Why you should teach Charles Darwin’s Voyage on the Beagle in Year 6

This is the next in my series of posts about exemplar topics and how they can build on children’s prior knowledge (following on from the post about the Amazon).

As I said in my first post, there are many ways for schools to deliver the National Curriculum, so please don’t worry if your school doesn’t teach this topic in the way I’m describing. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with your school’s curriculum if you don’t, just giving some examples of how topics can be planned as part of a coherent and well-sequenced curriculum. Also, there are many different ways to approach each topic, dependent on what the children have already learnt. Just because I haven’t included a particular aspect doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable, and those I have chosen to include may not all be relevant for you, depending on your context.

So onto the main purpose of the blog – explaining why I think Charles Darwin’s Voyage on the Beagle is a valuable topic to teach in Year 6 (and might be my favourite out of any topic I’ve planned). I have specified Year 6 for this topic due to the obvious link to evolution and inheritance, but also because it’s a great way to draw together various threads that run through KS2 science, geography and history.

First, I’m going to outline which National Curriculum objectives can be addressed through the topic. I have chosen to group them by subject, but when teaching the topic, where possible I would approach it chronologically by telling the story of Charles Darwin’s life (starting with some history to set the scene, then the geography and science that is relevant to the different places visited on the voyage, finishing with the science and RE relating to Darwin’s later publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’. There are many excellent texts relating to this topic, but the one that I would recommend from personal experience is What Mr Darwin Saw by Mick Manning & Brita Granstrom.

Science

  • identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution

Darwin’s observations of a variety of species that have successfully adapted to their environment on the Galapagos Islands were the main influence that led to his development of the Theory of Evolution. The most well known and significant of these are the Galapagos finches, 13 different species having evolved from one original colonising finch as they adapted to the different environments on different islands. Other species that Darwin saw that can be used as examples of how animals are adapted to their environments – marine iguanas, Galapagos penguins and Galapagos tortoise. The science of adaptation and evolution could be taught alongside this unit, or you could teach it beforehand and use these species as additional examples, revisiting knowledge when you reach this point in the voyage.

  • recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago

Darwin found a variety of unusual fossils in different locations on the coast of South America and the Falkland Islands. An example that showed him how living things had changed over time was the fossilised glyptodont he found (a large animal similar to the armadillo) – he noticed that this was similar to the smaller mammals (armadillos) that he saw living in Argentina.

In 1835 in Chile, Darwin found fossilised trees and sea creatures high up in the Andes. This caused him to reflect on the length of time over which living things must have been developing in order to have been alive so long ago.

  • identifying scientific evidence that has been used to support or refute ideas or arguments (working scientifically)

Learning about the findings described above, and how they influenced Darwin’s thinking, is an excellent example of how scientists use evidence to support their findings. It is also an example of how scientific ideas change over time (see non-statutory notes in NC). How Darwin developed his theory, and the controversy it caused when published, could be compared with Galileo’s finding that the planets orbit the sun. This would be a good opportunity to revisit concepts introduced in Year 5 when children learn about Earth and Space.

  • recognise that environments can change and that this can sometimes pose dangers to living things

Children could learn about the policies that are in place to protect the natural environment on the Galapagos Islands. This would be a useful opportunity to build on what children learnt in Year 4 about how changes in habitats can affect animals.

Geography

  • Physical geography – mountain formation

Exploring the reasons why Darwin discovered fossils high up in the Andes is a good opportunity for children to apply what they have previously learnt about how mountains are formed.

  • Physical geography – volcanoes and earthquakes

The Cape Verde and the Galapagos Islands are both volcanic archipelagos, so children could use their knowledge of how volcanoes occur when learning about how the islands were formed. It would be an interesting opportunity for children to compare similar landforms in different continents. Darwin also experienced both an earthquake and a volcanic eruption and its aftermath in Chile in 1835, so these could be compared with the examples children have already learnt during the unit on volcanoes and earthquakes.

  • identify the position and significance of latitude, longitude, Equator, Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, Arctic and Antarctic Circle, the Prime/Greenwich Meridian and time zones (including day and night)

In the 18th Century, the government had offered rewards for anyone who could solve the ‘Longitude Problem’. It was far more difficult to determine longitude than latitude, and this caused many navigation problems for sailors. Ships were wrecked because they could not determine their exact position, and voyages took longer than expected which caused problems with lack of supplies and illness of the crew. John Harrison invented the chronometer, which helped with determining longitude because it could maintain accurate timekeeping while at sea over long periods, and they were becoming commonplace by the time the Beagle sailed in 1831. Because the main purpose of the voyage was to accurately chart the coast of South America, the Beagle had a total of 22 chronometers on board. The voyage took place before the Prime Meridian was established in 1851 (and it did not become the common reference meridian worldwide until 1884).

Learning about the chronology of navigation and the identification of lines of longitude would be an interesting way for children to deepen their knowledge of lines of latitude and longitude, and understand why they are important. Additionally, children could identify the locations of the different places Darwin visited using latitude and longitude, describing them in comparison with the Equator and the Tropics, and identifying their time zones.

  • understand geographical similarities and differences through the study of human and physical geography of a region of the United Kingdom, a region in a European country, and a region in North or South America

If a region in South America was previously studied, learning about the locations the Beagle visited would be a good opportunity for children to develop a wider knowledge of the continent. Alternatively, this topic could be taught as part of the study of South America, with more in depth learning about an area such as the Galapagos Islands, or the geography of South America could be contrasted with that of a region in North America that has already been taught.

  • Human geography – types of settlement; economic activity including trade links

The Cape Verde islands lack natural resources, so the economy now depends on services. Settlements in the islands originally developed because they were a natural stopping place for ships. This would be an interesting example to contrast with the settlements children have learnt about previously, which were mainly founded by ancient civilisations due to an abundance of natural resources.

History

Although history will probably not be the main focus of this topic, there are lots of opportunities to draw together knowledge from previous units of study. While it is not specified for study in KS1 & 2, I think providing children with a basic understanding of life in the 19th Century is important for two reasons – it gives a good grounding in preparation for more in depth study at KS3, and there are many classic children’s books set in this period, which children will be better able to access if they have some understanding of the context.

If the lives of Florence Nightingale and/or Mary Seacole form part of your KS1 curriculum, this is an opportunity to anchor them more securely in time, developing understanding of chronology now they have wider knowledge of different time periods. There are many other famous Victorians that children may have come across:

  • Scientists such as Charles Macintosh and John McAdam (Year 2 materials), Carl Linnaeus (18th Century, Y6 classification), Mary Anning (Y3 & Y6 fossils), and Alfred Wallace (Darwin’s contemporary)
  • Authors & poets such as Lewis Carroll, AA Milne, William Wordsworth, CS Lewis (born 1898 although his writing was 19th Century), Frances Hodgson Burnett, Christina Rossetti, Edward Lear and Edith Nesbit
  • If you teach a text by Charles Dickens, such as A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist, this topic would complement it particularly well as Darwin’s life would provide a contrast with the lives of Dickens’ characters
  • Composers (such as Strauss or Elgar) and artists (too many possibilities to mention) that they have studied as part of the curriculum in those subjects

Children may also have learnt about events, people or places from the 19th Century as part of the local study in KS1 and/or KS2, and as part of the aspect or theme that extends chronological knowledge beyond 1066. For example, when working in a school near to Charles Dickens’ home, our local study was focused on changes in the local area during Victorian times and the locations that inspired some of his books. Following that unit in Year 5 with the focus on Darwin in Year 6 allowed children to really deepen their knowledge and make links between a variety of different areas of study.

If you have chosen to focus any of your history units on transport, communication or technology, looking at Victorian inventions is a good opportunity to develop chronological understanding. What was the Beagle like in comparison with other ships the children may have learnt about, such as the Titanic, the ancient Greeks or those of 15th and 16th Century explorers? How did Darwin communicate with his family while he was on the voyage and what methods of communication were available? Were any other Victorian discoveries controversial at first?

If you are close enough to visit Darwin’s home, Down House (https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/home-of-charles-darwin-down-house/) I would highly recommend it, but failing that, there are photographs available which you could use to explore his daily life further. Did he have electric lights? Central heating? My favourite part of the trip was always taking children down the back staircase to see the bells in the servants’ quarters, and helping them to notice the difference in decoration between the family’s part of the house and the servants’.

Finally, if your history curriculum includes explorers (possibly Christopher Columbus in KS1), this could be revisited during the voyage, as both the Cape Verde and Galapagos Islands were uninhabited before their discovery by Spanish and Portuguese explorers.

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