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Reflections on History Learning and Teaching

The chapters in the third part of this handbook focus on processes of historical thinking, approached from cognitive, social and educational points of view. This part is mainly motivated by the conviction that history is not only about substantive content, but also—or perhaps most of all—about historical thinking and reasoning (Seixas, 2015a; Voss & Carretero, 2000; Wineburg, 2001). The chapters range from introducing central theoretical constructs in this field, for example historical problem-solving and historical literacy, to presenting empirical studies about key aspects of understanding history as a discipline. Special attention is paid to current research about how students and citizens in general understand historical concepts, time, images and narratives. Part III, in other words, presents studies very much related to chapters in Part I but trying to clarify how historical learning takes place within education. History has been playing an essential role in every educational system since its inception as a school discipline in the late eighteenth century. Informal learning devices such as museums have been very common and influential for the last two centuries as well. Critical analyses of that central role and new ideas and projects about how to teach history at school will be offered, specifically involving the relationship between school history and other related educational fields, such as the social sciences. The relationship between informal history learning and new forms of civic and political action will also be taken into account.

First, however, it is important to consider some classic distinctions. Educational studies have traditionally distinguished between what and how to teach. It is equally important to reflect on what for and to whom. Each of these essential questions has received important and renewed attention in the last decades. What and why to teach history in socially challenging times is considered by Alberto Rosa and Ignacio Bresco in their chapter. Their contribution stems from acknowledging that present nation-states are to some extent suffering a loss of political power due to globalization. At the same time, new political agents from diverse ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds compete amongst each other to be recognized as emergent national subjects who claim historical rights based on their collective memories. This is the case for African-Americans in the USA (Epstein, 2009), North Africans in France (see Tutiaux-Guillon in Part II) and the Muslim population all over Europe. Migration is one of the factors producing political and ideological instability in present nation-states. In sum, this is a complicated scenario for history education, because the traditional goal of this subject matter was precisely to make a significant contribution to building traditional national identities via historical master narratives, as it has been mentioned above and analysed in relation to the contents of Parts I and II (particularly chapters by Berger, Letourneau, Van der Vlies, Karrouche, Korostelina, Millas, & Barreiro et al.).

According to Rosa and Bresco, in any democratic society the social pact is based on an equilibrium among polis (political institutions), cives (the space for the exercise of citizenship), demos (the political agent) and ethos (the cultural community). Insofar as this equilibrium is getting out of balance new contradictions appear. According to Bauman (2006), the question of what kind of history to teach in these liquid times emerges as an urgent and difficult one. The answer provided by Rosa and Bresco goes in the direction of, first, criticizing the standard national myths as the main and only basis of history education, like other researchers have suggested (Berger, 2012; Grever, 2012). Secondly, the authors advocate a view looking for both a deconstruction and a reconstruction of those canonical contents. They defend the need for three kinds of history education skills: (a) a sense of belonging to a community, including an identity related to it; (b) democratic values and moral civic commitment and (c) interpretative and argumentative tools needed to critically understand social and political transformations over time.

This kind of proposal is very much in the line with two issues playing an essential role in present debates about history education and historical culture worldwide. These issues are, on the one hand, the need to develop a profound and complex historical consciousness (see Seixas in Part I) and, on the other hand, the significant relation of civic and moral education to history learning and teaching (Carretero et al., 2016). Related to these two educational objectives it will be essential to develop that historical consciousness through the teaching of multiperspectivity. But multiperspectivity implies the existance of different subjects. According to Rosa and Bresco, it is extremely urgent nowadays to reflect on the definition and selection of historical subjects and problems that should be tackled in schools. To establish a broader view on diverse national historical subjects would mean to go beyond the national canons and to incorporate heterogeneous views on the national pasts which would be much more in agreement with the present situation of nation-states.

The relation of civic and moral education to the goals and methods of school history, and historical culture in general, is not easy nor straightforward. By the end of the nineteenth century, school history was a moralizing tool designed to indoctrinate national citizens via emotional narratives based on a strong loyalty to the nation-state. This state of affairs continued in most western countries until the middle of the 1970s, and it is still an important part of school history in numerous societies (Foster & Crawford, 2006) (see also chapters by Taylor and Macintyre as well as Tsyrlina-Spady and Lovorn in Part IV).

It has been argued that moral and civic identity approaches may compromise rigour and open the door for a political or ideological manipulation of the past. This manipulation could also be the result of introducing a presentist approach to historical problems and methods. This is precisely one of the main issues considered by Helen Haste and Angela Bermudez in their chapter. They argue that “such concern is not unwarranted, but we cannot ease our worry by simply assuming that academic rigor makes historiography politically disinterested and ideologically neutral” (p. 428). They agree with Seixas’ ideas about the recognition of the “porousness between contemporary interests and our narrations of the past” (p. 69, in this volume). In this vein, the relation of moral and history education can be approached in terms of what type of civic issues should be considered. Of course the issue of what kind of pedagogical methods should be used in this approach is also essential. In this sense there is a coincidence between the chapters by Rosa and Bresco and by Haste and Bermudez. Both of them defend the need to articulate civic issues regarding the implications of past events and historical interpretations for our lives today. In both cases these interpretations should be contextualized in the present transformations of both nation-states and their societies, mentioned above, and the new role of the civic education in agreement with these new problems.

From this point of view, Haste and Bermudez outline the concept of “New Civics” as a new and renovated attempt to recover the role of political and social agency in present democratic and reflective societies. As it is well known, it is very difficult to maintain a democracy alive if its members do not actively participate in it. In relation to this problem of numerous democratic countries, the “New Civics” is a critical reaction to the traditional view that democratic participation and civic engagement are limited to voting every several years and acquiring a general knowledge of political institutions. On the contrary, Haste and Bermudez argue for a contextualized take on such participation and civic engagement. Their vision of history education includes a more active role of history education in framing the discussions about social and political problems of contemporary societies through a set of activities related to universal human rights, the discrimination of minorities and the increase of agency among citizens. This conception is strongly related to the ongoing radical transformations of our societies where numerous challenges have been appearing in the last decades, for example, the crisis of the conventional Left-Right spectrum and the demands of both feminist and environmentalist movements. Taking into account these political and cultural scenarios, Haste and Bermudez consider the need for both new historical contents and new teaching methods in a meaningful alliance of historical and civic education. They align their proposal with a call for historical inquiries based on the understanding of historical evidence using multiple sources of processes of change and continuity and of multicausality (see also the chapters by Nokes and Van Boxtel and Van Drie in Part III). But they also defend that these capacities can be translated into civic competence, fostering the capacities to engage in reflective controversy about value dimensions of public issues. Also, in both chapters dialogue is seen as a central mechanism of generating reflective historical knowledge through both dominant and resistant narratives. This dialogical view can very well give a new outlook for the teaching and learning of history (Bermudez, 2015), based on the student not as an individual thinker but as a thinker in relation to others.

Rosa and Bresco as well as Haste and Bermudez defend the need for an identification process with the national past as an essential component of social life. But in both cases their proposal is based on a deconstructed view of national master narratives. This is an important part of their argument, because it forms a middle ground between two antagonistic positions about the role of national identities as educational goals of history education. That is, on one hand the traditional Romantic view of the national past full of emotions and moral dictums and, on the other hand, a rational view on the teaching of school history, based on a disciplinary view of history considering national identities as invented traditions (Lopez et al., 2015).

In his chapter, Keith Barton defends the view that any historical analysis has many dimensions in common with social scientific inquiries. This relation and similarity between social sciences and history teaching and learning appeared on the research agenda 20 years ago (Carretero & Voss, 1994), particularly from a cognitive and instructional point of view even though it has not been always present on history education research interests. It is important to take into account that in many countries historical contents at primary school are integrated in the subject matter of social studies and receive specific attention as history only at middle and high schools. In any case, Barton goes beyond the discussions about curriculum organization and presents a reflection on which theoretical dimensions the two subjects, social sciences and history, have in common in the context of school learning. Barton agrees with the view that historical thinking is an educational objective, defended also by other contributors to this Handbook (see, among others, the chapters by Seixas, Van Boxtel and Van Drie, Rodriguez-Moneo and Lopez). In this vein, Barton develops the dimensions of Perspective, Causation, Agency, Evidence and Concepts. These dimensions were an essential part of the innovative research programme developed at the Institute of Education in London since the 1980s (Dickinson et al., 1984; Shemilt, 1984) and since then they have been an essential part of various attempts to renew the core of history education. New in Barton’s chapter is the idea of also applying these dimensions to social science teaching and learning, defending the view that both school and disciplinary social sciences and history have much in common (see the insightful work by Burke, 2005 about the mutual influence between these disciplines in contemporary thought).

Thirty years of constructivist and cognitive studies on knowledge acquisition and learning have demonstrated how important the students’ prior representations are for educational purposes (Bransford & Donovan, 2005; Carretero & Lee, 2014). Students’ and citizens’ minds in general are not tabula rasa when they face historical problems in formal or informal contexts. On the contrary, they are very much influenced by their pre-existing conceptions which will be changed successfully or not depending on the quality of the teaching they will be receiving. However, this teaching will have an effect on their minds following and interacting with their initial knowledge. For this reason, attempts to determine that initial historical knowledge are essential. Otherwise, schools and informal learning environments, such as museums, exhibitions and reenactaments, risk having no effect on what people learn about history. The most promising research on these matters is being done through approaches related to Conceptual Change (Vosniadou, 2013) and Social Representations (Moscovici, 2001).

The chapter by Maria Rodriguez-Moneo and Cesar Lopez follows the first approach and the chapter by Dario Paez, Magdalena Bobowik and James Liu follows the second approach. One of the main advantages of the kind of research discussed in the chapter by Paez et al. is that it is based on a quantitative methodology that allows to compare intuitive historical representations of broad samples of citizens from different countries all over the world through their answers to questionnaires. By contrast, the research analysed in the chapter by Rodriguez-Moneo and Lopez is generally based on qualitative- quantitative research focussing on the specific cognitive mechanisms of the change of historical concepts from intuitive views to ideas closer to disciplinary historiography. Nevertheless, both chapters agree on the following important conclusions:

  • • Lay historical representations tend to be rather concrete and are based on specific, anecdotal and personalistic episodes. Abstract principles and processes are difficult to understand. The possible transformation and conceptual change from concrete to abstract accounts of history is difficult.
  • • In this vein, wars and national heroes as well as social and political leaders are seen as having had an enormous influence as initiators of historical change.
  • • Historical events and problems are predominantly viewed as situated in the West. That is, historical developments are seen from a colonial perspective. Postcolonial views are not that common even in countries with recent postcolonial experiences.
  • • Causality tends to be seen in a simple rather than complex way. In other words, historical issues are considered to depend on just one single cause instead of considering them in a multicausal way.
  • • Recent historical events (i.e. occurring in the last 100-150 years) tend to be seen as much more important than remote ones.

A number of specific psychosocial origins of historical representations advanced in the chapter by Paez et al. are important to consider, particularly the influence of belonging to different social groups or generations (See also chapters by Korostelina and Barreiro et al. for common psychosocial research concepts). First of all, it is quite significant that many studies have concluded that people consider historical events to be more significant if they are learnt in adolescence or early adulthood, compared to historical contents learned in some other periods of the life span. A possible reason for this is that this period is crucial for the development of social and cultural identities. Therefore, this identity formation process is affecting the way history is represented by citizens. Also, as it can be expected, different cultural and national groups have different representations of the same events depending on their diverse schooling and socialization experiences (Epstein, 2009). This is particularly important nowadays as immigration processes are intense and increasing. One final comment about the findings analysed by Paez et al. concerns the relationship between specific historical contents and the more general historiographical views. The difference between conceiving historical experiences as circular versus the continuous progress of humankind is a very crucial aspect to be considered. These two different conceptions are directly related to the perspectives on colonial experiences. Different cultural and national groups in the Americas tended to view genocides of the natives in American territories as the price to pay for progress and freedom.

The representation of concepts (see Rodriguez-Moneo and Lopez in Part III) and specific historical events (see Paez et al. in Part III) is important in relation to citizens’ prior historical knowledge. Narratives are also essential because of various factors. First because historical knowledge mostly adopts a narrative format. It is not by chance that theoretical discussions about narrativ- ity have played a central role in historiographical debates in the last decades. Secondly, school history has traditionally found its privileged form in narrative. Most history education practices all over the world, independently of their quality and specific approach, adopt a narrative format.

In his chapter Mario Carretero analyses the main advantages and disadvantages of using this format in the context of constructive and cognitive research on historical contents, as well as in relation to developmental psychological theories of narrative abilities. One of the main advantages is the compatibility of the narrative format to the students’ minds and narration as a form of history teaching. The main disadvantage is precisely that students frequently consider historical narratives as the past itself instead of cultural constructions about the past. Furthermore, Carretero pays special attention to national historical narratives, as they are common in many societies (see also the chapters by Van der Vlies and Karrouche in Part II). Present research has shown five key characteristics of these national narratives. First, the nation and nationals are established as the main historical subjects of these narratives. They are displayed as if they were timeless and static entities and encountered throughout history. Secondly, the actions of the national group are always judged morally positive in contrast to foreign actions. In other words, the past is presented in a nationalistically and ethnocentrically biased manner. It is also presented in a rather simple way instead of being contextualized in complex social and political scenarios. Thirdly, these national narratives contribute greatly to the process of identification with the proper nation. Fourthly, a conflict over a national territory that stresses its supposed atemporal connection to the nationals is one of the narratives’ main themes (Lopez et al., 2015). Paradoxically this common national identity—constituting the subject of national narratives—that is meant to bind people in the past and the present is even included in past events in which the nation and the nationals did not exist at all. This misconnection between the past and present creates a misunderstanding of the nation and national identity. It creates beliefs based on a “banal nationalism” (Billig, 1995). Finally, the way the nation is presented, as a historical concept, is essentalist instead of contextual- ist (see also Rodriguez-Moneo and Lopez in Part III). Carretero’s chapter includes research demonstrating that when national historical narratives are not about the own nation, citizens tend to have a more disciplinary take on their content.

So far, we have reviewed the chapters related to what history to teach and why (Rosa and Bresco), and its relation to moral and civic issues (Haste & Bermudez) and the social sciences (Barton). We have also considered the chapters about how historical representations, concepts and narratives, form a prior knowledge to be considered for the practice of teaching history in both formal and informal contexts. However, if we would like to improve history education it is also necessary to include present approaches about how to teach historical contents. This has been analysed by the two remaining chapters of the handbook’s third part.

Lis Cercadillo, Arthur Chapman and Peter Lee dedicate their chapter to “historical accounts”, which is a second-order concept similar to “evidence” and “significance”. Their chapter has a clear relation to the chapters by Grever and Adriaansen as well as Seixas in Part I. They present an overview of the seminal and very influential work carried out at the London Institute of Education in the last three decades, paying attention to similar work developed in other countries, such as China and Spain (see e.g. Cercadillo, 2006; Hsiao, 2005). This research has suggested that students in different cultures may share common preconceptions about how we assemble historical knowledge, even though further research is needed. For instance, students coming from different religious and sociocultural backgrounds may have different—even perhaps incompatible—conceptions of history (see also the chapter by Grever and Adriaansen).

This comparison clearly shows how students from seven to fourteen years of age progress in their ways of considering how historical knowledge is constructed. That is to say, students go from a more empiricist way of looking at the formation of historical knowledge to a hermeneutic view, in which historians’ theories and interpretations play an important role. Interestingly, Cercadillo, Chapman and Lee introduce new concepts, such as “cognitive dispositions”, in their research that is quite close to the work on epistemological viewpoints or epistemic beliefs developed in the cognitive tradition (Kienhues and Bromme, 2011). In this line of work, students beliefs about how human knowledge is constructed have been very influential because they are not just theoretical views about knowledge in general but they also influence the way students learn about specific disciplinary contents like historical ones. This is precisely the working hypothesis developed by Cercadillo, Chapman and Lee in their present work related specifically to historical issues.

The chapter by Jeffrey Nokes analyses most of the work carried out in the last 25 years based on the pioneering work by Wineburg (1991; Wineburg & Fournier, 1994) about historical reading and writing in classrooms. As is well known, the endeavour to promote historical thinking has been one of the most influential in our field, along with the attempt to develop historical consciousness (see Seixas in Part I). As indicated by recent reflections on their developments (Retz, 2015; Seixas, 2015a; Seixas & Morton, 2013), both attempts were influenced by the initial British efforts in the 1980s to redesign history education (see Cercadillo, Chapman and Lee). That influence was related to the emphasis on educational versions of historiographical methods in the classroom instead of insisting on an excessive amount of historical contents. In the case of Seixas (2004) his project was also influenced by German authors like Rusen (2004) who developed the idea of the students need to develop historical consciousness. On the other hand, Wineburg (1991) was also influenced by cognitive studies with the expert-novice comparison as one of the main research strategies. The three heuristics commonly referred to and used in all these studies came from a comparison between historians (experts) and stu?dents (novices). Both groups had to answer a question about what happened in Lexington Green (1775), a famous battle of the American war of independence, using different kinds of primary and secondary sources. The three heuristics are sourcing, contextualization and corroboration. The first is related to the ability of distinguishing what kind of document is being read: a textbook, a letter from the protagonists, a secondary source or any other kind of document. The second has to do with the knowledge about the historical context of the document and the third deals with its capacity of corroborating any possible conclusion about the problem being investigated. These three heuristics form the foundation of historical reading as well as historical thinking because, according to this approach, historians basically work with documents. Based on a review of studies carried out both on reading historical texts and on writing them in secondary school classrooms, Nokes presents a systematic and exhaustive comparison of how conventional and reconceptualized history classrooms could be approached in relation to eight different pedagogical dimensions. These are the role of the teacher, the role of the student, the role of assessments and several related dimensions. His chapter also includes a complete review of the very positive results obtained in extensive applied work carried out along these lines. Finally, Nokes offers some future perspectives related to the role of social interaction and learning in history classes. One important aspect of that interaction is precisely dialogical activity and this is the main topic of the following chapter.

Carla Van Boxtel and Janet Van Drie criticize the current and past situation of history education where the teacher presents verbalized information in the form of a “ready-made” narrative and students respond through predefined answers. They defend the idea of bringing historical reasoning into the class mainly through dialogical activity. However, according to these researchers this dialogue needs to use the language of the discipline, that is, the strategies and the meta-concepts used by historians. Such a dialogue would, above all, engage students in source work (Wineburg, 2001). Van Boxtel and Van Drie argue that dialogue greatly enriches the work in the classroom directed towards historical thinking because it promotes higher order contributions of students, including explanations, justifications and hypothesis-generation, in the context of multiple perspectives and uncertainty. They base their argument on Alexander’s (2008) proposal about the critical contribution of dialogue to educational activities relying in turn on theoretical ideas from Bakhtin (1986). Van Boxtel and Van Drie identify six pedagogical components of dialogical reasoning for history classrooms:

  • 1. Ask historical questions.
  • 2. Connect events, developments and actions through a historical contextualization.
  • 3. Use substantive historical concepts(facts, concepts and chronology).
  • 4. Use historical meta-concepts.
  • 5. Support claims with arguments.
  • 6. Evidence based on evaluated sources.

The authors maintain that these components are powerful enough to trigger both historical interest in the students and to improve epistemological beliefs about history as a subject matter. They thus help students to understand that disciplinary historical problems have no closed answers already established in a definitive narrative but, on the contrary, that these problems can be investigated and interrogated as ways of inquiring about past societies and looking for different interpretations. Therefore, these efforts try to develop critical thinking and intellectual autonomy among the students using not only reading and writing activities about historical sources in the classrooms, but also an intensive dialogue about them and the conceptual problems they are associated with. These ideas are in line with some recent research (Freedman, 2015) that insists on providing more opportunities for students to develop critical thinking through the introduction of a broader variety of sources and to insert their historical evidence in the context of general interpretations or “frames”.

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