In research by Project CHATA (Concepts of History and Teaching Approaches) into students’ understanding of how there can be different historical accounts of the same events, 320 British students in grades 2, 5, 6, and 8 were given three pairs of stories and asked how it is possible for there to be two different history stories about the same thing. Each pair of stories was about a different topic, and the two stories making up any particular pair were the same length and ran side by side down a single page. Specially drawn cartoons illustrated key themes and steps in the story. Younger children tended to say that the two stories in each pair were “the same” because they were “about the same thing” but were just “told differently.” Many of the students considered that the pairs of stories were different because no one has enough knowledge. Older students tended to emphasize the role of the author, some relying on relatively simple ideas of lies and bias as distorting stories, and others taking a more sophisticated view about the inevitability and legitimacy of a point of view. About 20 percent of the older students pointed out that stories answer different questions and fit different parameters (not their word). They did not see historical accounts as copies of the past and thought it natural that such accounts should differ.
One pair of stories had to do with the end of the Roman Empire, each claiming it ended at a different date. The first story, dealing mainly with the barbarian incursions, ended with the fall of the Empire in the West in 476. The second, which concentrated on the Empire’s administrative problems, took the story up to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Below are two (written) responses to the task.
Kirsty (fifth grade):
Why are there different dates?
One of the stories must be wrong.
How could you decide when the Empire ended?
See what books or encyclopedias say.
Does it matter if there are two different dates?
Yes, because if someone reads it and it has the wrong date in it then they will be wrong and might go round telling people.*