Historical Thinking for the Common Good

Everyone knows what history is until he begins to think about it. After that, nobody knows.

Alan Griffin

I find sometimes that this blog is a good place to put ideas still in formation out there for me to take a look at.

This is one of those blogs. The teaching of history is one of the building blocks of our society. In Teaching History for the Common Good, Keith Barton and Linda Levstik write that history provides citizens with capability to engage in collaboration towards a common good Barton, Levstik (2004). The teaching of history is what makes us responsible and discerning citizens. So, if this is the case, why do we seem to have so much difficulty teaching it?

I started my career as a history teacher and I have a graduate degree in History from York University. My studies didn’t prepare me to teach the subject beyond putting out a narrative to my students. A narrative that was not really up for debate, a narrative that was a pretty traditional retelling of the classic Canadian story.

Later on when I scheduled teachers into their high school classes, the mandatory history class – CHC 2D/2P was rarely taught by someone who majored in history. Generally, we put in junior teachers who were working their way up in seniority hoping one day to get senior courses in grades 11 and 12. These teachers were provided with a text and possibly some resources from the more senior members of the department. I don’t think in most cases, the narrative model for teaching was ever really challenged. Consequently, history was one of those subjects that many students really dreaded. It was not relevant, it was not engaging and it told just one side of the story.

Now this was a long time ago and I would love to learn that this doesn’t happen anymore, so if you are a history teacher and I am missing something, please let me know. Now, of course there are a wide variety of resources available to the teacher. Some are better than others, some are curated, credible sources of information, others not so much. But I wonder, even with all these new shiny digital resources, has anything changed in how we actually teach the subject?

 

The Think Like an Historian series by Historica Canada is an example of material now available to educators in Canada – this might help to makes some of the necessary changes in how we teach history

Actually, a lot has changed since I taught in the classroom. For more than 20 years, scholars have been writing about historical thinking – what it is and how to impart this in classroom. Theorists started to write that students needed to be asked to do more than just consume a national narrative. Students should be analysing or establishing causal linkages in history, they should be responding morally by remembering, admiring or condemning people and events of the past. Beyond this, students could be expected to identify with the past by making connections between themselves and the people and events of the past Barton, Levstik p. 6.

These ideas are percolating and changing all the time. In 2013, Peter Seixas and Tom Morton came out with The Big Six: Historical Thinking Concepts and in 2017, the Critical Thinking Consortium came out with Teaching Historical Thinking, both texts that I relied on heavily when I taught a history methodology course at the Faculty of Education last year at the University of Ottawa. Besides these works there is a whole range of other material that has been produced on new methodologies for teaching history. The ideas are fresh and exciting and all challenge the notion that history needs to be a boring apology for a national story.

When you start to look into this material, you will see that the really big idea here is teaching students how to discern and think. The Big Six concepts include historical significance, the use of evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, the development of an historical perspective and thinking about the ethical dimension of historic events.

This approach to teaching is well researched. Great material continues to be written, for example, a recent study by Lindsay Gibson and Carla Peck, examines how to teach historical thinking methods to pre-service elementary teachers Gibson & Peck (2020). They make an important point as part of this study:

The hope is that identification of core practices will establish a coherent language of history teaching practice, and will create a closer relationship between research on teacher education and research on teachers’ professional learning and bridge the gap between research and practice

Gibson & Peck p. 220

While Gibson and Peck have been able to develop teaching methods that have shown positive results with their teacher candidates, the real challenge is how can this methodology be extended to other pre-service programs, in-service professional development programs and teacher-support publications and websites. This is the work that needs to continue. Work has been done on what represents effective teaching practice in history, Fogo (2014), but has this been translated into materials and resources for educators?

This work has been done much more effectively in Science, Math and Language Arts and there are materials available that can effectively guide teachers on how to conduct inquiry in these subjects. Where this work has been done in History, the scale of the work is much smaller and does not focus enough on the links between teaching and learning Fogo p. 152.

A good example of the current work being done in other fields includes the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which map out the key concepts and practices for teaching science in the United States.

Venn Diagram featured in The NSTA Quick-Reference Guide to the NGSS K-12

Maybe what is needed for history instruction is a version of the work being done to develop teaching strategies to be used in the classroom like the NGSS. This would be a huge task, but if we truly want to see a change in the way history is taught in our schools, we need to find more ways to translate the research into practice as Fogo suggests.

While there are materials for teachers to assist with teaching historical thinking concepts, like The Critical Teaching Consortium, The Historical Thinking Project, and the Think Like an Historian series by Historica Canada to name a few, there needs to be more resources that really assist teachers who are doing this important work. In other words, there is a great deal of the what and why of historical thinking concepts, but not nearly enough of the how.

There is no question that the teaching of history in our schools can be more effective. Research is showing that by and large, classrooms are still “sites of memorization rather than questioning, analysis, and interpretation” Gibson & Peck p. 213. While in other fields a great deal of work has been done to collect and study high-yield teaching strategies and then translate these though pre-service and in-service programming, this work still needs to be done in history education in our schools. If we really want to be doing history on a daily basis, we owe it to our teachers and students to bridge the gap between research and practice and replace old narratives with real thinking and analysis.

REFERENCES

Bain, R. B. (2005). “They Thought the World Was Flat?” Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History. Dans J. B. S. Donovan (dir.), How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom (p. 179-214). Washington: The National Academies Press.

Den Heyer, K., Abbott, L. (2011). Reverberating Echoes: Challenging Teacher Candidates to Tell and Learn From Entwined Narrations of Canadian History curi_567 610..635 KENT DEN HEYER & LAURENCE ABBOTT University of Alberta Edmonton, AB, Canada

Gibson L., Peck C.L. (2020) More than a Methods Course: Teaching Preservice Teachers to Think Historically. In: Berg C., Christou T. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of History and Social Studies Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi-org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/10.1007/978-3-030-37210-1_10

Fogo F. (2014) “Core Practices for Teaching History: The Results of a Delphi Panel Survey. In: Theory & Research in Social Education, 42: 151–196, College and University Faculty Assembly of National Council for the Social Studies Theory and Research in Social Education 42, no. 2 (2014): 152.

Miles, J., Gibson,L., Denos, M., Case, R., Stipp, S., (2017) Teaching Historical Thinking (Revised and expanded edition) The Critical Thinking Consortium and THEN/HIER

Salinas, C., Blevins, B. et Sullivan, C. (2012). Critical Historical Thinking: When Official Narratives Collide With Other Narratives. Multicultural Perspectives, 14(1), 18-27.

Seixas, P., Morton, T., Colyer, J., & Fornazzari, S. (2013). The Big Six: Historical Thinking Concepts. Toronto: Nelson Education

Teaching Historically for Canada’s Future: Overall Goals and Objectives (2020)

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.

 

Teaching about Canadian History – Where do you start?

Sometimes when you start on a totally new project it is a challenge to know where to start.

Last week, I wrote that I was about to start on a series of new challenges, the really new stuff has to do with teaching at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. I wrote last week that my blogging would probably pick up – it usually does when there is new learning going on.

For me, I need to write so I can reflect on what I am learning. I am going to try to be disciplined about this. I am in the perfect situation where I can publically reflect on a very open process – the training of new teachers for a very demanding profession.

I have done lots of training in the past and I have written about it here. I think working on professional development with the teachers in the schools where I was a principal was one of the most rewarding parts of my job. We really tried to develop a model where the teacher as professional was in charge of their own learning.

This was at times a challenge as most school boards hold to the idea that the learning objectives come from the top and while there is some room for individual variation, the scope for individualization is limited.

How will the learning work in this new situation?

For the first time, I am working in a truly academic atmosphere. There are two courses in the history program– I am going to be teaching the intermediate section. How I do this has been left up to me. While this is a bit frightening, it also represents a wonderful challenge. What will I teach these new professionals in the time I have with them? How will I structure the learning? How can I make sure these teacher-candidates have a legitimate voice in the learning process?

How can I be of use to them as they prepare for such a challenging journey?

First, I think I need to catch up a bit. When I first taught history, the internet didn’t exist. All our teaching tools were in the form of books and the curriculum guides were pretty thin if they existed at all. You really had to rely on your own ingenuity and hope that you had a teaching partner who was willing to share their materials.

More recently I went back into the classroom to teach grade 6 language arts, but my time in the classroom was short – I was pulled out by the March Break to become an elementary principal. The learning was intense during this period and it was certainly the best PD I have ever had.

Now I really don’t think this means I can’t teach an intermediate history course. My academic credentials are fine and I will bring 31 years of experience in the education system to my class. I just need to figure out what I can contribute in a meaningful way to help these new teachers with the awesome responsibility that awaits. I know a few things about that responsibility. This is my grounding, this is where I can make a contribution.

The teaching of history in Canada has gone through some dramatic changes in the past few years. A great deal has been written about what is the essence of teaching our story and there are some major streams of thought that will become the basis for what we will be doing in a few weeks.

First, the teaching of history now must focus on historical thinking and the major components of what it means to think like a historian. In Canada, the book that lays all this out is The Big Six. Such an incredible piece of work – it lays out the big six teaching concepts then follows up with a great collection of activities teachers can use in their classes to help students come to grips with each of these concepts.

I don’t think this is the post where I break down these concepts – they are really important and they define how we think about history. They turn history away from the dry recitation of facts into something different, something special, something that can actually change the way you think about things.

But this is only one of the currents that run through this course. The other big one is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission along with the findings and calls to action of the Commission.

Reconciliation requires constructive action on addressing the
ongoing legacies of colonialism that have had destructive impacts
on Aboriginal peoples’ education, cultures and languages, health,
child welfare, the administration of justice, and economic opportu-
nities and prosperity.
TRC – What We Have Learned

In Ontario, the history curriculum has been rewritten to draw in the story of the residential schools and the larger story of the indigenous peoples of Canada. You really can’t teach Canadian history without making the TRC a major part of what you teach. It is not just a unit in a larger course, it is a narrative that holds a central place in our story. It was not this way before the TRC and this means in our recent past we were not telling the whole story. Now we are obliged to do this and this must be a central theme in anything I do with the teacher candidates.

There is one final stream and it doesn’t really have all that much to do with history teaching. It has a great deal to do with good teaching in any subject. First, before anything, the teacher needs to know who they are teaching. It has never been good enough to be the expert in the classroom. Now more than ever before we need to see and attempt to understand the student.

This video from HipHughes really sums this all up. It is one of two of his videos that I am planning on showing on the first day.

This is certainly only scratching the surface, but my writing here is informing the process I am going through to come up with a meaningful syllabus. I am hoping these reflections will be useful to me and maybe even my students. You have to start with first principles when you take on a big new project and I am I am making a start here.