Teaching Intepretations

Children find learning interpretations really hard.  From birth they are taught the importance of honesty and when they are introduced to different views of the past, many come to feel that someone, somewhere is lying.  This impression is, regrettably, reinforced by a misleading conception of history in wider culture.  Horrible Histories for children, and even serious documentaries for adults, commonly deal with history as an accepted and unchallenged narrative.  I suspect this is because, as Sam Wineburg points out, history is an unnatural act.  Intuitively as humans we find security in consensus. Stepping away from the pack is scary because it often means challenging prized aspects of the heritage from which we construct our identity.

This can be seen in the popular British perception of World War Two.  Many, perhaps most, British people would confidently say that Britain and America were the victors.  This is unsurprising given the lack of attention given to the Eastern compared to the Western Front in many curriculums, but it is also an unforgivably limited interpretation, given German casualties on the Eastern Front dwarf those in the West. Of course, casting the Soviet Union as the victor with Britain and America as bit-players is also an interpretation that could be challenged, but curriculums not teaching the importance of the Eastern Front not only mislead children but also store up difficulties in understanding the development of the Cold War.

Teaching history as a coherent, unchallenged narrative is suggests a disciplinary consensus that doesn’t really exist.  This can lead children into believing that the significance of the events they study in lessons are accepted by all, and that everyone believes the same things about what happened in the past.  The simplicity of the purely narrative approach is dangerously seductive because it provides certainty, which children find reassuring.

History teachers and curriculums must resist being seduced. KS3 curriculum that allows children to believe history to be one unquestioned story fails for three reasons.

Firstly, and most seriously, such curriculums are dangerous and open to political manipulation.  Dictatorial, oppressive regimes invariably change history curriculums in this fashion; they create one interpretation of history which supports their own beliefs to the exclusion of all others.  Even implying that there is one accepted ‘right’ version of history means students finishing KS3 with a one-sided and limited view of the events in the past.  They will, in effect, have been indoctrinated.  Most history teachers know this implicitly and would never teach, for example, just one interpretation on the British Empire, or one interpretation of the reasons for the abolition of slavery within it.

Secondly, curriculums that do not teach different interpretations misrepresent history as an academic discipline  “Doing history” is not just learning what happened; it is also understanding that historians arrive at different opinions by looking at different sources and that historians arrive at different opinions even when they have used the same sources.  These differences in opinion are part of the reason events that happened long ago remain relevant and discussed today.

Finally if we accept the importance of KS3 in preparing students for GCSE, it is important interpretations are taught well.  Always an important part of GCSE Assessment Objectives, the new specifications have, quite rightly in my view, put even more emphasis on them.  Students in departments that don’t teach interpretations well before starting these courses will struggle.

While teaching interpretations is necessary it is also extremely challenging. Curriculums that teach interpretations poorly experience all sorts of problems.  They muddle children by chipping away at the narrative, which falls into the gaps created in confusion about what actually happened.  They demoralise students, who can easily come to feel that if nobody knows what happened, or why it did, there is little point in studying it at all.

But, given the fundamental importance of different interpretations to history and the ethical issues of not teaching them, none of this can be used as an excuse.  Integrating interpretations into a coherent narrative framework is possible if planned into a KS3 curriculum thoughtfully.

A mistake made quite commonly in KS3 curriculums is to teach in a purely narrative style in the lower years under the mistaken assumption that younger students can’t cope with the complexities of looking at different perspectives.  Even putting aside ethical issues with this, it is still wrong because it simply puts off the issue, which grows in severity the longer it is ignored.  Students taught that history is the story of what really happened in Year 7 internalise this and then react defensively when taught that what they know might not be true.

I find it best to be brutally honest right from the get go.  History has happened.  It’s over. It’s gone. It’s, quite literally, history.  In the absence of the wonderful Magic Time Travelling Helmet from the Usborne series of books so beloved by generations of children, we simply can’t be certain about what really happened.  No one is.  Everything learned in history lessons is someone’s interpretation based on the study of historical sources.  I misquote Indy; “if it’s truth you want, Mr Shipman’s maths class is right down the hall.”

By clearing this up early we can be reasonably confident that students won’t unthinkingly accept the narratives and stories we teach to give curriculums a coherent, narrative framework.

Curriculums should usually begin with the most accepted, interpretations of the events covered in the lesson.  These culturally pervasive interpretations are almost invariably those on which the narratives in textbooks and other resources produced for schools are based.  Teachers should regularly reinforce that this version is an interpretation, not the definitive version, and that there are historians who disagree with it.   Really good departments may also teach students where these interpretations are drawn from and why they are so commonly accepted, referencing named historians and their work, and making explicit why their views have assumed cultural dominance.  This allows students to gain a clear sense of narrative and the knowledge they need to access wider historical discourse and dialogue.

Once students have a robust knowledge of one interpretation it should, when and where appropriate, be challenged.  Challenging interpretations should also, where appropriate and possible, be explicitly taught using named historians.  Children should also be taught why and how the historian arrived at this different interpretation, whether it was through the use of different sources, a different reading of the same sources or a combination of both.  A teacher may want to demonstrate that this second interpretation has also been opposed or revised, to illustrate the dynamic nature of history scholarship.

This could, for example, be done when teaching the causes of World War Two.  The lesson could begin with the interpretation that Hitler was responsible, using Trevor Hugh-Roper’s work.  Students might be taught why historians from the winning countries could have arrived at this view before going on to examine how and why it was challenged by A J P Taylor and other revisionists.  The lesson could conclude with students considering Alan Bullock’s synthesis of both views.

By teaching opposing interpretations explicitly curriculums can efficiently demonstrate how and why perspectives on the past shift over time and accurately represent history as an academic discipline.  Emphasising interpretations also prepares KS3 students for the new GCSE courses.

Teaching an opposing interpretation for every event is not necessary, or even desirable.  Doing this takes up a great deal of time, precluding the study of some important events that could otherwise be covered.  In addition, for some events one interpretation is so widely accepted that the teaching of an alternative is somewhat contrived.  An example of this might be seen in the teaching of the Nazi terror state to Year 9.  While, of course, there will be subtle disagreements between historians as to which elements were most frightening, almost all would agree that terror was a significant method of control for the Nazis.  A focus on why people were so terrified is more appropriate than trying to examine whether or not they were.  I’m comfortable with the idea that students may not be aware of an alternative interpretation of every event they’ve studied so long as they know that there will, inevitably, be lots of clever people who disagree with the one they’re taught, for good reason.

When teaching interpretations less is more.  Better meaningful, robust work done on a limited number of significant historical disagreements than an alternative interpretation thrown in superficially for every topic.  That this still happens is partially the result of unfortunate misunderstandings of Blooms Taxonomy which continue to cause some schools to insist on evaluative ‘higher order’ tasks in all lessons even where the content is inappropriate.  Such approaches also run the risk of creating the impression that all interpretations are equal and that it’s acceptable to disagree with something you don’t really understand.  One of my pet peeves is students believing that because we can’t be certain about what happened, an opinion, no matter how ridiculously unsupported, is equal to one based on years of careful, diligent work.

Trying to get students to form their own interpretations before they’ve been explicitly taught those formed by others is usually a mistake.   A typical example of this, which I’ve done in the past, would be giving students sources and pieces of information about the bombing of Hiroshima and asking them to try and work out what different historians believe about why it happened.  Such approaches are, at best, very inefficient.   Asking children to do this is, in effect, asking them to independently form opinions on an event expert historians have conducted years of research on and written books about. To even make a half decent stab at this takes even very able students a long time and the less able are often left completely at sea until their teacher explains it to them afterwards.  Students are set up to fail.  More efficient is to directly teach the interpretations and then ask students to use evidence to support and refute them.

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4 thoughts on “Teaching Intepretations

  1. I particularly welcomed the emphasis you put here on teaching the idea of competing interpretations as an ongoing process and one that should be laced throughout the curriculum. It is often taught as a ‘separate thing’ and we should strive to present history as a discipline, as a study of the past with multiple arguments constantly. This does not, however, mean we have to constantly reference named historians and historiography though this certainly has a place and we could certainly connect to academic historians much more.

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  2. Amy Till says:

    I find this blog really interesting as I am in the process of redesigning our ks3. I have been grappling with many of the issues raised. For me, a problem lies in only having two years of ks3 that I feel I end up torn between studying a range of topics to help students understand the historical context at gcse and fully exploring skills such as varying interpretations and the range of second order concepts we need to establish. The earlier blog on whether to have a historical skills until gave me real food for thought.

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