Secondary History – Interpreting Sources

Who am I?

Students always have problems getting their head around the idea of Interpretations. They look for certainty, and find it hard to grasp that most history is a construct, it is someone’s opinion, put together by carefully selecting the evidence used to support a [usually preconceived] argument. Even when given two completely contrasting interpretations of someone they are still likely, even after highlighting the differences and carrying out the activity carefully designed by you to show the different interpretations, to sidle up to you at the end of the lesson and say, as happened to me, “That was really interesting, Sir, I now understand this idea of interpretations, but, tell me, what is the right answer?”

One simple way to help them realise an interpretation is just someone’s carefully argued view is to play the ‘Who am I?’ game. Choose a character from history, but present them in a series of bullet points, highlighting just one side of their achievements. I like to start with Adolf Hitler, because you can easily present him in a way that seems, to us, a very positive light.

Try this series of statements, one by one, and see if your students can guess who you are talking about:

  1. I am a vegetarian
  2. I don’t smoke
  3. I don’t drink alcohol
  4. I was named ‘Man of the Year’ by Time Magazine in 1938………. all these are generally regarded as a ‘good thing.’
  5. I wanted to make my country strong
  6. I was very popular in elections
  7. I gave everybody a job
  8. Many people could get free or very cheap holidays…….. these are the positive aspects of Nazi rule in the 1930s.

Where you go from here depends on the responses. You could leave them guessing, and do a similar ‘bad things’ list – you probably won’t have to go beyond ‘I killed 6 million Jews’ for them to realise who you are talking about. Or you could ask them to choose someone they have studied and produce a similar, very one-sided, list of bullet points to share with the rest of the class. It doesn’t take long for them to realise that their interpretation, like mine of Hitler, is a very misleading one, but is valid, as it is based on carefully selected evidence. And it is a very effective way to help students understand where interpretations come from, and how important it is to carefully select the evidence you use to construct them!

Alf Wilkinson

CPD Manager for the Historical Association and previously National Strategist for Key Stage 3 History. Alf has over 30 years history teaching experience and was lead author for Collins Key Stage 3 History resources.

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