Fixed or Fluid? How Should we teach History?

NEW INTERACTIVE VIDEO SERIES: What purpose should school history serve? How can history education help students better understand the past, face the complexity of the present, and build a better future? #PastFwd

The new #Pastfwd series  – new conversations on teaching history

I am trying to come out from under the dusty miasma of COVID.

In ten weeks or so, I am hoping to be teaching in some form my course in Intermediate History again to second-year education students.  I will try to give my students some perspective on how history needs to be taught in grades 6-10 in Ontario schools.

To me, this is a daunting task. Fortunately, there is a great amount of discussion now on how history should be taught and why we still teach history in or schools. It is no longer good enough to draw out a narrative of events long past that have little or no relevance to the students we work with. We are now struggling to find a better purpose; we are trying to ignite the minds of our students.

Last year I was introduced to The Big Six, now the foundational text on teaching history in Canada. No longer can we string together a series of events and call this a history course. We need to find ways to talk about continuity and change, historical significance and cause and consequence. We need to bring in the ethical dimension to our teaching. We need to focus on perspective and the use of evidence.

This is not easy to teach. We need to listen to many voices and we need to become part of the discussion on the purpose of teaching history. Reading different and new posts will help me to come to grips with how to do this. A long path to discernment.

This week I can across a new series which I will be following over the summer – #pastfwd.

The series just started on Youtube and Twitter and I will be following every episode as I try to put together a course for the fall.

The first episode dropped this week and I have already watched it twice. This one is by Arthur Chapman Associate Professor in History Education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London. His episode is called School History and the Public Understanding of the Past and it is fascinating. You can watch it below.

This 15-minute video is called a provocation and it centers around the historical interpretation of the Peterloo Massacre. It is really interesting to me that in the Manchester Guardian article I looked up about the battle I found this.

Why haven’t I heard of it?

Because it was rarely taught in schools. Some might say that was because history has traditionally concentrated on the battles and victories of royalty and the elite, rather than the working classes.

Chapman does a great job in his short video of showing how the event has been publically memorialized over the past 40 years. How we look at this event has changed dramatically over time. History is fluid, there is no static interpretation of events.

Look at this series of memorials to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. Chapman uses these images to illustrate some of the challenges of teaching history.

Peterloo Commemoration 1972
Commemoration 2007
Peterloo graphic novel 2019

This is what is so amazing when it comes to teaching history. The event doesn’t change. How it is written about and interpreted is incredibly different. Notice in the 1972 commemoration there is no mention of a massacre, just a dispersal.

What does this say about how we interpret history? What does this tell us about our own changing view of the past?

We can do the same thing here in Canada. Between the Lines, a collective of writers and artists have created and produced a graphic novel on the Winnipeg General Strike.

1919 A Graphic History

This book, a wonderful resource for history classes, does the same thing as the Peterloo graphic novel. It reinterprets history from a class struggle lens. It offers a new and refreshing perspective on our own struggles. What is the lens we use when we teach about history? Past, present or future tense?

Even better, we now have a conversation about this new approach with one of the Between the Lines writers Sean Carleton. This is a great interview, early on, Carleton sums up their approach –  “You don’t need a cape and tights to change the world”. Samantha Cutrara, a history education strategist based in Toronto has put together an important video series that explores the teaching of history in Canadian schools. You can find the entire series here.

There is a strong link between Peterloo and the Winnipeg General Strike graphic novels. Both show new interpretations of history and how we demonstrate the struggles for democratic rights that are not normally part of our narrative.

Getting back to where we started, when we teach history we certainly want to introduce students to their stories, as Chapman puts it, students need to have a robust knowledge of their past, but they also need to have a sophisticated understanding of how we come to know the past.

This is something new. How do we interpret the past? What is significant? How does that shift from generation to generation? I know my understanding constantly shifts. From the curried past of my high school history classes through university, my own classroom and now educating history teachers. Shifting is essential to learning and understanding. Perspective.

Moving forward in our own understanding and teaching means adjusting the lens we use to comprehend the past.

 

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