Teaching interpretations – maximising potential and avoiding pitfalls!

Thanks to Warren Valentine (@warrenvalentine), head of history and politics at Mayfield Grammar School for Girls, for this blogpost about a day spent thinking about the teaching of historical interpretations. This is an area that has been extensively discussed and theorised about for many years. You can find more help with this tricky concept on the HA website.  

In June a collection of history teachers and historians met, under the auspices of the IoE’s History in Education Special Interest Group, to discuss the potential and the pitfalls of using historical interpretations in the classroom. It was agreed that much of what we are trying to do in the classroom involves getting students to understand the different ways the past has been interpreted and why those particular interpretations have been constructed. We know there are a number of challenges when trying to do this, but many of the solutions appear to revolve around the theme of deconstructing interpretations of the past. This was the particularly useful approach that Professor Arthur Chapman gave delegates at the start of the conference, and is the product of his years of research on historical interpretations reaching back to his doctoral research. This framework also enables teachers to step beyond using just academic texts and would be fruitful when looking at a range of more ‘popular’ forms of histories such as memorials, historical fiction etc.

Different teachers have taken a number of approaches to peeling back the layers from the interpretation, to the historian and understanding the process that comes in between. Holly Hiscox actually brought a variety of historians into her classroom from one university. They were surprised to be asked to discuss their methods more than the substantive content of their research. Hiscox worked backwards from the historian to look at the types of questions they asked and subsequently the methods they adopted to help her Year 13 students address the coursework component of their course by giving students the tools to discuss precisely how different interpretations of the past are constructed. In so doing, Hiscox powerfully reinforced Hammond’s 2007 Teaching History article on the value of bringing the historian’s method under the microscope.

We were fortunate to have been joined by ‘professional historians’. Dr Marcus Collins, of the University of Loughborough, offered us a fascinating insight into the variety of genres of writing that exist on The Beatles, categorising works as hagiography, sensationalism, revisionism etc. What history teachers could infer is that historical writing takes a number of forms, and can be categorised based upon different conventions. We could provide students with the language to help them to categorise accounts of the past, and hopefully release a conceptual understanding of why accounts of the past differ in their conclusions or indeed the types of judgement that they reach.

David Hibbert shared some of his recent research, conducted with Dr Jason Todd, on how interviews with historians could work as a substitute for bringing them physically into the classroom. Hibbert and Todd had interviewed Oxford’s Dr Yasmin Khan about her recent work The Raj at War: A People’s History of India’s Second World War. The very act of showing the historian and discussing why she chose to research India’s role in the Second World War, how she chose her evidence served to show students the person behind the interpretation. We know that students struggle to conceive of history as a construction by individuals who deliberately reject and select evidence, perhaps this sort of approach might begin to offer an antidote to that. The challenges Lee and Shemilt wrote about in 2004 seem stubborn and we need to continue to focus on bridging the gap between the historical event and the historian writing about the period for our students.

Hearing Dr Khan use her own background as a justification for studying certain parts of history was gripping, it can’t help but improve ‘botheredness’ among students and get students to ask more questions of the people writing the histories we put before them. It reinforces the idea that we can deconstruct accounts all the way back to the beginning of a historical project, and consider how historians chose what to study and define the parameters of their work. Hibbert and Todd’s work throws up a range of interesting threads for teachers to pursue, as those attending the SHP 2019 conference will surely know. The SHP are hosting a link to their materials which can be found here.

I followed this up by work to deconstruct the writing of historians in class, where historians could not be directly accessed – though Charlotte Crouch, from the University of Reading, reminded us of the untapped potential of working with PhD students. I used summaries of historians’ writing and then asked students to consider the relationship between the substantive events they knew and the overall claims that historians made about a period of time. I agree with colleagues who say that sometimes we need to use longer extracts for students to be truly able to analyse historical writing. However there also appeared to me to be some merit to asking students to examine the relationship between big claims and small historical details, if only to demonstrate to students the process that historians work through when making generalisations about periods in the past.

We need to remember to take a wider view of how history appears in public discourse, and while this includes academic histories, there are many others worthy of discussion from historical monuments to historical fiction. These are all constructions and we must help students navigate the process of deconstructing these works from the end product back to the original historical enquiry, considering the methods and processes that lay in between.

A special thanks must go to Professor Arthur Chapman, senior lecturer in education at the Institute of Education, University of London, for organising and hosting the event. Without Professor Chapman’s encouragement and ideas the day would not have been possible.

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