‘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’. 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. 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 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 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”.
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
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