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Interpretations of History


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#1 Ed Podesta

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Posted 25 November 2005 - 12:47 PM

I’m researching the impact on the teaching and learning in my year 13 class of my ideas about what “historical interpretations” means.

I’ve got an idea that what I think interpretations means differs greatly from what my students think it means (if they think about it at all!).

I also have an idea that my professional peers have individual conceptions of that term and that I’d learn a lot from you, if you’d be kind enough to share your views with me.

Could you spare a couple of minutes to offer some thoughts on some or all of the following? I’d be forever grateful. I will be using your answers as the basis of some analysis for my PGDip in Teaching and Learning History. I may quote from what you say, but will obviously not reveal identities.

You can reply to this post if you wish, or email me any answers directly at

Edwardpodesta*googlemail.com (put an @ instead of the * to email me)

Thank you very much for your time in reading this post.

Ed Podesta

www.podesta.org.uk
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What questions do you ask of interpretations?

What are the problems or pitfalls that students seem to have when thinking about interpretations?

Why do we study interpretations?

What types of interpretations do you study with your students? Why do you use those types of interpretation?

Is it important to study different types of interpretations? Why?

How does the study of interpretations change through KS3 to KS5?

How can we secure progression in the study of ‘interpretations’?

If a student asked you “what do you mean by ‘interpretations’”?, what would your reply be?

Edited by Ed Podesta, 25 November 2005 - 07:35 PM.

"In the past, philosophers have sought only to understand the world. The point is also to change it." - K. Marx
"Classification is exceedingly tedious" - I. Berlin

 

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#2 Ed Podesta

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Posted 01 December 2005 - 06:40 AM

*Bump*

Any takers?!

:flowers: :help:

"In the past, philosophers have sought only to understand the world. The point is also to change it." - K. Marx
"Classification is exceedingly tedious" - I. Berlin

 

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#3 Ed Podesta

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Posted 08 December 2005 - 01:55 PM

*Bump*

Any takers?!

:flowers: :help:


*final bump* (promise!)

Has anyone had time to collect a few thoughts about interpretations? It would help my diploma studies enormously.

thanks

Ed.

"In the past, philosophers have sought only to understand the world. The point is also to change it." - K. Marx
"Classification is exceedingly tedious" - I. Berlin

 

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#4 Dan Lyndon

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Posted 08 December 2005 - 05:12 PM

Ok I'll try to kick off something, but it won't be too well thought out or very long:

I have been doing some work on the National Curriculum levels and really had to think hard about the higher levels for Interpretation. I basically came to the conclusion that (apart from this being by far the hardest skill that we teach), that upto levels 5 & 6 students need to understand that there are different interpretations of people/events and can give examples to show how these interpretations and analyse why they are different ie a source written by General Haig's batman is going to be a different interpretation from a soldier going over the top. That doesn't pose too much difficulty for most students. However to get higher than level 6 you have to know about the context that the author of the source is operating within, and if the source is from a historian then the students need to have knowledge of historiography ie whether the historian has taken a particular stance in interpretating an event/person. This requires not only knowledge of the period but also knowledge of the period/context in which the historian comes from. This is far above what most students know and as far as I can remember I wasn't doing this until degree level. I guess that is why I don't spend much time looking at / assessing Interpretations.

Have you read the seminar on Interpretations? http://www.schoolhis...?showtopic=2169

Edited by Dan Lyndon, 08 December 2005 - 05:14 PM.

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#5 Ed Podesta

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Posted 08 December 2005 - 05:57 PM

Have you read the seminar on Interpretations? http://www.schoolhis...?showtopic=2169


Dan, that's fantastic, thank you very much!

I haven't read the seminar, but now I will. Thanks again for your thoughts.

Ed. :flowers:

"In the past, philosophers have sought only to understand the world. The point is also to change it." - K. Marx
"Classification is exceedingly tedious" - I. Berlin

 

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#6 DaveStacey

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Posted 08 December 2005 - 10:47 PM

I've previously PMed this to Ed, as I wasn't too sure about posting it here, but in the hope it generates some more replies, here's my two pennies worth!

Hi Ed.

As an NQT this is still something I'm getting my head round, but for what they're worth, here are my responses to the questions you posed...

What questions do you ask of interpretations?
Try to start off with what is different about these two ideas of a topic, and move onto why they might be different. At KS3 I'm looking for ideas including a one-sided author, having access to different information, written at a different time, maybe writen for a different purpose. At KS4 I'm looking for all of that, tied to ideas about PESCR and a greater understanding of the interpretations in their historical context.

What are the problems or pitfalls that students seem to have when thinking about interpretations?
Basically it boils down to shades of grey. Many pupils want hard and fast rules (Primary source good, secondary source bad) or fall back on everything being biased without really understanding the concept or the context. This is still true at GCSE and may be becuase we don't spend enough time with it at KS3.
The biggest problem my Year 11's have found with their recent interpretations coursework has simply been getting their heads around the difference between an interpretation and a source!


Why do we study interpretations?
Now there's a question I've asked myself a few times recently!
Because without it we can't hope to have the kids making sound historical judgements. Because it helps them understand how the world around them has been, and still is, presented in a variety of sometimes contradictory was, and some ways of dealing with that.

What types of interpretations do you study with your students? Why do you use those types of interpretation?
As this is my first term, the short answer is not many! Coming up I know there is some work on King John, we may or may not do something about Cromwell, and one of the year 9 Key Assessments I think will be on Interpretations of Haig. Out year 11's have just been dragged kicking and screaming through a coursework on Interpretations of why men from Wales went to fight in the Spanish Civil War. If anything that has shown me firstly how difficult pupils find this, and secondly how we may need to try and develop this more at KS3

Is it important to study different types of interpretations? Why?
Not quite sure what you mean by this. But I certainly think we need to look at different interpretations of historical events and people repeatedly through KS3, and so I guess some of those will cover different types of interpretation.

How does the study of interpretations change through KS3 to KS5?
Theoretically I would have said based around moving pupils along an agreed model of progression in interpretations. Start off with the 'what is different', move onto the 'why', and then with increasing levels of contextual understanding. I don't think I've been teaching long enough to comment on whether that happens, or how effective it is.

How can we secure progression in the study of ‘interpretations’?

By making sure we do it, even if the kids find it difficult. By coming back to it throughout the years, and making clear links back to whatever was the last time interpretations was studied. And by providing fairly sophisticated differentiaion (even within set or banded classes) that provides pupils to a route that is appropriate to their level of understanding.

If a student asked you “what do you mean by ‘interpretations’”?, what would your reply be?
Different people can have different ideas about what happened or why it happened. It may be that they've looked at different evidence, or they're coming at it from a particular point of view. The different verions are 'interpretations'.
Sometimes I use the footballing analogy, but I'm starting to think it actually confuses the pupils more, so I'm trying to come up with a better one!

#7 Ed Podesta

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Posted 09 December 2005 - 06:30 AM

THANKS Dan and Dave - very grateful! :)

"In the past, philosophers have sought only to understand the world. The point is also to change it." - K. Marx
"Classification is exceedingly tedious" - I. Berlin

 

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#8 alison denton

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Posted 09 December 2005 - 08:47 PM

all pretty much what I'd agree with so far.

Just some extra thoughts:

the assessment objectives for History separate 'sources' from 'interpretations' within the same AO- so presumably they are a bit different from each other.
Perhaps there is a difference between someone commenting on what is going on around them (a contemporary telling you what they see, or offering an opinion on what is going on in their life) and someone giving an opinion with some reflection on history. The former is an 'ordinary source' and the latter is an 'interpretation'. Interestingly, though, depending on what definition of 'an interpretation' you accept, some interpretations are sources, but not all (see later!), and some sources are interpretations, but not all.

With an interpretation, you could argue there has to be an element of reflection and deliberateness, of the deliberate creation of a version of history (you don't get this with most contemporary sources) or what you are dealing with is simply another 'source' - no different from any other. This has led some people to claim that interpretations can only be the work of historians, with the consequent stultification of interpretations assessment at examination level for some time, and the downplaying of the importance of discussing the view presented in comparison to other possible views in favour of discussing how the view was reached.

Clearly it is not true that only historians create interpretations- some near-contemporaries do create interpretations as previously defined for a variety of reasons and audiences (the Earl of Clarendon on Cromwell for instance), but the key thing is that they are conscious and deliberate creations of a version of history, not just a passing comment on what is going on around them. (This is where you argue over the definition of an historian!)
Thus the key elements to investigate when judging an interpretation as defined are the intended audience, purpose of the author and range of evidence available to them on which to base their judgement (which might well mean discussing the date at which the interpretation was formed)

However - in the broader sense EVERYTHING in history could be called an interpretation. Not only are there the opinions of near-contemporaries and historians as described above, but also 'popular myth' eg. Chamberlain was weak at Munich, Churchill saved Britain in 1940, King John was evil etc. These are also interpretations in the loose sense, and demand a discussion of the validity of the view presented when compared to other evidence that is known, rather than judging validity by provenance

The problem comes when examining this concept called 'interpretations' - if you accept the broad definition, that an interpretation is nothing more than an opinion about the past, then any history essay with a premise to be discussed is an 'interpretations' assessment. In essence, all history is interpretations, and the candidate needs to discuss the validity of the interpretation presented compared with other knowledge the candidate has (and this is generally the sort of interpretations work undertaken in Y7-Y9)
However, if you accept the narrower definition, that interpretations are deliberately created versions of the past by those who are reflecting on it rather than experiencing it, then the assessment requires the candidate to both compare the validity of the interpretation presented with other knowledge the candidate has, and speculate on why and how that particular view was reached using any attribution they have (generally GCSE-A level). An added difficulty is that if faced with an historian's view, candidates can speculate about how the opinion was reached because they can surmise the research methods of an historian and make some educated guesses about what evidence the historian may have seen, but cannot really, in any meaningful way, speculate about why that particular historian came to his/her view as they will never have heard of them, have no idea of their background or probably of the time in which the historian was writing (as opposed to the time that the event they speak of took place). Conversely, if faced with an interpretation by a near-contemporary, candidates can speculate about why he/she came to the view, but probably not about how (who knows what evidence range they were using?)
So

is all history really interpretations?

is there any difference between 'sources' and 'interpretations'?

answers on a postcard .......

#9 Roy Huggins

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Posted 10 December 2005 - 09:33 AM

I was on a course in Birmingham put on by AQA for marking the Personal Study at A2. In order to get a good AO2 on historical interpretations , a student has got t0 do more than just describe the different interpretations surrounding the issue, they have to place them within their historical horrizon or content and then assess their reliability.

For example, there are numerous interpretations of the Treaty of Vienna, 1815. It could be argued that it kept the peace for 100 years. Historians writing just after the FWW have ripped it to pieces and blame it for causing the nationalism which sparked the war. Historians writing after the SWW have reassessed the Treaty of Vienna, 1815 in the light of the failure of the Treaty of Vesallies, 1919. Revisionist historians in recent years have taken a more balanced view.

Obviously, the student needs to quote a few names, books and one or two lines to back up their assessment and going more detail tha my few brief notes, but its hard!

I hope I haven't repeated the obvious.

Kind Regards

Roy
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#10 JohnDClare

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Posted 10 December 2005 - 11:26 AM

Is all history really interpretations?

is there any difference between 'sources' and 'interpretations'?

answers on a postcard .......

This was a brilliant post, Alison, very thought-provoking as well as insightful.

For years I've banged on about this, that a 'source' is not an 'intrepretation', although - as you so brilliantly draw out - they do overlap.

As I see it:

A 'Source' is just what the word properly means - an origin. It is one of the original (primary) pieces of information which inform us about what was happening at the time. Of course it comprises opinions as well as facts, but it is essentially a building brick, which historians/commentators/interpreters later use to build their constructs. The work you do on sources is therefore, about reliability, usefullness, relevance.

To 'Interpret' is also as its name implies - to expound, to make intelligible, to represent the meaning of. It MUST for me be a comment upon events. Now, of course, sometimes people are beginning to comment upon events VERY close to the time - for instance, newspapers interpret the events of their time almost immediately they are happening. Also, as Alison so succinctly pointed out, people's interpretations are based at least as much on where they are coming from themselves as they are on what was actually happening upon which they are commenting. Interpretations therefore also change through time, as the degree of hindsight and our own personal situation changes. I have made some attempts to supply the facts about the changing interpretations of different events on my website (e.g. Causes of WWI, Versailles, Cold War, Hitler, Haig).
Thus historians can do two things with interpretations:
a. they can JUDGE the truth of the interpretation. Was the commentator right in his interpretation? This, for me, is where history is GREAT, because it is always therefore a huge argument.
b. you can USE them as a bank of ideas/ foils to build your own personal interpretations.

There are clearly, of course, going to be some things that you can use in BOTH ways. You could use, say, the British Gazette comments on the General Strike, firstly as a SOURCE, to find out what was happening and their results and impact at the time, but also as an INTERPRETATION, which you can ask the pupils to challenge. The debate about whether something is a source OR an interpretation is therefore utterly sterile. What makes something a 'source' or an 'interpretation' is not the object of your attention per se, but WHAT YOU AS AN HISTORIAN ARE DOING WITH IT.


My continual beefs are:
1. teachers and especially examiners are just not clear enough about what is going on here. Examiners, in particular, continually get the two processes muddled up.
2. the result is that - where imho REAL History is about interpretation, and what do YOU think is going on, and have you any prescient comments on these events, and what insight has this given you into living your own life - 'imterpretation' in so many texbooks and exams has deteriorated erroneously into an endless series of comments about accuracy and utility, origin, context and motive. It is equivalent to judging aTurner masterpiece, not on the impact of the painting, but on the brushwork in the top left corner and the chemical consitutents of the oils. Thus the discipline is demeaned and real creativity is restricted.

Edited by JohnDClare, 10 December 2005 - 11:38 AM.


#11 A Finemess

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Posted 10 December 2005 - 12:07 PM

The marking criteria for SQA Higher Grade indicate that an awareness of alternative interpretations / viewpoints is one of the discriminators for top grades. This is not however an opportunity for regurgitation of historiographical information although (confusingly!) this may be part of the process. Interpretations as far as I am concerned means simply what conclusions the historian draws from the evidence.
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#12 JohnDClare

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Posted 10 December 2005 - 12:37 PM

The marking criteria for SQA Higher Grade indicate that an awareness of alternative interpretations / viewpoints is one of the discriminators for top grades. This is not however an opportunity for regurgitation of historiographical information although (confusingly!) this may be part of the process.

Precisely, though I would want to clarify that what I am wanting goes beyond mere 'regurgitation of historiographical information'.

Interpretations as far as I am concerned means simply what conclusions the historian draws from the evidence.

I would want to suggest that there is a difference between asking a pupil to present THEIR interpretation, and judging historianS' interpretations of the past. 'Interpretations' surely properly involves consideration of what other people have said as well???


Interestingly, this quarter's Teaching History has just this moment dropped through my letter box, and it includes an article by aGary Howells - a Head of Sixth Form - about Interpretations. Although the article proceeds to details and exemplars, it starts off with a few general comments which essentially support what I have always argued:
- that at KS3 we do teach interpretations - albeit to a simplistic/simplified standard - in an adequate way: Was King John a bad king?/ What think you of Oliver Cromwell?
- but that by GCSE:
'for GCSE students evaluating an interpretation well involves working out why someone said what they said. Based on a couple of sentences and a brief note about the author the enterprising student must attempt an interpretation. So a German historian writing during Hitler's time was undoubtedly a Nazi as well as subjected to extreme censorship and will undoubtedly make Hitler's economic policy sound successful. '
I think my argument would be that I absolutely agree with this assessment of 'interpretations' at GCSE, but also that I would want 'interpretations' to mean much much more.

Is Gary Howells a member of the forum?
Does anybody know him.
Perhaps a contribution from him would be more eligible?

Edited by JohnDClare, 10 December 2005 - 12:39 PM.


#13 DaveStacey

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Posted 10 December 2005 - 02:23 PM

My continual beefs are:
1. teachers and especially examiners are just not clear enough about what is going on here. Examiners, in particular, continually get the two processes muddled up.
2. the result is that - where imho REAL History is about interpretation, and what do YOU think is going on, and have you any prescient comments on these events, and what insight has this given you into living your own life - 'imterpretation' in so many texbooks and exams has deteriorated erroneously into an endless series of comments about accuracy and utility, origin, context and motive. It is equivalent to judging aTurner masterpiece, not on the impact of the painting, but on the brushwork in the top left corner and the chemical consitutents of the oils. Thus the discipline is demeaned and real creativity is restricted.


A fascinating post John. I must confess that I've really struggled to get my head around not just the concept of interpretations (which I thought I had sussed before I started teaching), but specifically what the WJEC take to mean by interpretations.

At my school, the two pieces of GCSE coursework, which follow one straight after the other are about evaluation of sources (coursework piece 1) and interpretations (number 2). I have found very very difficult to get the pupils to understand the differences, especially when the processes are actually very similar. This is partly because (due to time constraints) we really don't have very long to teach the background, which might give the pupils some of the contextual understanding, and partly because I seem to be trying to teach them some complex mathematical formula for interpretations, which as John says, simply doesn't work.

I've also just gone back and read the Seminar that Dan linked to earlier. I'm now in the strange position of having some better ideas about how to teach interpretation at the same time as the sinking feeling I probably understand it less that I did when I woke up this morning!

Assuming everyone here has student produce a piece of GCSE coursework assessing interpretation, can I ask what it is, and if they have any tips for teaching it? Ours is a based around a quote from a resolution passed by the British Battalion of the International Brigade, with pupils being asked to assess the validity of this (political) interpretation of the reasons 174 welshmen went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

#14 alison denton

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Posted 10 December 2005 - 06:01 PM

A fascinating post John. I must confess that I've really struggled to get my head around not just the concept of interpretations (which I thought I had sussed before I started teaching), but specifically what the WJEC take to mean by interpretations.

At my school, the two pieces of GCSE coursework, which follow one straight after the other are about evaluation of sources (coursework piece 1) and interpretations (number 2). I have found very very difficult to get the pupils to understand the differences, especially when the processes are actually very similar. This is partly because (due to time constraints) we really don't have very long to teach the background, which might give the pupils some of the contextual understanding, and partly because I seem to be trying to teach them some complex mathematical formula for interpretations, which as John says, simply doesn't work.

I've also just gone back and read the Seminar that Dan linked to earlier. I'm now in the strange position of having some better ideas about how to teach interpretation at the same time as the sinking feeling I probably understand it less that I did when I woke up this morning!

Assuming everyone here has student produce a piece of GCSE coursework assessing interpretation, can I ask what it is, and if they have any tips for teaching it? Ours is a based around a quote from a resolution passed by the British Battalion of the International Brigade, with pupils being asked to assess the validity of this (political) interpretation of the reasons 174 welshmen went to fight in the Spanish Civil War.



We also do WJEC. To be honest I think WJEC has had more debate about how to examine interpretations than many of the other boards, especially at A-level where the nature of the questions on HI2 have changed to include not just historians but near-contemporaries as well.

There is undoubtedly a problem with the interpretations coursework at GCSE though:

Interpretations can be many things (see my post and John's above). What can we ask students to do with interpretations?
a) create their own interpretations from a range of evidence
B) create counter-interpretations from a range of evidence

at this stage they will realise there can be more than one valid interpretation of a given event. This is what the GCSE interpretations coursework demands, in essence, because they are given a range of conflicting evidence

c) explain how and why interpretations have been arrived at

this is a higher order of thinking and analysis and is what gets higher levels of marks at GCSE. The problem is that candidates in the coursework are presented with a range of sources, some of which agree with each other and support a given interpretation, the rest present counter-interpretations. There is a multitude of attributions. At this point, in order to explain how/ why the interpretations have come about what does the candidate do?
They can either pick a couple of sources from each side and evaluate them using COP (as you would for any 'ordinary' source - no difference) or they can ignore the attributions altogether and just explain generally why one particular interpretation was popular at one time, but changed subsequently and a counter-interpretation became more popular (eg. we do Kennedy: good guy/ bad guy - explain why Kennedy was seen as a hero in the 1960s but his historical reputation suffered from 1970s onwards).
Either of these things can be done - and are historically fine - without tying the interpretation under discussion down to one particular creator - historian or near contemporary. Unfortunately, the GCSE exam Section A question d and AS level Unit 2 do precisely this latter thing!

effectively - we are calling all these assessment questions 'interpretations' - and they ARE - but they are all different types of interpretations for which students use slightly different techniques to answer. Very confusing for the candidates I would think!

I have long said that we need a real debate about what we really mean by interpretations, and how best to examine it, without degenerating into the sort of mechanical tick-box response that John has described. He is SO RIGHT - it is a discussion of the HISTORY that is important: I am disturbed by the over-emphasis on explaining how views are arrived at (which in many cases is no better than conjecture and intelligent speculation anyway) at the expense of getting right in there with the historical debate.

For anyone who has archives that old, Alan Kelly wrote a superb article for the 'Welsh Historian' ages ago - 8 years?????? - called 'History, not historians' making precisely this point.

#15 Roy Huggins

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Posted 10 December 2005 - 10:45 PM

Surely on the issue of interpreation at A2, what matters is getting the kids to pass their exams?

In other words, give the examiners what they want?

I know it sounds terrible, but don't kids like getting good results?

Have I sold my soul?

Roy

Edited by rhuggins, 10 December 2005 - 11:23 PM.

"Men are disturbed, not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen." - Epictetus




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