Key Concepts

Interpretation and history

Please note: these links were compiled in 2009. For a more recent resource, please see: What's the Wisdom on: Interpretations of the past. 

A selection of useful Teaching History Articles on 'Interpretations' and are highly recommended reading to those who would like to get to grips with this key concept:

1. Tony McAleavy : Using the Attainment Target in Key Stage 3: Interpretations of History. Teaching History 72
Tony McAleavey's seminal article: An individual's knowledge of history is dependent not only on the events of the past but also on the way such events are presented. These presentations of the past come in a variety of forms and an educated person should be able to reflect purposefully on their worth...

2. Andrew Wrenn: Emotional response or objective enquiry? Using shared stories and a sense of place in the study of interpretations for GCSE Teaching History 91
In this article, Andrew Wrenn explores some issues that teachers might consider when supporting 14 and 15 year olds in their study of war memorials as historical interpretations. Tony McAleavy has argued that ‘popular' and ‘personal' interpretations and representations are just as worthy of study at Key Stage 3 as ‘academic', ‘educational' or ‘fictional' interpretations.

3. Andrew Wrenn: Build it in, don't bolt it on: history's opportunity to support critical citizenship. Teaching History 96
Andrew Wrenn offers a wide range of practical examples of the way in which National Curriculum History (and the continuation of its principles at GCSE) supports citizenship education. He focuses chiefly upon Key Element 3, ‘Interpretations', but also Key Element 4 ‘Enquiry'. He illustrates history teachers' long-established concern for the weighing of modern intepretations, and gives plentiful examples of how history teachers teach careful analysis of the identities that any interpretation represents.

4. Andrew Wrenn: Substantial sculptures or sad little plaques? Making ‘interpretations' matter to Year 9. Teaching History 72
Andrew Wrenn builds upon current, popular and practical work on ‘interpretations of history' analysed in recent editions. Using the public's responses to the temporary exhibition on the slave trade housed at Bristol City Museum, he offers a range of fascinating practical activities for Year 9 pupils. Many of these could be carried out without visiting the slave trade exhibition in Bristol and some could be adapted to suit visits to other museum exhibitions of controversial events. Like Tony McAleavy in his seminal article on interpretations in 1993 (Teaching History 72), he emphasises the need for professional clarity about the purpose of ‘interpretations' work as well as the way in which it merges with other aspects of pupils' growing historical knowledge and understanding.

5. Reuben Moore: Using the Internet to teach about interpretations in Years 9 and 12. Teaching History 101
Reuben Moore argues that typical history work on evaluation of sources and on the deconstruction of interpretations is exactly what pupils need to draw upon when they are using the Internet. Pupils have been trained systematically in history lessons and they must now use and apply these understandings both in history lessons and in wider, ICT-based research on other matters. He offers a strong line of argument to help teachers to clarify history's distinctive contribution to Internet use and many practical, lively examples from his own practice to support it.

6. Andrew Wrenn: 'Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?' Teaching History 104
How can the Holocaust be represented? In this article, Andrew Wrenn takes as his example the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He helps teachers encourage pupils to get beneath the surface, and look analytically at the Museum itself as an interpretation of the Holocaust. Such an investigation provides pupils and their teachers with the tools to investigate sensitively a variety of other interpretations, from film to literature.

7. Alan McCully, Nigel Pilgrim: They took Ireland away from us and we've got to fight to get it back'. Using fictional characters to explore the relationship between historical interpretation and contemporary attitudes. Teaching History 114
Helping students to understand how and why people in the present interpret the past differently is a challenge. It is also vital if we are to develop an understanding of why the meanings we ascribe to the past are not fixed, but rather are subject to our own prejudices or goals. What about exploring the way that particular individuals are both shaped by - and shape - their interpretations of history? Indeed, can we begin to engage students in a process of deconstructing their very own interpretations?

8. Jane Card: Seeing double: how one period visualises another. Teaching History 117
When pupils study interpretations or representations of the past which are neither from their own period nor from the period being interpreted/represented, they are having to employ sophisticated knowledge and skill. Jane Card describes this as ‘double vision': the pupils must think about the period depicted (in this case the mid-Tudor period) and the period of the interpreter (in this case the early Victorian period and earlier 19th century influences upon it).

9. Peter Lee, Denis Shemilt: "I just wish we could go back in the past and find out what really happened": progression in understanding about historical accounts. Teaching History 117
In this article, Peter Lee and Denis Shemilt explore one aspect of their research, pupils' understanding of historical accounts, focusing in particular on pupil preconceptions and progression. Drawing on a wealth of empirical data, gathered over several years in many classrooms, the authors are able to propose a way of characterising what progression in pupils' understanding about historical accounts might look like. They are not advocating rigid, all-embracing models of progression; they are providing us with a much more finely tuned and sophisticated way of talking about and analysing pupil progression. Above all, Lee and Shemilt urge us to attend to the preconceptions that pupils bring into the classroom.

10. Geraint Brown, Andrew Wrenn: It's like they've gone up a year!' Gauging the impact of a history transition unit on teachers of primary and secondary. Teaching History 121
Year 7 history teachers frequently bemoan the lack of historical learning in the primary sector. Pupils may be well versed in suffixes and similes, but their study of history can be limited. This group of history teachers decided that things could be different. Not only did they bring enquiry methods into the primary school classroom, they also showed how such methods could enhance literacy, ICT and thinking skills at the same time. However, they left with a potential problem. If Year 5 pupils are capable of understanding why different historical interpretations have been created, in what ways can Year 8 be properly challenged?

11. Gary Howells: Interpretations and history teaching: why Ronald Hutton's Debates in Stuart History matters. Teaching History 121
Gary Howells offers us a challenge: are we sure that we are teaching the study of interpretations correctly? It is much criticised at GCSE, but do we really engage our students in the process of writing history, and in understanding how history works, from 11-14? Or do we use reductive techniques which, as at GCSE, result only in our students jumping through hoops? Using Ronald Hutton's Debates in Stuart History as a starting point, Howells offers a theoretical solution, and some practical examples to back up his ideas about how and why our students should be taught to think about interpretations, and how their thinking about this key element should progress over time.

12. Steven Mastin, Pieter Wallace: Why don't the Chinese play cricket? Rethinking progression in historical interpretations through the British Empire. Teaching History 122
Let's stop saying sorry for the Empire! Thus Mastin and Wallace introduce one of their lessons on interpretations of the British Empire. They develop Gary Howells's ideas from the previous edition of Teaching History to demonstrate exactly what we might get our students to do with interpretations of the past. They produce an enquiry which effectively builds up their students' knowledge of the multiple periods which they need to have in mind at once when writing on historical interpretations.

13. Kate Hammond: Teaching Year 9 about historical theories and methods. Teaching History 128
Kate Hammond sets out a rationale for linking the National Curriculum requirement to study interpretations of history with her pupils' own evidence handling skills. She makes connections with history-teacher-led debates and innovations in both areas, but particularly the work of Howells (2005). She describes and evaluates a learning sequence that introduced Year 9 pupils to two contrasting types of historian: the cliometrician and the microhistorian. Her learning activities enabled pupils to understand and develop their own increasingly informed views on these historians' theories and methods.

14. Katie Hall: The Holy Grail? GCSE History that actually enhances historical understanding! Teaching History 131
Katie Hall assesses her department's experience on the Pilot. She argues that the OCR solution has successfully addressed a remarkably wide range of teacher concerns, including those associated both with historical rigour and with inclusion. She urges history teachers to investigate further and to play their part in continuing to influence constructive solutions.

15. Emma Norcliffe: Triumphs Show. Teaching History 116
Helping pupils to understand sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland is not easy. For pupils to comprehend the origins and complexities of ‘the Troubles' they need a big picture. That big picture could be viewed as the interaction of three concepts: time, place and identity. If pupils can at least glimpse this, they will have a framework for making sense of the delicate intricacies that define the Troubles. Time, place and identity form a strong, inter-related trinity.

You could also have a look at every Polychronicon from Teaching History 112 onwards. Polychronicon in Teaching History is a regular feature helping school history teachers to update their subject knowledge, with special emphasis on recent historiography and changing interpretation.

You might also have a look at: the resources on interpretation produced by Dave Martin in our A Guide to the New Key Stage 3 programme; see Key Concepts: Interpretation