Interpretations: ‘And then she waved a tea towel at us!’

The conceptual thinking required to understand historical interpretations is challenging for many of students. It is a multi-facetted concept and we take an incremental approach to developing our students’ ability to understand and work with it. A tourist tea towel is an interpretation. We use one to get across the idea that an interpretation is a selection to present a particular perspective that is made with a purpose and for a particular audience. My tea towel of York shows York Minster, the City Walls, the Mansion House, the Shambles and Bettys Tea Rooms. I simply hold it up to Year 7 and ask them:

  • What is it? (“Gosh, she’s really lost it now! Do we really say a tea towel?!”  “Yes,     Year 7, but what kind of tea towel?” And we get to the idea that it is a tea towel made for tourists.)
  •  So, why do tourists buy this tea towel? (“To remind them of their trip to York”)
  • How does this affect what the person who produced it has put on the tea towel? (“The places tourists go to!”)
  • Great, Year 7, so the person who produced the tea towel has deliberately selected the images to put on here to attract a person to buy it as a souvenir. What else could they have put on here? What would they definitely not put on here? (There is usually a joke about the scussy bit behind Asda at this point!)

Our audience is tourists, our selection is made to attract them to buy our tea towel and, voila, these important ideas that are part of understanding historical interpretations are made very accessible for all students.

We use this at the end of a study of Oliver Cromwell. Students then design their own tea towels and, crucially, annotate their design to tell us why they have chosen certain images. We are looking to make sure they are reasoning about audience and purpose. Some students design a tea towel for sale in Drogheda, Ireland, and others for sale in the gift shop of the UK Parliament. Another variation of this if you have more time is to ask one student to design the tea towel and another to add the annotations and comments about the first student’s selections and then feed back to the designer.

Of course, there is much more to the concept of historical interpretations. Developing understanding of it is crucial to progression in history and a key contribution that studying history makes to a young person’s overall education. This idea first came to our department from Christine Counsell at a Historical Association conference. For more teaching ideas – or more discussion of the kinds of understanding involved in making sense of interpretations please go to: . Do follow the HA on Twitter @histassoc for more updates, to send comments and to share ideas.


Thanks to Helen Snelson, Head of History at The Mount School, for this post. 

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