Teaching History in the Primary School

Teaching the Key Skills: Interpretation

What has been written so far assumes that the truth about the past is out there somewhere although we may not know enough to be sure what it is. The story we weave out of the facts we do have is rather like our own personal stories: it reflects our values and beliefs as much as the evidence. Teaching children to distinguish between 'fact' and opinion is therefore very important. The best way to do this is to show how the same set of facts will bear different interpretations and how greatly a story can change when new evidence emerges.

Case studies

Lindow Man was dug out of a peat bog in Cheshire in 1981. Radio-carbon tests showed that he had died about the time of the Roman invasion of Britain i.e. in the First Century AD. It appeared that he had been struck on the head, strangled and stabbed in the throat - the 'triple death' inflicted on Celtic sacrifices recorded by Roman writers. Recently this interpretation has been questioned. Perhaps the injuries were inflicted post-mortem; perhaps he was murdered. What you decide is likely to depend upon your view of human nature.

The Princes in the Tower. The boy-king Edward V and his brother Richard Duke of York were last seen in the Tower of London in August 1483. Their uncle, Richard III, is generally thought to have had them killed after seizing Edward's throne in June. But what proof is there? Might the boys have survived Richard's death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, only to be murdered by his successor Henry VII? Much depends upon your reading of the characters of the two men.

In both these cases, ask the children what evidence would be needed to clinch the case either way? An interpretation is most secure when a) it fits all the known facts b) different types of evidence present the same picture c) it accords with the 'mindscape' of the period under study. Children can't really be introduced to the pleasures of historical debate until they are aware of the need to take all these factors into account. In the case of Lindow Man they need to understand the transactional nature of ancient religion and the fact that his people were facing an invasion. In the case of Richard III they need to ask ourselves how a Christian king could ever justify the murder of his own nephews. What arguments would he use?

Making newspapers can be another way of introducing children to the different ways in which the same story can be interpreted. Take a historical event like the Battle of Hastings and write two Sun-style headlines one from from the point of view of the English and one from the Normans. The same point can of course be made using contemporary events.

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True and 'true to life'

We can only experience the past through our imaginations and 'imagination' plays a large part in even the most factual of historical programmes. There was no such person as Mr Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) or Maximus, the general turned slave in Gladiator, yet we feel ourselves to have been in 18th century England or late 2nd Century Rome, such is the skill of the film-maker. However, whilst Mr Darcy had his script written by Jane Austen, Maximus had his written by Hollywood, including anachronisms like 'Hell' (such a concept did not lie within the Roman mindscape). Other aspects of the film, for example the re-creation of the battle scene at the beginning, were more within the bounds of possibility.

As an exercise children might like to construct a historical 'swingometers', ranging from 'impossible' on the left side to 'certain' on the right.

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What makes it history?

For any historical drama to be regarded as authentic the swingometer must always be within the probable or very likely zone. Children should also employ their swingometers when writing their own stories. In this way they will learn that history relies upon the disciplined use of the imagination. A useful analogy is that of the landscape painter who does not attempt to paint the leaves of his trees exactly where they are because it would take too long and be no better than a photograph. Instead he regards himself as free to paint them anywhere they could be.

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