Interpretations: Tell the artist why they are wrong!

As Helen wrote in her previous blog interpretations are a tricksy concept for students to understand, but due to the more rigorous demands of GCSE and A-Level one that we cannot ignore as we might have done in the past.

At both GCSE and A-Level, the exams want our students to unpick interpretations using their contextual knowledge of the period. In essence they want students to give evidence to explain why a particular interpretation could be conceived convincing or not. For students this is a really difficult concept as they are teenage novices being asked to challenge the academic authority on their subject. As trained historians we know that this is fine. We are asking our students to engage with the time honoured tradition of historical debate. But they don’t know that and all my classes find this an alien concept.

As a result of this I have been trying to build in baby steps into my lessons to ease them into the idea of challenging a historian. The baby steps in this case being children’s history books. Children’s history books are brilliant as they are often extremely opinionated and see things in black and white. For example seeing historical actors as either heroes or villains. Students realise this too and as a result they seem far happier ripping these interpretations apart. Some of the best lessons I’ve had recently are where I have got them to do this with the illustrations in these books.

In Year 10 we are studying the Normans and had just learnt about the suppression of the English in the years 1066 to 1068. I then gave them the illustration from the William the Conqueror Ladybird book and asked what they thought. Nearly the whole class were dismayed that William was portrayed as a hero when we had just learnt a quite different story. Next I asked them to pretend they were the editor of this particular Ladybird book. They had to annotate the illustration to explain how they would get the artist to change it and then consolidate with a ‘brief’ to the artist. The outcome was ace – here is just one example:


The more we do this kind of activity the more our students will be used to the idea of challenging historical interpretations. Hopefully this will mean that when they actually get an academic interpretation to analyse they won’t feel it such an alien concept.

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 Richard Kennett, Assistant Head at Redland Green School, for this post. 

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