We can’t possibly allow this! by @Dai_James1942

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‘We can’t possibly allow this’

During the 1980s I began to teach ‘Interpretations of History’. The essence of ‘Interpretations’ is comparison. ‘Look! Here X says that Witte was one of the great constructive statesmen in history, and here Y says he was a lackey of the Czarist tyranny’. I built this thought into my Special GCSE History Scheme GCSE(TM). It worked nicely for a couple of years but in 1988 it was deemed unacceptable by a Thatcherite Star Chamber, whose chairman sent me packing with ‘We can’t possibly allow this!’ I left the state system and went on with my methods in a prep school.

I was quite surprised to see ‘Interpretations of History’ forming a feature of the National Curriculum. I knew how difficult I had found it to make it work in my GCSE course and wondered how anyone else would manage in years 7-9. A key question was the ability to read text, which is obviously fundamental in acquiring ‘knowledge of the multiple periods which they need to have in mind at once when writing on historical interpretations’[1]. The ‘readability’ of text was a concept I had encountered in the 1970s by proxy, via my wife’s Open University degree in Reading Development. I was a fan of the Havering Index of Readability, less well known these days than the Flesch index, which is included as an integral feature of Microsoft Word. All such measures of readability lead to the same broad conclusion: sentences must be shortened and words simplified to bring meaning to the widest possible audience. Wise men in the popular newspaper industry know this, and confine their articles to a level appropriate to someone with a reading age of 9 or less. How could teachers expect pupils to comprehend secondary sources written by adults for other educated adults, at a high conceptual level and pitched at Reading Age 15+? And since the essence of Interpretations is comparison, how would children be able to ‘have in mind at once’ two or more texts at Reading Age 15+? In 1967-70 my Y8 pupils in Bilborough Grammar School showed the ability do this; but when I moved to a comprehensive in 1970 I discovered, painfully, that the children in the lower 80% of the ability range can’t do it. Safe in my prep school in the 1990s I amused myself by offering a mini-egg to a mixed ability Y6 class for an end of term challenge, to find the same fact, any fact, in any two books. In a lesson lasting more than an hour, not even the cleverest of them succeeded. There were many hundreds of books in my history room, including five multi volume encyclopaedias such as Chambers and Britannica, and several single volume ones, as well as many school text books, but the readability and reference skills required to compare what they said were beyond them, and I was able to eat the egg myself.

I had already made my escape to a prep school, thus avoiding the National Curriculum, the official GCSE syllabuses and the anglocentric KS3 curriculum with its unfeasible assessment scheme. I did not think that anyone would be able to get ordinary children to cope with ‘Interpretations of History’ using ‘real books’. I wrote an Article ‘“Real Books” and “Interpretations of History” in the National curriculum’, in a national history teaching publication, saying this. An article saying that what the government requires everyone to do is actually impossible is hardly likely to be welcome, and mine was received in silence. Shortly afterwards a piece appeared by Tony McAleavy saying that, on the contrary, ‘Interpretations’ was a great step forward in History teaching and perfectly feasible.

Mr Mcaleavy played a bad hand fairly well, in trying to explain how the various ‘Targets’, ‘Levels’ and ‘Strands’ should be ‘woven together’ in teaching ‘Interpretations’ successfully. In his opening paragraph he gives two versions of the Chartist incident in Newport in 1839 (which he describes as ‘so many different ways’ of representing it). The word ‘readability’ does not appear in the article, nor does confirmation bias, perhaps the most intractable problem in relation to Interpretations. It was possible, he said, to assess ‘Interpretations’ using the ‘Ten Level’ criterion assessment scheme, but he did not go into detail. Level 2 (for the infants in KS1) required them to see ‘differences between adults’ accounts’, when my Y6 pupils could not even find the same thing in two adults’ accounts! The Level Descriptions were full of vague, subjective and emotive terms, quite unlike the way they would have been written by anyone seriously intending to pick out discrete features of performance, as criterion referenced marking requires. I knew how they should have been written, as my banned GCSE had incorporated a successful criterion referenced scheme.

McAleavy’s article is widely quoted with approval, although the commentators pass over in eloquent silence the details of the 10-Level scheme, which is now an object of ridicule[2]. Since then several other articles have appeared, for example Kate Hammond, Jane Card and Gary Howells, but not one of them mentions readability, let alone confirmation bias, distortion by selection, positive and negative framing or any of the other obstacles to truth which David Didau[3] is well known for enumerating. Mesmerised by the shibboleths that all documents (and all historical debates) must be ‘real’ a spectacular effort in an Israeli school by Edna Shoham & Neomi Shiloah put before the children several genuine texts from the early history of Jewish settlement in Palestine in the late nineteenth century. They contained the following:

  • ‘…Baron Edmund de Rothschild, … ‘the well-known philanthropist’
  • ‘an inflated bureaucracy…’
  • ‘The Baron’s patronage included all the means of production and livelihood of the villagers’
  • ‘The centralization, creat(ed) a hierarchy of officials, enable(ing) the Baron to delegate authority and set up an extensive network of functions…’
  • ‘The bureaucratic regime as an institution developed gradually’.

These concepts, and the language in which they are embedded, are well beyond most of Y9. To put this another way, the future NEETs can’t do it.

Another notable effort, this time specifically targeting Y9, is by Kate Hammond (Teaching History 128 2007). She speaks of extracts from ‘Time on the Cross’ and ‘extracts from Douglass’ autobiography’ but neither is quoted, so the readability level of the ‘extracts’ can’t be estimated. The piece is interesting, contrasting powerful single accounts with across-the-board statistics, and would make an excellent dialogue (see below).

This brings me to my main proposition, which is that all the advantages of these kinds of activity, plus a whole lot more, can be achieved with minimal fuss if one abandons the “shibboleth that all documents must be ‘real’”. I remember attending an INSET[4] in the 1960s when a speaker reported success with using made up documents instead of genuine ones. Reflecting on the negative experience involving readability which I had encountered in the Midlands comprehensive in 1970, I remembered the man with his made-up documents, and decided that I would write my own secondary texts. These would illustrate the ways in which real texts vary, but in a more readable form. I would write the answer I wanted to get to, (as simply as I could) and then ‘retro-compose’ the two ‘Versions’ (as I shall now refer to them) using the ‘answer’ as the basis. Underlying any differences between the ‘Versions’ there would be therefore similarity of order, depth, grammar, vocabulary and syntax. To make the differences between the Versions glaringly obvious, I would direct the children to read them to each other in pairs, line by line. It worked.

I told them a little white lie to help things along. “You will know when something is true” I said, “when both Versions say the same”.[5]

What should go in these texts? I have come to routinely include eight types of difference in my dialogues as a matter of routine: here they are

  1. Differences of fact which cannot be resolved. I write into the Versions differences which I have found in ‘real books’: in a piece on Sarajevo I might say in one Version that there were six, and in the other that there were seven conspirators hidden in Sarajevo waiting for the Archduke. Not hard to spot, this one: “As Francis Ferdinand approached Sarajevo, six enemies lay in wait for him as against “As Francis Ferdinand approached Sarajevo, seven enemies lay in wait for him.” They can read it, and they can understand it and they can see the difference, but they are not yet in a position to know which Version is right. To convey the extent of this little victory to me, the users are taught to put a question mark in the space provided at the right hand side of the page[6]. Prowling round listening to the discussions, I can see from the question mark that the children saw the problem and recognised that they could not solve it. (I agree with Peter Abelard that ‘Doubt is the beginning of wisdom’) In the post mortem at the end of the lesson I reveal about the ‘real book’ origin of the contradiction and we discuss why ‘real History books’ should not be contradicting each other. We debate who is qualified to write books, and the checks that publishers carry out pre-publication. We agree that something is amiss when they contradict each other.
  2. Non-Semantic Differences: The initial reaction of most people when hearing of my work is to say ‘Ah! Spot the Mistakes’. It is more subtle than that, because not all the differences are errors. I might make one version say ‘After the First World War there was a meeting to discuss what to do with Germany’ and the other ‘After World War I a conference was held to decide what to do about Germany’. These two statements mean the same, and are therefore ‘right’. The children need (and must) make no comment or correction (sc in the space provided on the right). Two able children will float effortlessly past this, immediately able to say that a conference is a meeting for discussion. Two less able ones may have quite an argument because, since they have only the vaguest idea what a conference is, they do not know if a conference is ‘a meeting’ or not. If they don’t know, the question mark on the side will show me, either at once as I prowl, or later when I mark, that there is an issue which needs my intervention, because for their exam they will certainly need to know that a conference is a meeting for discussion. In a class discussion I may stumble upon a misapprehension of this kind, but with all these pairs of children discussing and recording, I find out far more about the children’s understanding (and lack of it) than is generally possible[7]. Such’non-semantic differences’ make the children maintain concentration at every instant of the work with the Versions, because of having to decide whether differences are of meaning or simply in words. Nessun Dorma[8]. On the other hand, every mini-discussion ‘drains the cognitive batteries’ of a child, and too great a cognitive dissonance will hasten the moment when the children’s limit (the ‘concentration span’) is reached. A skilled professional teacher will make enormous efforts to control the amount of cognitive dissonance involved in each successive mini-discussion, and be forever re-editing his texts to get them exactly right. I am promised a conversation with some American mathematicians to get the cognitive dissonances in my ‘Pythagoras’ dialogue right.[9]
  3. Differences of fact which refer back to previous work: I might begin a pair of texts like this: ‘After the Russian Revolution Lenin ruled Russia’ against ‘After the Russian Revolution Czar Nicholas ruled Russia’ – If this were their first acquaintance with the topic there would be no way of knowing, but since if it would come after a unit on the events of 1917 you would expect them to know that it was Lenin. A series of such items, dotted throughout the unit, amounts to a revision test on the previous work. As Figure 1 (below) is the ‘Recall Test’ hidden inside my A Level dialogue on Lenin as Ruler of Russia. One can play about with these questions, for example in Dialogue 2 on the causes of 1905 the two versions say


  • The Russian governor of Finland was killed in 1898, and between 1901 and 1904 no less than three Education ministers were assassinated. Such political violence had never been seen in Russia before.
  • The Russian governor of Finland was killed in 1898, and between 1901 and 1904 no less than three Education ministers were assassinated. Such political violence had of course been common throughout the previous reign.

They are required here to remember that although there had been a lot of political violence by the SRs, including the assassination of Alexander II, it had tended to die away in the latter part of Alexander III’s reign. Violence was therefore neither unprecedented nor a constant feature of Russian history. Neither version is correct and a good response will say this. Here are the items bearing on recall which appeared in one dialogue:

  1. Bias: Dialogues are founded on the premise that every piece of historical writing is an interpretation. I did not need Sean Lang (Teaching History No 73 1993) to tell me that, as I had already been operating on that basis for fifteen years before his article appeared. Bias may be deliberate (in a ‘spin-doctored’ political tract), or the result of simple error (Lang gives a lovely example of Macaulay confusing two different William Penns); or simply our old friend Confirmation Bias at work. I say ‘old friend’ though, incredibly, none of the articles on ‘Interpretations’ in the Historical Association’s magazine ‘Teaching History’ between 1993 and the present mentions the phrase. In my Dialogues I settle on just two ‘biases’ because the essential is that these are ‘Simple Examples’. The example about Witte[10] is taken from my ZigZag dialogues; For my former colleagues at Tasker Milward VC Comprehensive I wrote an A Level piece on Henry VII’s foreign policy from English and French perspectives (which OFSTED, not apparently aware that ‘We can’t possibly allow this’ liked a lot!); when teaching at The Downs Prep School I had Hastings from Norman and Saxon point of view, Crusades from Christian and Muslim points of view, and the Hundred Years’ War from French and English points of view. At Dhirubhai Ambani in Mumbai I continued the same practice with IGCSE and IB students, dealing with 1857 (sepoy/British); Russia 1905 (Czar/Father Gapon); Rise of Stalin (Stalin/Trotsky) and so on[11]. I should make a special mention of my I Treaty of Versailles piece in which I offer Pro German and Wilsonian perspectives. All the children can see the pro-German side, (‘stab in the back’ etc) but even my brilliant young Indians were foxed by the Wilsonian perspective (‘all sides to blame for war’ etc). I concluded that political correctness had been drummed into them so effectively that it was invisible! To establish bias I use pairs of emotive words ‘just/wicked’, ‘stupid/wise’, ‘stern/cruel’ and so on. Here is an example from my Dialogue on Russia before the 1905 Revolution:
  • To deal with the severe problems facing Russia the Tsar needed to be a man of great understanding and ability, and he did his best.
  • To deal with the severe problems facing Russia Czar Nicholas needed to be a man of great understanding and ability, but sadly he was neither.

Here the Monarchist version is the first one. ‘Tsar’ is the more Russified transliteration representing the anti modernist stance of Nicholas, and ‘he did his best’ is the best you can say for him. ‘Czar’ with the resonance of ‘Caesar’ is more characteristic of the outward looking strand in the Russian governmental class, and so appropriate for a Witte-esque account such as this. It is regretful in tone rather than scathing: a Bolshevik account would have been much ruder than ‘sadly he was neither’. I might add that all my main[12] lessons deal with Interpretations AND Content, which enables me to do both things more effectively than would be the case if one had to turn aside from narrative to a lesson or group of lessons specially dedicated to ‘Interpretations’. Indeed I would suggest that set-piece lessons like Kate Hammond’s, or the one by Jane Card on the execution of Lady Jane Grey, though excellent in themselves, run a risk of creating an epistemological cordon sanitaire separating them from other lessons (in which things are true because Sir or Miss or the book says so).

  1. Factual contradictions otherwise incapable of being resolved about which tentative conclusions may be drawn based on the author’s perceived bias. In the an item on Bloody Sunday, 1905, the two versions said this:
  • On Jan. 22nd 1905, 150,000 people gathered … they were a sullen mob. The Tsar was not at home, and the Chief of Police ordered his soldiers to drive the rioters back with their swords: 96 of the protestors were killed and 300 wounded
  • On Jan. 22nd 1905, 150,000 people gathered … they were dignified and well organised. The Czar was not at home, and the Chief of Police panicked and ordered his soldiers to drive fire on the crowd: 4,000 of the protestors were killed and 333 wounded

Under normal circumstances the children are to assume that the evidential status of each version is equal: they quickly cotton on that there is no question of one version being ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. They will pick up ‘a sullen mob[13] and ‘dignified and well organised’. From the obvious anti-demonstrator bias of the first version I should expect the users to say: ‘This author likes the Czar so he is giving us a very small figure of the casualties from his policemen’s action; the other author is against the Czar, so he has given a very big figure to make it look as bad as possible. We need to do more work on this to work out where the truth is.’ As their first homework of the year for my IB class in Bombay, I set them to Google how many people were killed. They were dumbfounded by the result[14], producing a dozen or more variations, as well as many other contradictions, which set us up well for the rest of the year. Historians hooked.

  1. Significant suppression of information: Below this paragraph is the full version of the Bloody Sunday incident we just considered. In this fuller extract I have italicised ‘do just about the only thing they were legally allowed to do, which was’ in Version 2. It does not appear in Version 1 (I’ve put […] for your benefit). It would be somewhat damaging to the aims of the Czarist author of Version 1 to acknowledge the parlous state of civil liberties in Russia at the time, so he simply omits it. The same is true of the words ‘panicked and’ which are also italicised in Version 2 and do not appear in Version 1. The words ‘Their Little Father’ have been omitted from Version 2 because they suggest a kindly paternal stance by the Czar which sits uneasily with the picture which Version 2 is painting of the negligent head of a brutal system. We are in a special case of ‘bias’:
  • On Jan. 22nd 1905, 150,000 people gathered in front of the Tsar’s palace to […] present a petition to their ‘Little Father’ the Tsar, asking him to do something for them. They were a sullen mob. The Tsar was not at home, and the Chief of Police ordered his soldiers to drive the rioters back with their swords: 96 of the protestors were killed and 300 wounded
  • On Jan. 22nd 1905, 150,000 people gathered in front of the Czar’s palace to do just about the only thing they were legally allowed to do, which was present a petition to […] the Czar, asking him to do something for them. They were dignified and well organised. The Czar was not at home, and the Chief of Police panicked and ordered his soldiers to drive fire on the crowd: 4,000 of the protestors were killed and 333 wounded

In the list of Recall Items in Figure 1 above, the second item (“The Germans, (significant omission) / who had brought Lenin to Russia”) means that Version 1 omitted ‘who had brought Lenin to Russia’: and the pair, faced with Version 2’s additional ‘who had brought Lenin to Russia’ are expected both to supply from memory that that was indeed the case, and to see that the dangerous smear of being a German stooge has been predictably and significantly omitted from the Bolshevik version. They would be expected to add ‘who had bought &c’ to the margin of V2 and add ‘sig. omission’. The reading ability to identify ‘significant omissions’ between ‘raw’ texts is only to be expected of the most able learners, and by using this readability controlled method I have greatly increased the range of those who can see the trick[15]. The admission by Version 1 that 96 people were killed is very good evidence that AT LEAST that number were killed, one of the ‘rules of evidence’ being that a damaging admission conceded by a writer is strong evidence.

  1. Differences associated with a document, where a correct analysis of the evidential merits will enable the users to do better than guesswork. Associated with ‘a sullen mob’ and ‘dignified and well-organised’ the Versions each contained an illustration. Version 1 included the smudgy black and white photograph[16] showing a distant straggling line of protesters, faced by foot-soldiers with rifles, whereas Version 2 contains a stirring and highly imaginative drawing showing a ‘dignified and well organised’ protest watched over by cavalry and foot soldiers. Here they are:

This provides many opportunities to apply the standard evidence questions: who is telling me? Does he know what he’s talking about? Has he any reason to lie? One is a drawing and one is a photo. Each is consistent with the bias, but neither tells us about the number of casualties. I expect the users to say something like ‘Version 2 says the crowd was dignified and organised, but that is the idea the author is obviously trying to portray. Version 1 says ‘a sullen mob’ and the photograph is certainly closer to that than ‘dignified and well organised. Each picture corroborates the text in which it appears, but that does not add a great deal to our knowledge of the truth’. Hammond’s interesting work on the ante bellum south could be matched in my method by incorporating the following two sentences in a dialogue:

  • Version 1 – The life of slaves was varied: although some were ill-treated, many were housed fed and cared in circumstances which many Eastern Europeans at the same date would have envied, as Document 1 shows.
  • Version 2 – The life of slaves was terrible: they were starved and beaten and made to live in miserable overcrowded huts, as Document 1 shows.

Version I’s ‘Document 1’ would be appropriate material from ‘Time on the Cross’, and Version 2’s a particularly gruesome piece of Douglass. The discussions which Hammond generated would take place around the room in each pair. Their jottings on the side of the page would allow the prowling teacher an insight into their thoughts, which he would weave into his summing up at the end of the lesson. I should have taught the Ante-bellum south AND done interpretations, without fuss, at the same time.

  1. Last but not least is the feature of my work which the Chairman of my GCSE Star Chamber ‘couldn’t possibly allow’. This is the ‘Silly Facts’. Here is an example from the first of my IB dialogues:
  • The most important of these ‘Marxists’ was George Plekhanov, the son of a noble
  • The most important of these ‘Marxists’ was George Plekhanov, the son of a Smurf

You can be pretty sure that 17 year old pupils know what a Smurf is, and will instantly choose ‘noble’.[17] Here’s another, from a dialogue for seven year olds on the Tower of Babel

  • The people learned to build houses with bricks
  • The people learned to build houses with Lego

Even Year 3 had no trouble in rejecting ‘Lego’.

The Chairman of the Star Chamber was under instructions to cull as many special schemes as possible, so I don’t know whether he was really a humourless and unimaginative person, but what are the actual merits of this ploy? First of all it makes the children laugh. (Endorphins are not mentioned anywhere in the literature). A ripple of laughter does wonders for a lesson. The first one is precious, because it tells the rest of the class that there’s something to look forward to. I am always careful to include the same number of howlers of this type in each Version. It proves beyond doubt that neither of the Versions is ‘Right’, a feature which featured in feedback from my sister’s class of mental nursing assistant trainees. They had lumped along the bottom streams of their schools and were used to being wrong. They were delighted to find their colleague’s Version no better than theirs! Thirdly it enables the post-mortem to get philosophical. How dare they presume to know which is right? Answer because we have moved on from the 18th Century: they are not tabula rasa when they get into your lesson, not even the littlies in Year 3. They don’t yet know the word ‘anachronism’ but they know what Lego is and is not. Suddenly, I point out, two sources have become three, with their combined life experience providing the third. They like it when I say ‘You were too smart for me to fool’.

So there it is: by writing my own stuff I can pack all the delights in the literature of ‘Interpretations’ into every lesson without taking my foot off the narrative pedal. At the end of each lesson I give them the original ‘answer’ from which I made the ‘Versions’, which is the ‘notes’ from which they will revise. I think I am paid to say what happened. Not even my brilliant[18] Indians ever said to me ‘But that’s just another Version!’, and if I’d stayed another year I would have had to make them say it. By marinating them in Interpretations in every lesson I reach the Holy Grail of Metacognition. ‘Look! There’s a deliberate omission!’ ‘Well that’s obviously a modern picture, so how did the artist know?’ ‘He’s only using that emotive word because he doesn’t like him!’ ‘That’s a Level 4 question!’

A Level 4 question?

That’s for next time…

Hugh Nicklin


[1] Quoted from introduction to Mastin & Watson ‘Why don’t the Chinese Play Cricket’ (Teaching History 122)

[2] Twitter today resounds with mocking comments about ‘Levels’

[3] @LearningSpy

[4] What we had instead of ‘CPD’. Is the term still understood today?

[5] The reader will I hope come to appreciate the cunning and utility of this instruction.

[6] it therefore becoming markable and non-re-usable, by the way.

[7] Putting children’s mistakes right has to be handled with tact. Using this system no-one else but the two children involved knows that a blunder has been made, and face is saved.

[8] A shock for able children who could normally doze through lessons: one said ‘I hate your lessons, I have think all the time’

[9] It goes almost without saying that the cognitive dissonance between two adult accounts is vastly beyond the ability of KS3 pupils. I was right and Mr McAleavy was wrong.

[10]great constructive statesman’ versus ‘lackey of the Czarist tyranny’

[11] Of which a series on Russian History for the Edexcel A Level Syllabus has been published by ZigZag Education of Bristol – see http://zigzageducation.co.uk/synopses/4972-edexcel-a-level-history-dialogues.asp

[12] i.e. the double lessons of which one generally gets one a week up to KS3 and 2 or more after that.

[13] Although even this may be language which the bottom end of Y9 may find difficult. Remember that the example is taken from work intended for IB students.

[14] When you have been taught in an authoritarian system, as I was, and as they had been, hearing about contradictions between ‘real books’ is a shock to the system: finding them themselves was revelatory.

[15] If you don’t like what I’m saying, you will be thinking that I ‘dumbed it down’.

[16] We need to discuss copyright here.

[17] There will be some clever person who will see it as a typo and correct it to ‘Serf’, but no matter.

[18] One of them the cleverest boy in the world, given that he had just come top of the American Universities SAT test!

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