‘This extract is no good, Miss, because the historian didn’t include X or Y’. Helping post-16 students to express their ideas about the construction of an historian’s argument

This is the third in a series of weekly blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post ends with a practical resource or activity. Today I show how the classic text What is History? by E.H. Carr (1961) and an article by Fordham (2014) inspired me to try and improve my teaching of how to deconstruct historical interpretations with Years 12 and 13. 

The issue of ‘interpretations’ has been a formal part of England’s National Curriculum since it was first introduced in 1991, and it requires young people to understand how and why the past has been interpreted in different ways. It is different from a pupil constructing their own interpretation, and it requires knowledge of two time periods: the time period being studied, and the time period of the person doing the interpreting.

So time and context matter when it comes to deconstructing interpretations of past events. The historian E.H. Carr stated that ‘The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence.’ But, as Carr himself acknowledged, context isn’t everything. Facts matter, too (although do not make a fetish of them). As Fordham has pointed out:

 Much of the recent work by history teachers has focused on the use of academic scholarship in the classroom, particularly in terms of moving pupils away from simplistic analyses of interpretations which place too great an emphasis on who the author was, and not on the process by which his or her argument was constructed. Chapman, for example, found ‘that many students think too much about who historians are and not enough about the decisions that historians make.’ At A-level, teachers have for some years now explored ways in which they can move pupils away from pigeon-holing historians (traditionalist, revisionist, American, Russian, and so on) and towards examining the process by which arguments are constructed. (p.33).

Counsell has similarly warned against giving the impression of ‘determinism’,which loses sight of the agency of the author in the construction process. It is a trap which is easy to fall into. When supporting my Year 7s in an interpretations-based enquiry on the Crusades, I reflected that I needed to avoid a reductive situation whereby:

…pupils are left with stereotypical approaches to historians, such as: all German historians writing in the 1930s were inevitably pro-Nazi. As Howells reminds those who accept a ‘simplified’ approach to interpretations, ‘the relationship between a person’s “background” and their approach to history is by no means direct and clear’ and ‘there is no one interpretation which dominates any one era. (p.15).

Teaching about historical interpretations is hard, however (for both pupils and teachers), so it is easy to see why it would be tempting to go down the ‘Time Period X = Interpretation Y’ route. It was acknowledged at the 2014 SHP Conference that ‘this curriculum component is extraordinarily hard to teach well’.

This is why I am viewing the demands of Component 1 of the AQA History A-Level positively, despite its many limitations (which I will not go into here). For Paper 1, students are asked to analyse and evaluate the views of historians. They are not required to engage in any sort of guesswork about the historian’s religious or political proclivities, nor are they asked to pigeonhole any of the historians into arbitrary boxes such as ‘Feminist’ or ‘Marxist’. They are expected to use contextual knowledge to determine which historian’s extract they consider to be most ‘convincing’.

I could, of course, write an essay about why I believe that this question is perilous (not least because each extract is just that – an extract), but it’s a sunny September morning and I’m trying to see this as a valuable opportunity to help pupils explore the process and artistry of how evidence is selected and arranged to create an historical argument.

A significant issue that my sixth-formers struggle with is how to comment upon the historian’s choice of evidence without damning that historian’s interpretation as ‘erroneous’, ‘invalid’, ‘flawed’, ‘incorrect’ or downright ‘wrong’ (all words I have read in pupils’ answers to questions about historians’ interpretations). Despite making it clear to pupils that historians cannot catch every fact-fish in the vast ocean of all documents ever created on the subject, and despite discussing the inevitable influence of an historian’s context and purpose upon their interpretation, my students still have trouble expressing their ideas about an historian’s selection of facts and evidence. Any historian who does not take into account regional variation when discussing the standard of living during the Industrial Revolution, for example, is inevitably cast off as an abysmal historian of the worst type.

I decided, as Woodcock and Wiltshire and Carroll and scores of history teachers before me, that offering pupils some new vocabulary might give them new ideas, and in turn might enhance their analysis of historians’ extracts. In the words of Woodcock,

Words are tools for precise, nuanced thinking, understanding and communication. Ultimately, if students have a refined and diverse vocabulary, and develop expertise and confidence in its use, they will be able to think and communicate in a more sophisticated manner, and that can only make them better historians. (p.14)

The use of new vocabulary certainly seemed to help Woodcock’s Year 10 pupils improve their causal analyses. Can a direct focus on specific vocabulary develop my Year 12 and 13 students’ understanding of how historians handle evidence? Where might I find such vocabulary?

I decided it was time to dust down E.H. Carr again. (“What would E.H. Carr do?” is my motto – or sometimes “What would Richard Evans do?” if my two-year-old daughter has stuffed Carr down the back of the sofa). I quickly found a veritable mine of phrases that I could adapt to show pupils how one might express ideas about historians’ selection of evidence. Two principles guided my adaptation. First, I adapted Carr’s phrasing by using cautious language (or ‘hedging’), shown below in bold. Second, I split the phrases into starters and endings so pupils could comment upon both the opportunities and potential drawbacks in each historian’s selection of evidence. Both principles would, I hoped, help pupils to avoid making sweeping and misguided statements about whether the historian was right or wrong. My adaptation of Carr to provide the sentence starters and endings is as follows:

blog-3-carr-quotes

In general, my pupils love a sentence starter, much like my daughter loves her (now rather revolting) soft-toy comforter. Such writing scaffolds do, however, come with risks. They can lead to empty phrases and thoughtless banalities and even stifle pupils’ creativity. Used sparingly, however, and perhaps at the beginning of Year 12, they may be just the thing to start a pupil off on a thoughtful and balanced journey of deconstruction that can lessen the terror of the blank page. Then the stabilisers can come off, the comforter can be thrown away, and the rules can be broken…

Download the resource: carr-sentence-scaffold

Main References:

Carr, E.H. (1987) What is History? (2nd ed.)London: Penguin

Fordham, M. (2014) ”But why then?’ Chronological context and historical interpretations’ in Teaching History, 156, Chronology Edition, pp.32-39. Find it HERE.

Other References: 

Counsell, C. ‘Protecting the curriculum jewel of interpretations’, Schools History Project Annual Conference, 11-13 July 2014, Leeds. Accessible from the SHP website HERE.

Woodcock, J. (2005).’Does the linguistic release the conceptual? Helping Year 10 to improve their causal reasoning’ in Teaching History, 119, Language Edition, pp.5-14. Find it HERE.

Worth, P. (2014) ‘‘English king Frederick I won at Arsuf, then took Acre, then they all went home’: exploring the challenges involved in reading and writing historical narrative’ in Teaching History, 156: Chronology Edition, pp.8-19.Find it HERE.

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