• Diving Bell

History Blog: Precision Language – Do You Speak It?

Arguably, History has taken over from English as the subject where students exercise the differences between narrative and analysis, develop a genuinely critical distance from a text under study, and practise writing tersely and argumentatively.

The Samuel L. Jackson approach to marking

Yet perhaps because elective subjects are under pressure to attract students, or because it can take all a teacher’s class time to develop students’ ability to distinguish storytelling from evaluating, History teachers often allow imprecision in language to go unchecked. If this begins in Stage 4 or 5, the exponential growth of that habit (in other subjects too) results in Stage 6 students who may write adequate English but consistently under-achieve because their language doesn’t reflect rigorous thinking.


A case in point

The 2016 Extension History question presented an extract from James Wilkerson’s book A Choice of Fictions: Historians, Memory and Evidence which began with a clear definition of the difference between history and the past. The question asked To what extent has the changing nature of ‘evidence’ influenced approaches to history over time?


The scare-quotes show the exam paper itself trying hard to warn students of the special meaning of ‘evidence’, and suggesting that a strong response would follow Wilkerson’s method and begin by defining this term. (This was pretty generous, given the presence of a definition in the glossary which accompanies the syllabus.) Yet many Extension students responded by writing diligent responses about sources.


Causes

Perhaps it’s because elective subjects are under pressure to attract students and don’t want to feel ‘negative’ or ‘nitpicking’, or because developing the broad skills of separating storytelling from evaluating can take up most of the class time, or even because we’re human and get lazy in our own terminology. But often imprecision in language goes unchecked.


Obviously, this isn’t unique to History: English routinely muddles together abstract entities like ‘themes’ and ‘values’. The result of no longer teaching parsing and sentence construction has been to produce students who don’t recognize (and therefore clearly convey) cause and effect, agency and action, or the difference between subjective and objective statements.


This isn’t grammar Nazism. The inability to distinguish similar, but vitally different, abstract nouns adds up to an inability to recognize that those nouns refer to operations of thought, and that those in turn produce very different results.


In other words: the + sign and the ÷ sign look similar from a distance, but have very different operations.


Same thing with sources and evidence. The former is the basis of historical narrative. The latter is the basis of historical argument. Or if you want to think about it grammatically, sources answer questions while evidence supports propositions.


All evidences are sources, but not all sources are evidence.


Strong History students will sense by Stage 6 that there’s a difference between the items remaining from the past, and the subset of those items which back up one way of telling the story of the past. But only precision in language can convey that sophisticated sense.


If this begins in Stage 4 or 5, the exponential growth of that habit (in other subjects too) results in Stage 6 students who may write adequate English but consistently under-achieve because their language doesn’t reflect rigorous thinking. It can be the difference between a student who feels supported and developed by History, and that it has sufficient rigor and disciplinary integrity to be taken at university, and a student who sees it as less-emotional English, where the wool can be pulled over a marker’s eyes with windy essays that bamboozle and bore.


Solutions

The clearest solution is consistently to model what we teach, showing that language is only the ‘front end’ of thinking operations. Reinforcing this visually, with posters or screensavers which clearly define the different operations, is helpful even to the oldest and most sophisticated students!


Testing this knowledge explicitly, with on-the-spot tests and games, drives home the right stuff for History from Year 7 or 8. Games are easily devised for even quite young students which reinforce the difference between source and evidence, primary and secondary (or tell and retell for very young students), history and past, and are an excellent way to start classes or to have a fun weekly break.


For older students, playing more sophisticated logic games like the Henkin-Hintikka Game using historical propositions and arguments shows the difference between questions, propositions, arguments, validity and invalidity and soundness.


Ramping up – and keeping – the precision in language benefits everyone. Students who will value History’s rigor will naturally cleave to the stringency of its language; and even those who don’t take the subject in Stage 6 should be left speaking respectfully of its insistence on the highest standards of clarity.

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