Why don’t we have set texts in history? 

Short extracts of sources or interpretations have been a feature of history exams for decades, and, I would argue, they have never been done well. For those unfamiliar with how this works, in most history exams pupils get given a short extract of a contemporary source or subsequent interpretation accompanied by pitifully little contextual information, and then they are expected to use those sources and interpretations to answer questions. We have now just about moved on from dire questions such as ‘is this source reliable?’ but the questions that remain (‘how far does Source A support…?’) are hardly great questions. The underlying weakness in all of these is that, in order to make sense of a source or an interpretation, one needs to know a great deal about the context of that particular source or interpretation. In no way does the use of sources in history exams reflect what historians do in practice: historians nearly always know far, far more about a source (how it exists, how it came down to us, who said it, in what context and so on) than pupils get given in an exam. This results, inevitably, in ‘stock evaluation’ where pupils roll out trite, generic responses that do not show any great understanding of the historical method.

History exams have been stuck in this rut for over a generation. And I think we need to look beyond our subject for a possible answer: I think we need to look at how things are done in English Literature.

Now I do not think English teachers have it all worked out and I know that there are all sorts of criticisms that can be made of English exams. But one thing I like about English Literature exams is that pupils go into an exam with an in-depth knowledge of the texts about which they are going to be asked questions. If they are given an extract from Romeo and Juliet, then they at least know about the rest of the play: they know about the themes that run through it, who the main characters are, and where the scene given to them emerges in the play. The same is true of poetry: if pupils are answering questions on Sylvia Plath, then they will have spent a lot of time studying Sylvia Plath: they will know about her work, the kinds of poetry she wrote and the critiques that have been made of it. It is specific knowledge of the writers and their work that make it possible for pupils to address questions about literature in meaningful ways.

I would argue that we as history teachers might learn from this approach. The use of set texts would seem an obvious way of resolving the problem of short, decontextualised sources and interpretations in history exams. How might this work in practice?

Let’s start with interpretations. I could very much imagine, for example, a GCSE History exam where there is a paper based on two or three particular, named works of historical scholarship. In a paper on the Cold War, for example, it might be a requirement that pupils have studied the work of John Lewis Gaddis. Imagine an A-Level paper on British social history in the nineteenth century in which pupils know that they will be asked questions on E.P. Thompson’s interpretation of the period. Having specified interpretations would mean that teachers could read the works of those historians with pupils, outlining the arguments those historians advanced, the evidence base on which they drew, the conclusions they reached and the criticisms that have been made of their lines of argument. Rather than reducing the study of historical interpretations to some generic skill of ‘evaluation’, we could then assess pupils directly on how good their knowledge is of particular interpretations and the criticisms that can be made of these.

In the poetry section of English Literature pupils get an anthology, and I see no reason why the same approach could not be used for source material in history. This was in practice how my third-year undergraduate ‘gobbets’ paper was organised at Cambridge: I was given a list of possible sources that might come up in the exam and I had to make sure that I was fully familiar with all of these: the context of their production, the way in which they had passed down to the present, the ways in which historians had used those sources and the specific questions that might be asked of them. Imagine a GCSE History exam that came with an anthology of ten sources, two or three of which would appear in the exam. The kinds of questions that could be asked in the exam would immediately become more specific, and pupils would be able to draw on in-depth knowledge of those sources gained from studying them in class with teachers.

History specifications for GCSE and A-Level have moved on in recent years, and I do like some of the new specifications that have come out for the new GCSE (2016) and A-Level (2015). Not one exam board has however yet addressed the problem of using short, decontextualised sources and interpretations in exams. We missed the boat this time round but, sure as the seasons roll around, we can assume that the specifications will be re-written in the next five years or so. When this happens we need to be ready to advance a new approach that finally deals with this flaw at the heart of history exams: I would argue that set texts and anthologies would be the way to go.


13 Comments on Why don’t we have set texts in history? 

    • Yes – I have argued this for years. Much better they know how to deal with one or two historians properly than lots of unconnnected uncontextualised snippets.

  1. I rather like this idea, carefully selected texts offering different views of same events or periods would be very interesting. Would a broad sweep ‘contextualising’ ‘objective’ narrative be needed too, especially at GCSE?

    • I think that would be unnecessary, though I would like to see history textbooks evolve into something more akin to works of history. I’m thinking about using Gombrich’s Little History of the World at KS3 next year, simply to have a ‘proper’ history book as the core text. I’m not a fan of most KS3 textbooks.

  2. Robert Massey // 21 June 2015 at 09:14 // Reply

    Thanks for . thoughtful post, Michael.
    Imagine an A-Level paper on British social history in the nineteenth century in which pupils know that they will be asked questions on E.P. Thompson’s interpretation of the period.

    We’ve had one for ten years: OCR Spec B A Level History, papers F985 and 986. Students become familiar with a range of interpretations on the Crusades, different American Wests, witch-hunting or imperialism, to name only some, and explore the contexts, strengths and limitations of those approaches. What have they added to our understanding of the period?

    This has encouraged students to think about how and why History is constructed the way it is. In my view, this goes way beyond what most English Lit A levels expect, although my knowledge of them is admittedly quite limited. It certainly goes far beyond what most conventional History A Levels require.

    And, here’s the rub: it’s an open book exam. Not a memory test. I’ve taught it and examined for it for the past ten years. OCR’s response: it has now been scrapped. This is the last year through, in effect. One A Level spec fits all.

    Similarly, the AS source papers, F983 and F984 tried to get away from the daftnesses which you quite rightly highlight, not with the same degree of success in my view, but it was a move in the right direction.

    No time to amplify – I’ll have lots more to say when term’s over!

    best wishes

    • Thanks for drawing this to my attention Robert – I’d actually not seen this spec before! I do like the way it sets out particular controversies, and in that way is very similar to Edexcel’s Unit 3 exam which also provides particular ‘controversies’ to be studied. What I meant here was even more specific in terms of specifying the particular historians’ works. Who actually writes the exam papers? Are these just OCR produced?

      • Robert Massey // 21 June 2015 at 14:04 //

        The passages offered are verbatim from historians, not marmelised in house or dumbed down. At best, when teaching the course you discuss Riley-Smith or Broszat or Limerick or Levack by reading their book and discussing their approach to a problem. At worst, it can be dumbed- down ‘schools of history’. It doesn’t fully meet all yr challenges but it goes much further than most.

  3. A lot of useful arguments here Michael. We also taught the OCR B specification from 2008 because it came closest to allowing students to really read and understand what ‘interpretations’ might mean to a historian. As your other commentator suggested it produced some excellent responses. It is a great shame that it has now been scrapped by OCR, but I also know that the uptake was relatively small, maybe because teachers were wary of an approach which opened them up to so much wide ranging knowledge and understanding. I suspect it would take a complete overhaul of subject criteria, probably including History being compulsory to 16 to make anthologies a reality, although I think the idea is a good one. 😊

  4. I am in danger of just echoing the above but the OCR B course was by far the most challenging exam course I ever taught. However it really did get to the nub of great history. That said, I think the exam itself still had many weaknesses. I also found it really hard to get weaker kids to make that step up from GCSE to this approach looking at history through historiography too. Would think twice before teaching it in my current setting

    The trouble is that there is an obsession with the idea that pre-release is the same as saying “easy”. It also goes back to a root weakness in the profession at addressing interpretations, something which has bothered me for a long time.

    On a side note, I imagine anthologies will open us up to the same political discussions as our English teaching colleagues over what should and should not be included. I believe Ben Walsh’s OCR A GCSE tries to do something a bit more by explicitly teaching a variety of historians and debates…

  5. As I was reading the first couple of paragraph I was thinking, “Hmmm…this sounds like my Part II”. Then you mentioned the dreaded ‘gobbets’ paper and mixed emotions on ‘Atlantic Encounters In The Age of Columbus’ came flooding back. But I digress…

    The new CIE A Level (examined for the first time this summer) offers the ‘controversy’ approach described by Robert. I think the fact that OCR and CIE are so closely related, and that OCR have scrapped the A Level, suggests that they’ve simply shifted the model over to the international version under the CIE brand. However, the it is still the case that students study a range of interpretations, but there is no ‘set text’. A 600 word extract is provided in the exam, but no provenance is provided. I would welcome the opportunity to study ‘set texts’ and give students the opportunity to thoroughly evaluate interpretations.

    Incidentally, I do feel that the Modern World GCSE papers used such a narrow range of sources (particularly cartoons) that it was possible to students to go beyond the simplest analysis. I would always spend time looking at David Low in particular, since his estate seemed to have an annual contract with the exam boards to provide sources for exams.

  6. Stuart Roper // 23 June 2015 at 16:14 // Reply

    A very insightful observation Michael. I was discussing this with my fellow historians in our meeting yesterday. Whilst planning out our new A-level you can see this lazy thinking about the use of evidence seeping into the the new specs. still. The markscheme suggests that a discussion about the provenance of an account by Orderic Vitalis could include ‘it was written by an English monk who had lived in France’. If the examination board provided a definitive list of chroniclers to use then they would become part of the programme of study and therefore the same questions could be asked but the expectations of what the students would write would be raised hugely. If we place expectations for good historical thinking on our students the examinations have to reflect this.

  7. I’ve always liked the idea of set texts. At one time the OCR had a special subject paper that involved set primary sources. I taught, over the years, The Jacobites (Lenman and Gibson), Nazis (Noakes and Pridham) and Religion and Politics 1670-1691 (Burnett and Sir John Reresby) Worked v well.

    Obvious problems with texts going out of print. Also living historians will either be included or left out, so knives out. But set texts do force pupils to do good work with the certainty of it relating to the exams as well.

  8. Definitely think this is the way to go. You mentioned using gombrich’s book. I got the book to use in class but haven’t decided how to yet. I was wondering how you are using it?

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