Historical Thinking

British thinking regarding the use of history, and therefore its shape in history education has quite different foci. Furthermore, British work has had a more visible impact on the vibrant American field of history education in the past two and a half decades. The Schools Council History Project (more recently, the Schools History Project) made the seminal contribution of “second-order concepts” in history (Shemilt, 1980). These procedural (or structural or disciplinary) concepts were described as “not what history is ‘about’,” but as shaping “the way we go about doing history” (Lee & Ashby, 2000: 199). Denis Shemilt, Peter Lee, Rosalyn Ashby and others included concepts such as accounts, significance, change and evidence. This conceptual breakthrough provided the basis to define students’ progress in history education. Rather than simply measuring the memorization of more factual knowledge as progression in historical competency (what Peter Lee graphically labels a “sedi?mentation” model of history learning), improvement was conceptualized in terms of increasingly powerful ways of handling and applying second-order concepts in dealing with historical topics and problems. This conceptualization gave rise to a robust research program aimed at identifying on the basis of empirical investigation, the levels of students’ development and various paths to greater sophistication.

Lee and Ashby (2000: 216) summarized, “As students develop more powerful ideas about how we can make claims about the past and about the ways different kinds of claims may be substantiated or overturned, they acquire the best intellectual toolkit we have for thinking about the human world in time.” In this one sentence, we can see the British emphasis on the epistemological problems of the discipline of history, and their distance from their Continental colleagues. These contrasts included not only the emphasis on historical epistemology but also the degree to which the research had an impact on school curricula (the Schools History Project had a huge impact on the British curriculum) and the relative ease with which the British conceptual framework could be empirically investigated in research.

However, for the purposes of this chapter, the most important contrast is in their respective concerns with the uses of the history, specifically the relationship between the disciplinary practices of historians and the lives of the rest of society around them. Jorn Rusen’s disciplinary matrix is useful in this regard (Megill, 1994). The matrix consists of a cycle, with “the historical discipline” in the upper half and “life practice” below. Historians’ theories, methods and representations—form the upper semi-circle. It is connected to the lower semicircle by feeding into the “existential orientation,” and by being fed by “interests” that are part of “life practice.” Rusen was thus centrally concerned with how historical questions arise from everyday life, and, in turn, with how historical research could feed back into the larger culture. These concerns were largely outside the purview of the British history education discussion. The British would go no further than asserting that learning the operations of the discipline of history as an open and critical practice would yield educational benefits, by definition, for participation in a liberal, democratic polity (see also Lee’s 2004 critique of Rusen’s disciplinary matrix).

American history education research, which began to reach a critical mass in the late 1990s, followed the British precursors in many respects, but developed some themes that set it apart. The work of Sam Wineburg was central in these developments. His “On the reading of historical texts” (1991) helped to define the distinctive disciplinary character of reading in history for history education scholars. This early work was prescient in setting a “historical literacy” agenda that was perfectly attuned to the focus on improving students reading and writing that developed in national educational initiatives over the next two decades. A focus on the quartet of sourcing (a Wineburg neologism that has now become commonplace), contextualization, corroboration and close reading formed the basis of school initiatives with massive uptake. His students pushed the work further: Reisman (2012) in reading, and Monte-Sano (2011) in writing. In much of this work, historical thinking was operationalized as historical literacy.

The other distinctive American contribution was a sociocultural lens, which led to the investigation of the impact of ethnicity, culture and gender on historical understanding. Barton and Levstik (e.g., 2004), Epstein (2008) and VanSledright (2002) were central in these developments. While this research examined the relationships of learning history to the social context in which it took place, it was informed by social psychology rather than by Continental philosophy. In its insistence on social amelioration, it had perhaps closer ties to American social studies than to either the British research or German history didactics.

The fast-growing body of empirically based, English-language research in history education has been the subject of decennial reviews in Handbooks of Educational Psychology, from Wineburg’s (1996) initial contribution, through VanSledright and Limon (2006) to “Studying Historical Understanding” (Monte-Sano and Reisman, 2016). The latter emphasizes that the work under review was rigorous empirical research that focused on student learning. The authors purposefully exclude theoretical or philosophical discussion of history education. (p. 282).

The pragmatic Anglo-American history education community has largely left philosophical explorations to the pages of History and Theory, and thrown itself into curriculum reform, assessment development and empirical studies of students’ ideas and learning. While these efforts have borne fruit in explicit definitions of historical thinking as goals in new national curriculum in Australia, revised provincial curricula across Canada, the Common Core Standards in the United States and the much-downloaded Stanford “Reading Like a Historian” lessons, they have largely sidestepped any direct confrontation with the philosophical challenges of plural historical cultures.

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