, and this led to discussion about ways to compare information fairly, and the need to convert raw data to percentages. It is particularly interesting to look at the difference between the number of deaths of children under the age of 10 in this light. While there were 22 deaths in this category during the 19th century and 35 during the 20th century, the corresponding percentages are 25.6 percent and 2.8 percent. Graphing raw data in this instance did little to bring out the real meaning of the data. Understanding this resulted in the data being re-examined and new questions being formulated.

The child death question resulted in one child suggesting that the high 19th century mortality rates were the direct result of poor medical knowledge during the 19th century. This provided an ideal chance for a discussion that brought other factors into the question – particularly those relating to modes of transport, road conditions and communications in general. The most valuable lesson here were that while the data could be used to support or refute the hypotheses that the children had made, it had to examined in the light of other factors (which may or may not be obvious), worked with carefully and examined critically.

The value of the task.

1. The collection of the data required co-operation with their class mates and an organised approach.

2. The girls’ computer literacy skills were improved and knowledge of the keyboard consolidated.

3. The group graph activity resulted in the discussion of their findings where they made comparisons and tried to work out the reasons for the differences.

4. Working with primary evidence meant that the pupils could draw their own conclusions from the questions which they had formulated.

5. Primary level children do not get many chances to work with statistical data and find it difficult to formulate questions based on it. The nature of this data, and especially the fact that it was their own, made it easier for them to pose questions which could be investigated and to make hypotheses that could be proved or rejected.

6. The interpretation of the data required higher order thinking linking statistics and history.

7. Mathematics is often taught as a subject isolated from other disciplines. At a school where the cross-curricular approach has been used for a number of years this study initiated new links for the pupils between mathematics, history and computer studies.

8. The task resulted in a thirst for further reading and research, particularly where individual graves provided points of interest. A poem and a bird bath on the grave of a young nature conservation officer, the names of various battles in which soldiers had lost their lives and references to a local train disaster in which several score of people had lost their lives provided much interest and areas of focus for further reading.

9. ‘Research’ at primary school level usually involves regurgitating facts from reference books or electronic encyclopaedias. This project involved the children actively and provided them with a chance to work like real historians, collecting and interpreting their own primary data.


Current literature on educational change emphasises the need for teachers to provide learning experiences which are “student centred” and which place “increased responsibility for learning on the learner” (Thomas and Knezek, 1991. 49). David (1991, 40) has noted the need for educational systems which enable students “… to apply skills, to understand concepts and solve problems… to work collaboratively… to take responsibility for learning.” We are moving, suggests Spender (1995:1) “from a system based on answers to one where questions are the norm; from being able to recall to being able to retrieve… from knowing to doing.” The graveyard research project is structured to meet these criteria and goes some of the way towards empowering children to use computers in a powerful, relevant and research oriented way.


David, J.L. (1991). Restructuring and technology: Partners in change. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(1).

Spender, D. (1995). From knowing to doing: An educational policy for the computer age. International confederation of Principals, second world convention, Darling Harbour, Australia.

Thomas, L.G., & Knezek, D. (1991). Facilitating restructured learning experiences with technology. The Computing Teacher, 18(6).


The graphs selected below reflect the analysis of a bigger data set than the three graveyards mentioned above. However, the trends reflected were common to all  graveyards investigated. The date set exceeds six thousand records from 15 graveyards in the Albany area.


Graph showing distribution of ages of death


Graph comparing distribution of ages of death by century


Graph comparing distribution of ages of death by gender


Family tree of the Claytons of Cuylerville, Eastern Cape, South Africa.

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