Peter and his paper dolls: low-attaining Year 8 make and break groups to explain why the Church was challenged in the early 1500s

This is the first in a new series of four weekly blog posts in which I show how a journal article or book has inspired me to improve my teaching practice. Each post includes a practical resource or activity. Today I show how my reading of Marshall’s award-winning book Heretics and Believers, and my reflection of the work of Counsell and Bradshaw in Teaching History, helped me move a ‘low-attaining’ pupil beyond stereotypes and generalisations about the early sixteenth century Church. 

paper dolls

Let’s talk scale and setting before we make some origami. We might assess the diversity/similarity of experiences across the globe, or we might assess the diversity/similarity of experiences within a small town in Somerset. The former requires knowledge of different peoples and places, as Kennett and Bailey-Watson’s fantastic ‘Meanwhile, Elsewhere…’ project foregrounds, and requires diverse, globe-trotting curriculum content. The latter asks pupils to discern and establish similarities and differences within a single past society.

The business of discerning and analysing differences in a past society is a tricky one. As teacher-researcher Bradshaw has pointed out, ‘throwing in too much diversity is likely to confuse those students who lack a sense of period or those students with whom we are still having to work very hard to secure essential chronological and narrative frameworks.’

I have found this to be true, especially surrounding the English Reformation. The complexity of this event is breathtaking. Peter, in particular, was in trouble. He needs extra time for reading in class, and he struggled with the Henrys, Richards and Edwards of the Wars of the Roses. Yet I wanted to move Peter beyond Luther. In the minds of ten years’ worth of Year 8 classes I worry that I have wedged an image of the English Reformation brought about by a single man: Martin Luther. Hopefully he’s the German one and not the King, but you never know.

To prioritise one individual in an explanation – to the exclusion of nearly all others – is to create a narrative of the past that is driven by a single protagonist.  It is too simple. There is not enough diversity in this explanation. Where is Erasmus? Where is Hus? The full force of my one-dimensional and disappointingly thin portrayal of new thinking was brought home to me after reading Marshall’s fantastic Heretics and Believers. Marshall calls Humanism ‘the thin end of the wedge’ when it came to challenging the Church, calling into question everything I had taught about the importance of Luther. All of a sudden, my Luther looked very lonely and much more of a ‘supporting cast member’ than ‘main protagonist’ in my story of the English Reformation.

There is an opportunity here, though. We can show pupils the one-sided argument and ask them to kick against it. Was the abolition of slavery the work of one man – Wilberforce? Was the success of the New Model Army the work of one commander – Cromwell? And was the Reformation the work of one monk – Luther? This is what Counsell has done with her ‘Too Simple!’ or ‘Generalisation’ game, where she puts up statements that are deliberate generalisations in order to give her pupils something to kick against.

If we go back to a very early iteration of what we want pupils to do with similarity and difference (back to the 1991 National Curriculum Attainment Targets), we find the following statement of attainment:

explain why individuals did not necessarily share the ideas and attitudes of the groups and societies to which they belonged.’

This is what I wanted my pupils to do with Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Erasmus, Colet and Tyndale. They were similar in that they were protesting in some way against the Roman Catholic Church (whether that was liturgy, doctrine, structure or behaviour), and some of them could be grouped together (e.g. Humanist) yet they certainly did not share the same ideas and attitudes. So I came up with a new and deceptively simple enquiry for Peter and his classmates to focus more specifically on diversity in the run-up to the Reformation: ‘Who challenged the Church?’

As a teacher, I was also interested in challenging authority. I wanted to challenge the idea that this was something that only pupils working at a ‘higher level’ could grapple with (as the 1991 NC AT1 implied). I decided to kick against this idea using the ancient art of Origami.

Enter the Paper Dolls

If a paper doll chain is collapsed, all you can see is a single doll:


Having taught content on heresy and humanism before 1530, I told Peter and his class that this man – Luther –  was responsible for causing the Reformation in Europe from 1517 onwards.

Peter was not impressed. ‘What about Hus?’ he said. ‘And Erazmis?’

And Jenny said: ‘What about the one with the beard? Wycliffe?’

‘Do we need to include more humanists and so-called heretics in our explanation of the Reformation then?’ I said.

Jenny said ‘Yes!’ and Peter nodded carefully.

‘So if Luther wasn’t alone’, I said, unwrapping my paper doll chain, ‘Who else might link to Luther and heresy and be involved in bringing about religious change in the early sixteenth century?’

As a class, we wrote down names on five other paper dolls. We came up with this:


Peter copied this down. We then added further detail to each doll, including names, dates and some of their beliefs and actions.

Then I said: ‘Have we got this right? Or is it too simple? Were these people really so similar?’

Peter said: ‘They all challenged the Church, Miss.’ (Similarity).

Jenny, of course, said: ‘But they believed different things about what the Church should be like.’ (Difference).

‘Oh yeah’, said Peter.

Do we need to break the chain anywhere, then? I said.

‘Yes!’ exclaimed Marianne, who likes breaking things.

‘Do we need different chains of people in our explanation of the Reformation? Are some of these people too different to put together in the same chain? Who was similar to who? Do all of these people belong in our Luther chain or do we need another chain together?’ I said. But not all at once.

As a class, we came up with this instead, rather than one long line:


We could have kept doing this, making and breaking groups into different chains, connecting and disconnecting, all day. Each time, I asked pupils to justify where and why they wanted to connect and disconnect the chain:

‘Erasmus and Colet were both humanists.’

‘But Tyndale was sort of a humanist, wasn’t he? He translated the bible into English.’

‘I thought he was mates with Luther?’

‘Wycliffe came way before Luther.’

‘Yeah but it said that Luther was, you know, inspired by him.’

‘Should we bother with groups at all then? Aren’t they all different?’

‘Yeah but Colet and Erasmus had that chat in Oxford. So we can put them together.’

And so on.

By building and decoupling paper-doll chains, we can get our pupils to grapple with cohesion and fracture among groups in the past. We can start to illustrate and describe that cohesion or fracture in an accessible way.  Bradshaw explains that the moment you start to describe the past you ‘deploy terms that put people and places, situations and states of affairs in groups – whether groups of three or of three million.  If you’re arguing about similarity and difference, you’re arguing about how good those groups are.’

And that’s what we can directly address with making and breaking paper doll chains: how good is the group we have created?

In the immortal words of Jamie Byrom, ‘To they…or not to they?’


There are lots of paper-thin, single-sided dolls in our narratives of the past. Our job in teaching the concept of diversity is to unwrap them: to show students other figures, both linked and unlinked, chained and uncoupled, similar and different.

Making and breaking paper doll chains might be a rather blunt instrument of analysing diversity in the past, but maybe it’s just right for a boy like Peter.

Download my resources:

Sim&Diff: Humanists and Heretics



Bradshaw, M. (2009) ‘Drilling down: how one history department is working towards progression in pupils’ thinking about diversity across Years 7, 8 and 9’ in Teaching History, 135: To They Or Not To They Edition, pp.4-12.

Counsell, C. (2009) ‘Let’s play Too Simple! Aka ‘the generalisation game’)’ in Teaching History, 135: To They Or Not To They Edition, pp.13-15.

(2009). ‘In a nutshell: the challenge of analysing ‘difference’’ in Teaching History, 135: To They Or Not To They Edition, p.27.

Marshall, P. (2018) Heretics and Believers: A history of the English Reformation, London: Yale.

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