Howlers have their uses

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Pupils' mistakes might sometimes reveal profound insights, claims Keith Gregson

The howler or pupil's mistake is one of the true joys of teaching. When I read 1066 and All That as a child, I wondered where the authors' ideas had come from. After almost 33 years teaching history, I now know - from howlers. I have kept the best ones since my first day of teaching history, a subject that must provide one of the howler's most fertile breeding grounds.

I have developed a thesis on the howler. Nine times out of 10 it is developed from a reasonably accurate prior knowledge. In some cases it is so profound as to be worth double marks. Here are a few.

Starting at the dawn of time, we find Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

After spending a week there they discovered they were "totally knacked".

True the Bible says naked yet this delightful north-eastern phrase for "very tired" could well be applied to a couple who had just initiated the reproduction of mankind.

Moving on to the Vikings we discover that they powered their longboats by a combination of "elbow grease and wind". This must be worth full marks as it is essentially accurate, despite the implication of a sturdy Norseman pulling hard on his oar while performing an impolite body function as he drives his vessel onward.

I was also informed on one occasion that, in medieval times, "flying butcheresses" held up St Hilda's church in Hartlepool. A difficult one here as there is always a possibility that the wife of a local butcher may have modelled for a gargoyle. On the other hand, the appearance in an essay of the slaughtered saint, Thomas ... Beckham, resulted in deducted marks. (The pupil obviously watched too much TV football when he should have been doing his homework.) I was kinder to an intelligent medievalist who simply had a slip of the pen when claiming that medieval lords kept "big kittens" to feed their guests.

The thought of moggies two metres high clumping around the great halls of England still makes me chuckle. Double marks!

The Tudors have proved to be particularly fruitful howler territory. Take Elizabeth alone - she was "very good at playing the virgin". Now did the pupil mean virginals (which was in the textbook) or is this a profound statement on Elizabeth's well-known cautious foreign policy of playing the waiting game over marriage? And was it merely deep-seated male chauvinism that led one boy to note succinctly that "Elizabeth was a remarkable woman.

She was often wise." With my wife looking over my shoulder, I resorted to the red pen on this one.

The First World War is an absolute must for howler fans. Here the depression of prisoners of war, French and German military tactics, loss of forces and our prime minister all come in for a drubbing. After their capture at Tannenberg, Russian prisoners were "totally demolarised" (making them a toothless bunch?). Meanwhile on another front, moving French troops to the Marne by public transport was truncated to "attacking the Germans in a fleet of Paris taxis". Shocked by this the Germans fell backwards into (I think the pupil meant onto), the River Aisne.

A couple of years later, the Somme was a total disaster for the British when we lost "somewhere in excess of 100 per cent of our forces". The blame for such an event could be laid at the feet of one of our four war time prime ministers, Lloyd George, George Lloyd, Lord George or even a very young and muddled Lloyd George Brown.

What to do with the howler culprits? I threatened capital punishment. The problem there, as one astute pupil pointed out was " it doesn't necessarily stop them from doing it again".

Keith Gregson is a historian in Sunderland

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