Interpretations – they don’t need to be daunting

Interpretations – they don’t need to be daunting

As any of you who follow my Twitter feed will know I have been thinking a lot about interpretations in the last few months. This is down to two reasons:

  1. The new A-Level and GCSE is forcing me to teach interpretations more than I have ever done before.
  2. My Bristol history network (the pizza group) is focusing on interpretations this year. This is all we have been talking about.


Interpretations – the least taught second order concept

Now this might be a generalisation but I bet that of the historical second order concepts that you least teach in your classroom, interpretations is top of the pile. Why is this case? It’s no more tricksy than sourcework and I bet you all do that. I think part of the reason is that interpretations work always seems really daunting.

  • My Yr8s can’t cope with the vocabulary of Historian Y”.
  • “My Yr10 find it difficult enough knowing one time period but to do interpretations you need to know two, the one the extract is about and the second about the time it was written”.

These are all valid concerns and echo some of my own fears about teaching interpretations over the years. But this doesn’t need to be the case.


There are a lot of interpretations out there – choose the most appropriate

There are a plethora of historical interpretations you can use in the classroom. Some are far easier than others. Here is a simple list I made:

No one is expecting you jump in the deep end by giving your Year 7 class a postgraduate paper. That would be nuts. But Year 7 can easily access a film trailer (always a winner to analyse as they are so opinionated one way or another) or an illustration from a children’s book. These can then be a gateway to more difficult interpretations – build up their confidence bit by bit. Equally Yr13 probably want the challenge of a more academic text as they can really get their teeth into it – mind you they’d love a Ladybird book too.


So look at this list and then work out how you are going to build up your students interpretation work through the years. You might start with a film trailer in Year 7, build to a Ladybird book account in Year 8 before looking at something like Schama in Year 10 before reading an academic blog together in Year 12.

So in short – don’t be intimidated by interpretations. Just pick carefully and plan ahead.


Thinking about interpretations is hard

Thinking about interpretations can be really difficult. But it doesn’t have to be. Admittedly trying to work out why a historian wrote about the Tudors in a particular way given the context of the time he or she was writing or his or her political ideology is hard. But don’t jump in at this end. At its simplest just giving kids interpretations and getting them to distil it is equally valid and part of the process.

Below is a suggested hierarchy of thinking. This is entirely based on my experience in the classroom and represents what how my students think and what they find difficult – your experience might well be different. I am not trying to say one is better than the other but just that as you go up this pyramid you are asking students to think of more and more complex concepts.

The first stage in any thinking about interpretations needs to be getting the kids to think about what is being argued in the interpretation – distilling the beast into a line or two. They need the gist of the message. Is it positive, is it negative is a good starting place. Nearly all students can do this. It doesn’t require vast amounts of knowledge and is achievable. We could and should be building this type of thinking into a lot of our lessons.

Once they have the gist they can then properly start analysing it. The easiest way to do this is through contextual evidence. For example if Historian X is arguing that one cause is more important than others, what evidence do you have that this is a convincing or a limited argument. This is exactly what the new A-Level interpretation questions are asking students to do funnily enough.

But you can beyond this and this is where we can start getting students really thinking. Beyond these first two stages students can begin evaluating the interpretation – trying to explain why and how the historian has reached their particular argument. The easiest way to do this is by assessing the purpose first as this is a concept most students can understand quite easily. Is the historian trying to educate or entertain or both. Does this change your opinion of the interpretation?

Going beyond this students can then begin to evaluate the interpretation through the historians stylistic choices. Does the historian use a metaphor or a simile – why might they do this? My Year 10s love this at the moment using the skills from their English lessons in my history class.

Now we get to the top of the tree. Once you get through those first stages of thinking you get to the pinnacle. To really evaluate an interpretation we preferably want our students to think about the methodology that historian has used to reach that interpretation – this is hard. And finally we should encourage our students to also consider the context of the historian. Does the historian have a particular political sway or were they writing at the time of a specific event that might have influenced them?

As you can see this is a lot of thinking and part of the reason that some people have avoided interpretations (I think) is that they have jumped right to the top. This is hardcore. It is what we should aspire to but we won’t always achieve this. Instead isn’t it better that we embed these thinking skills from Year 7 to Year 13. Maybe introducing analysis through contextual evidence in Key Stage 3 before thinking about purpose and style at Key Stage 4 and then context at Key Stage 5. This makes it all far less daunting and also means that we can preparing our students by building up their thinking and resilience.


Further Reading

Alex Ford’s blog (as ever) is superb: