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Conceptual Change in History

Compared to the natural sciences, conceptual change in history is a much more recent field of research. However, there is already a sufficient amount of studies to provide useful insights on the matter. We now know that history learners have to move from a common-sense understandings of historical concepts to a more complex and critical understanding.

Research in the social sciences shows that students’ understanding of events and processes vary throughout adolescence and adulthood (Barret & Buchanan-Barrow, 2005; Furnham, 1994). Carretero and Lee (2014) point out that these changes could involve two aspects: changes from concrete to abstract and also from static to dynamic. The first aspect implies a progress from understanding concepts through their more concrete dimensions to assigning more abstract qualities: changing from an understanding of concepts such as ‘revolution’ based on specific characters or events and superficial aspects to incorporate social institutions and deep features of the concept. The second aspect, changing from a static to a dynamic understanding of concepts, implies that the student increasingly understands history as a conceptual network characterized by its dynamic nature. An example of this kind of change would be the process of understanding concepts such as ‘borders’, ‘nations’ or ‘national identities’ as static and everlasting ideas to acknowledge their dynamic, constructed and changing characteristics. However, these changes are often not fully acquired, and concrete and static ideas about historical concepts remain even after the educational process has taken place.

In order to understand how students’ understanding of first order concepts changes, or not, it is necessary to analyze both the representation of the concept by itself and the ways that students use the concept, as well as the narrative in which the concept is used. Students use historical concepts in the narratives they build in order to make sense of the past. A series of studies have been recently conducted regarding students’ understanding of a relevant first order concept, this is the concept of nation (Carretero & van Alphen, 2014; Lopez, Carretero, & Rodriguez-Moneo, 2014, 2015). The concept of nation is a core concept in the field of history for a number of reasons. First, the discipline of history itself has been connected to this concept since its beginning as a modern discipline in the nineteenth century (Anderson, 1983; Balibar, 1991). Second, the very concept of nation has shaped most of historical narratives within the discipline in many different countries leading to the construction of national narratives in order to encounter the past (Berger & Lorenz, 2010). Third, these national narratives, with the concept of nation as their leitmotiv, have guided the uses and goals of history education since the nineteenth century and their influence can be traced up until now (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Barton & McCully, 2005; Carretero, 2011; Carretero & Lopez, 2010; Foster, 2012). Fourth, the concept of nation has been strongly connected to national identity including its explicit and implicit moral purposes (Anderson, 1983; Hobsbawm, 1997; Renan, 1882). Lastly, the way in which the concept of nation is understood could lead to very different ways of looking at the whole discipline of history.

Recent studies have shown that most students fail to change their concept of nation although they have been taught history many years through compulsory education. Lopez, Carretero, and Rodriguez-Moneo (2015) found that most students from their sample (university students in Spain) had a concrete and essentialist understanding of their nation. The narratives they built approached the Spanish nation in a naturalized and permanent way. The concept of Spain was used by many participants even to explain events that occurred in the Middle Ages, many centuries before the actual creation of the Spanish nation. Thus, students conceived their nation as a natural entity that has always existed. Another relevant finding was the way in which most of them made moral judge?ments in favor of the actions carried out by their nation. Students legitimated their nation’s actions while the other’s actions -in this case the Muslims’- are delegitimized. Moreover, many students use ‘we’ or ‘our’ when talking about the ‘Spanish’ group, showing an explicit identity link with one of the historical groups in their narrative. Thus, an exclusive narrative of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ is built about the nation’s past. Interestingly, the whole narrative is influenced by their understanding of the nation and their identity linked with it. Barton and Levstik (2004) found similar results regarding moral judgements and legitimacy among 10-14 years old students when dealing with U.S. history. They found how American students legitimized their own nation’s actions when explaining events such as First and Second World War or the Vietnam War. Similar results have been found among teenagers and adults in other countries, such as Argentina (Carretero & Kriger, 2008, 2011). These studies show the rather static and concrete views of students regarding such a critical historical concept as the nation. Therefore, students in different countries have failed to make a conceptual change from a concrete to an abstract and from static to a dynamic understanding of the concept of nation. A study by Carretero and van Alphen (2014) conducted with Argentine 8th to 11th graders found that 11th graders developed a more historical understanding in their narratives about the nation. However, the use of national identity (‘us’) remained the same across years of education.

These studies could shed some light on at least two aspects to take into account when talking about conceptual change in history. First, these studies point out the relevance of understanding some critical first order concepts such as the nation or national identity. As it has been noticed, the way in which a concept is understood could influence the production of a certain narrative. Second, identity and moral issues take an important role in order to build and support students’ narratives and concepts. Thus, challenging historical concepts related to the students’ own national or social identity could be even more difficult. A study by Lopez, Carretero, and Rodriguez-Moneo (2014) demonstrated how university students develop a more complex and balanced narrative about the concept of nation when dealing with a historical content different from their own nation. As we have seen before, there is a tendency to positively judge the own group’s actions (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Triandafyllidou, 1998). Once the identity link between the historical content and the student is reduced, a more critical and dynamic understanding arose. These students tended to elaborate more critical and balanced moral judgements when dealing with a historical content in which their own nation was not involved. In this sense, the participants in this study gave room to different points of view and possible narratives in order to explain the past. This could be useful in order to promote conceptual change through analogical thinking in our classrooms. However, we should emphasize that even though in this study students allowed for balanced and critic moral judgements in their narratives, and some elements of the concept of nation were more dynamic, they still understood national identity as naturalized and static.

These recent studies also delve into the possible reasons why conceptual change is sometimes hindered. On the one hand, many studies have pointed out how in formal education some traditional and naive meanings for historical concepts are not only unchallenged but supported. This is the case with the natural and atemporal presentation of the nation found in many historical textbooks around the world, mainly through national narratives (Foster, 2012; Grever & Stuurman, 2007; Symcox & Wilschut, 2009) (see Carretero & Gonzalez, in this volume, for a detailed analysis). On the other hand some social practices found outside school also support these common-sense approaches to historical concepts (Berger, Eriksonas, & Mycock, 2011; Billig, 1995; Wineburg, Mosborg, Porat, & Duncan, 2007). History writing is just one of the ways through which historical concepts are transmitted. Memorials, films, museums, historical re-enactments, patriotic celebrations or social networks are very powerful tools through which people encounter the past. People also develop their ideas and beliefs about historical concepts through these tools. However, as in history textbooks, sometimes these other tools also support misleading meanings for historical concepts. An example of this phenomenon has been analyzed by Michael Billig in his work on Banal Nationalism (1995). According to Billig, we are surrounded by less visible forms of celebrating the nation that spread traditional and nationalistic ways of understanding and living the nation. Examples are memorial sites, flags, street names or commemoration days. For our purpose of better understanding conceptual change is important to take into account that these more informal ways of encountering the past are sometimes at the core of peoples’ beliefs about historical contents. These beliefs, as in the case of nation emphasized by Billig, are usually of an implicit nature. That is, people are so used to encounter and use these beliefs that they are somehow automatic. The implicit and automatic nature of these beliefs makes these conceptions more difficult to be challenged and changed.

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