Setting the Story Straight Part 2: Put the history horse before the genre cart

In my previous post, I argued that an exam board recommending one explanatory mode for all types of causation questions is problematic if one accepts that academic history is the ‘benchmark’ for ascertaining what ‘good’ historical explanation is.

My intention in that post was not to argue that the narrative mode is necessarily better. In fact, among theorists of history the debate regarding the inherent superiority of the ‘narrative’ versus ‘analytic’ mode or vice versa has largely fizzled out due to a recognition that any one explanatory model cannot cater for all possible historical causal questions. Instead, the debate has been replaced with a kind of pragmatic ecumenicism. For example, Stone argued that;

History has always had many mansions, and must continue to do so if it is to flourish in the future. The triumph of any one genre or school eventually always leads to narrow sectarianism, narcissism, and self-adulation, contempt or tyranny towards outsiders, and other disagreeable and self-defeating characteristics. [i]

Accordingly, some theorists of history recommend adapting one’s choice of mode depending on the question posed. Atkinson, for example, argued that ‘the truth surely is that some questions require narrative, others analytic answers’.[ii] The question discussed in my previous post, for instance, invites the student to explain an individual’s action across a relatively short time-span;

How far does the role of Governor Phips explain the end of the Salem witch hunt (1692–93)?[iii]

Such a question might be more satisfactorily explained in the narrative mode organised chronologically. Other questions from the exam board, however, require the student to focus explicitly on preconditions. For example;

‘It was the unusual political conditions operating in Massachusetts in 1692 that explain the extraordinary events in Salem.’

How far do you agree with this explanation of the Salem witch-hunt of 1692?[iv]

This type of question, by contrast, might be better explained with an analytic response. The student could organise their paragraphs in the form of largely slower-moving, abstracted ‘factors’ structured rhetorically in terms of relative importance.

Possibly more importantly, when faced with more open-ended causal questions there needs to be, in my view, some recognition that one’s choice of mode is itself argumentative. For example, in their guidance for undergraduate history students the historians Marius and Page suggested one should;

keep in mind that argument, in the sense of developing a thesis, is fundamental to all modes used in writing history essays. The modes overlap, and you may use all of them in a single essay; certainly we have in our own writing…when you write an essay, try to determine which modes will best advance your argument.[v]

For example, let’s imagine a student was presented with the question;

            Why was there a witch craze in Salem in 1692?

The student wishing to emphasise the causal importance of individual action over a short time period could adopt the narrative mode. By contrast, another student seeking to argue that structural preconditions were more important might opt for the analytic mode. Alternatively, the student looking to provide an explanation incorporating both might shuttle between the two modes. In fact, most historians now tend to recognise the importance of fairly representing structural conditions, individual actions, and their interplay. Tosh, for instance, noted the importance of such argumentative flexibility;

The truth is that historians need to write in ways that do justice to both the manifest and the latent, both profound forces and surface events. And in practice this requires a flexible use of both analytical and narrative modes: sometimes in alternating sections, sometimes more completely fused throughout the text. This, in fact, is the way in which most academic historical writing is carried out today.[vi]

There has been an understandable delay as trends in academic history have been ‘recontextualised’ into school history. History teachers have built on seminal works such as Byrom’s emphasis in 1998 of the huge intellectual challenge of constructing a historical narrative from an incomplete and contradictory evidence base and Lang’s defence of narrative in history curriculum design in 2003.[vii] The cumulative power of the history-teacher curricular theorisation that has followed in their wake has been evidenced in the National Curriculum Key Stage 3 reforms which speak of the importance of the narrative mode and the new GCSEs in which narrative questions are now set.[viii]

I would argue, however, that for at least one exam board certain generic genre-based assumptions still exist that actively discourage students from writing historically. For example;

  • At GCSE, there are commands such as ‘Describe…’, ‘Write a narrative account…’ or ‘Explain…’ which put the genre cart before the historical horse.[ix]


  • The command ‘Explain…’ is applied in its generic and everyday sense where it can have two meanings: ‘Explicate’/’Explain what’ or ‘Explain why’. This means the command is indiscriminately given irrespective of the second-order conceptual focus of the question. [x]


  • At GCSE, such commands artificially silo students’ writing into discrete genres such as ‘Description’, ‘Narrative, and ‘Explanation’.[xi]


  • At GCSE, ‘Description’ and ‘Narrative’ genres are still caricatured as ‘lower-order’ in the sense that these question-types are typically assigned fewer marks. [xii]


  • At A-Level, as I discussed in my previous post, some examiners still actively penalise narrative irrespective of the type of question asked.


If we take academic history as our benchmark, however, we see a rather different picture.

  • As I discussed above, theorists of history have increasingly recognised that the history drives the genre. The genre shouldn’t drive the history. For example, Goldstein’s frustration regarding the strict prescriptions of modes over forty years ago is perhaps as relevant to discussions in history curriculum design today;

It cannot be reasonable that the essential nature of the discipline is defined by the literary form in which its results are conveyed rather than by the kind of inquiry it is. That so many serious writers think that that is exactly how history is to be characterised is precisely the mark of how far conceptual analysis and the elucidation of modes of discourse have managed to submerge real epistemology.[xiii]

  •  As I discussed in a previous postin history ‘explain’ usually means ‘explain why’ not ‘explain what’/’explicate’.


  • As I discussed in my previous post where I explored how in certain circumstances narrative/description can be highly explanatory, in history genres are conflated. As Megill suggested, for example, ‘narrative blends description and explanation’. [xiv]


  • Historical writing, irrespective of mode, is argumentative. Or, to put it another way, if the mode isn’t argumentative, it’s not history.[xv] For example, Fischer argued that regardless of the mode a historian chooses to write in history is ‘always’ ‘articulated in the form of a reasoned argument’.[xvi]

So, if a question asks students to ‘describe two features of x’ (2 marks), this is ‘lower-order’ only in the sense that a) students are misleadingly expected to treat the object of description ‘x’ as unequivocal and b) there is no overarching historical question in which the student is supposed to situate their description. It’s easier precisely because it’s a non-argumentative, non-historical question. This type of question hardly reflects the argumentative properties of historical description per se.[xvii]

  • Because all modes of history are argumentative in the sense that claims have to be justified through evidence and contribute to the historian’s overall thesis, it follows that historical description/narrative is not easy. For example, one of the mode’s chief defenders Elton argued narrative;

is not, of course, easy to write. It challenges the constructive skills of the writer as well as his ability to hold together a great number of traces that keep pulling apart. It is much harder to do than analytical history.[xviii]

Hewtison, building on Walsh, suggested that one common misconception that underpins the denigration of narrative is the failure to distinguish between its  ‘plain’ (non-historical) and ‘significant’ (historical) guises.[xix] A ‘plain’ narrative only aims to chronicle what happened and is not intended to argue in response to an overarching question. ‘Significant’ narratives, by contrast, are harder precisely because they are problem-oriented.[xx]

Similarly, Megill suggested that historical description also presents ‘an infinite number of difficulties and possibilities’.[xxi] Even the most seemingly innocuous descriptive claim needs to withstand critique from the probative community of historical scholars. Take, for example, a statement such as;

‘The Salem witch crisis took place in 1692’.

Straightforward description right? Well, not quite. In history, where one has to argue using fragmentary and discrepant evidence when describing extremely complex social phenomena in the past, seemingly inarguable statements such as this can themselves be the source of historical controversies.

For example, both Norton and Baker have argued that focusing on ‘Salem’ fails to do justice to the known evidence in the sense that it downplays the geographical reach of accusations which spread to twenty-two separate towns or fails to recognise that more accusations and confessions took place in neighbouring Andover. Accordingly, they argue that a Salem-centric description is misleading and that ‘Essex County witchcraft crisis’ or ‘New England witchcraft crisis’ would be more appropriate.[xxii]

And what about ‘crisis’? In his recent historiographical overview of the Salem witch trials Fels criticised historians who chose ‘crisis’ rather than ‘hunt’ by arguing that the former privileges the role of impersonal forces and downplays the agency (and therefore responsibility) of the key individuals who brought the trials about.[xxiii] Other historians, particularly those who prefer psychological or pathological explanations such as hysteria or conversion disorder are more likely to describe the events of 1692 as an ‘outbreak’.[xxiv] The key point here is that it simply does not make sense to strictly delineate historical ‘description’, ‘explanation’, and ‘argument’. How one chooses to describe historical phenomena constitutes part of one’s historical causal explanation and it all needs to be argued.

So we appear to have a situation where some history examination questions fundamentally misrepresent historical argument as written by academic historians.

What exacerbates the issue, however, is when examination genres that do not treat academic history as the gold standard are extrapolated to form genre-based progression models. For example, we find genres used in this way in progression guidance endorsed by exam boards[xxv] or elaborate ‘genre-based pedagogies’ where these examination genres are used to justify linguistically-informed ‘pedagogical pathways’.[xxvi] Such progression models usually take a form such as;


Screenshot 2018-10-25 19.01.24[xxvii]

Such models often advocate Key Stage 3 students spend much of their compulsory history education writing non-historical, non-argumentative ‘descriptions’ or ‘categorical explanations’ before they ‘progress’ to written argument.

Of course, it is unreasonable to assume teenagers will write to the standard of academic historians. ‘Academic’ and ‘school’ history necessarily cannot be the exact same species. But while these models have a superficially seductive linearity I’ve yet to encounter a persuasive argument as to why it follows that drilling students to write in non-historical genres is necessary or even unharmful in enabling students to write sophisticated historical arguments; especially as we have evidence that primary students can appreciate aspects of history’s argumentative nature.[xxviii]

Perhaps more crucially, what are the essential ramifications if older students are examined in non-historical genres and those genres form the basis of progression models for younger students? A danger is that ‘school history’ ceases to be a simplified, ‘recontextualised’ version of academic historical knowledge – accessible to younger students but of essentially the same genus as what is done by academic historians – but instead becomes an object of study of a totally different order.


[i] Stone, L. (1987). The Past and the Present Revisited. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.p.75

[ii] Atkinson, R. F. (1978). Knowledge and Explanation in History: An Introduction to the Philosophy of History. London: The MacMillan Press p.136

[iii] Pearson (2017). Advanced Paper 3: Themes in breadth with aspects in depth Option 33: The Witchcraze in Britain, Europe and North America c1580–c1750

[iv] Pearson (2014) Level 3 Advanced GCE in History (9HI0) Sample Assessment Materials 

[v] Marius, R. & Page, M. E. (2007). A Short Guide to Writing About History Pearson Longman: London pp. 56-57

[vi] Tosh, J. (2006). The Pursuit of History: Aims, methods and new directions in the study of modern history London: Pearson p.156

[vii] Byrom, J. (1998). ‘Working with Sources: Scepticism or Cynicism? Putting the Story Back Together Again’. Teaching History 91 pp.32-35; Lang, S. (2003). ‘Narrative: the under-rated skill’ Teaching History 110 pp.8-15. For an introduction to these debates try Counsell, C. (2016). ‘New, Novice, or Nervous: Constructing Narrative’ Teaching History 164 p.57

[viii]  Department for Education (2013). History programmes of study: key stage 3 National curriculum in England p.1

[ix] Pearson (2015). Sample Assessment Materials (Question Papers) Pearson Edexcel Level 1/Level 2 GCSE (9-1) in History (1HI0) pp. 4 & 43-44

[x] For example, it is used for ‘Explain What’ with Similarity and Difference (p.7); Evidential Thinking (p.19); and Change and Continuity (p.24). It is also used for ‘Explain Why’ for Causation (p.8). Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. pp.43-44 & 49-50

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Goldstein, L. J. (1976). Historical Knowing London: University of Texas Press. pp. 142-143

[xiv] Megill, A. (2007). Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice. The University of Chicago Press: London pp.87-88

[xv] For a discussion of history as argument try Megill’s ‘unresolving dialectic’. Megill, op. cit. p.2

[xvi] Fischer, D. H. (1970). Historians’ Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper Perennial.  p.vx

[xvii] Pearson (2015) op. cit. p.4

[xviii] Elton, G. R. (1989). The Practice of History. London: Fontana Press. pp.175-176

[xvix] Hewitson M (2015). History and Causality. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[xx] Walsh, W. H. (1958). ‘”Plain” and “Significant” Narrative in History’ The Journal of Philosophy of History 55 pp.479-484

[xxi] Megill op. cit. pp.87-88.

[xxii] Norton, M. B. (2002). In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p.8; E.W. Baker A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (2015) pp.12-13.

[xxiii] Fels, T. (2017). Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. p.128

[xxiv] For example Baker op. cit.pp.12-13 & 99-102; Hansen, C. (1988). Witchcraft at Salem. London: Arrow Books. pp.145-146

[xxv] Pearson Key Stage 3 Exploring History: Inspire young historians and build the foundations for Pearson Edexcel GCSE (9-1) History

[xxvi] I discuss how generic ‘genre-based’ pedagogies tend to use exam boards as the foundations for their ‘pedagogical pathways’ here Carroll, J. E. (2018) ‘Epistemic explanations for divergent evolution in discourses regarding students’ extended historical writing in England’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2018.1499805

[xxvii] For example Coffin, C. (2006). Historical discourse: The language of time, cause and causation. London: Continuum; Christie, F., & Derewianka, B. (2008). School discourse. London: Continuum.

[xxviii] I summarise some examples of students aged 9-13 arguing historically in Carroll op. cit. p.10

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