Understanding Is Not an All-or-Nothing Achievement

Grounded on British work, research on History Education—that is, how students learn and how history is taught—shifted from substantive concepts and understanding in a general sense (the crude knowledge versus skills debate) to specific historical thinking and ‘ideas’ (e.g. Seixas & Morton, 2013). This shift led to the need to know about the second-order concepts in terms of which the discipline of history is given epistemological shape, an argument coherent with the philosophy that school history should mirror both pupils’ personal and social needs and the nature of the discipline. Substantive or first-order concepts possess a broad span (and interchangeable meaning) from abstraction to concretion: ‘king’, ‘peasant’ or ‘suffragette’ and ‘democracy’, ‘feudalism’, ‘nation’ or ‘colonization’. Moreover, some very usable substantive concepts for historians are those termed colligatory (Walsh, 1959), which always involve a sense of period, such as the ‘Renaissance’, the ‘Enlightenment’, the ‘Industrial Revolution’ or the ‘Holocaust’, and may be interpreted as narratives in themselves. The difficulty for historical learning and for research is that first-order concepts are, in general, everyday practical notions in which the specific historical content is provided only by particular contexts. Our concept of democracy or people, for instance, cannot be extrapolated to those of Ancient Greece or Rome. Therefore, the investigation of progression grounded solely on concepts of this kind has proved difficult, although it is gradually being included in history education research agendas.

Second-order concepts were then addressed, in part, to overcome some of these obstacles, but also as a research strategy to help develop a fuller awareness of the nature of students’ historical understanding and the challenges that learning history can present. These concepts are the organizing concepts of the discipline and enable history’s internal logic to be apprehended. As research in recent decades has suggested, students tend to hold certain tacit ideas which facilitate or hinder their historical competence. Knowledge of the ideas that students have about history’s organizing concepts, and the subsequent construction by researchers of an underlying hierarchy of conceptual understandings, have proved helpful in approaching the development of students’ reasoning in history. Taking this approach has enabled the delineation of patterns of progression, or hierarchies of conceptual complexity in history learning, which seem likely to be applicable to all kinds of content (Lee & Shemilt, 2003).

Research into student second-order historical concepts is very far from extensive, but, relatively speaking, considerable attention has been paid to notions of empathy, cause and especially of evidence, in the past three decades (on empathy see e.g. Ashby & Lee, 1987; Davis, Foster, & Yeager, 2001; Dickinson & Lee, 1978; Shemilt, 1984. For examples exploring cause, see Carretero, Jacott, Limon, Lopez-Manjon, & Leon, 1994; Carretero, Lopez-Manjon, & Jacott, 1997; Shemilt, 1984. On evidence see Ashby, 2005; Dickinson, Gard, & Lee, 1978; Shemilt, 1987). Although significant progress has been made in researching these concepts, the same cannot be said about students’ understanding of historical accounts, or about closely linked ideas like historical significance, and we know even less about the underlying ideas that may provide students with basic assumptions about how the past could be organized. Research into the cognitive dispositions which must accompany ideas about historical accounts—if genuine historical understanding is a goal of history education—is simply absent.

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