Frameworks of the Past

Stimulated by ideas initially proposed by Denis Shemilt (Shemilt, 1983), UK research and theorizing has sought to move beyond the initial dichotomy between first- and second-order concepts and to focus on the ways in which, and the extent to which, young people are able to integrate their first-order understandings of the past and second-order understandings to form narrative and/or analytical representations of the past at scale (Lee & Howson, 2009; Shemilt, 2000, 2009). A key question in this research has been the role that ‘frameworks’, or organizing schemata and questions, play in the development of ‘big picture’ representations of the past that enable ‘usable historical pasts’ capable of providing orientation in time (Foster, Ashby, & Lee, 2008; Howson & Shemilt, 2011).

In curriculum development terms, this approach aims to avoid the twin dangers of patchy understandings of the past, in which children and adolescents develop unrelated pockets of knowledge and understanding of a limited range of periods and episodes in the past (much discussed in England), and of understandings of the past organized solely through celebratory national narratives (frequent in French and in Spanish curricula), which may provide apparent identity-affirmation (particularly for those who propose them) but which do not provide tools for critical historical orientation. By contrast, the ‘frameworks’ approach intends to explore possible uses of history for purposes of orientation in the present and the future, and their consequences for the development of historical consciousness (Lee, 2004; Rusen, 2005).

Empirical studies of students’ ‘big pictures’ (Foster, Ashby, & Lee, 2008; Lee & Howson, 2009) have suggested that students tend to populate the past with individuals, groups, dynasties, nations, peoples and institutions, and that student accounts variously included events, actions, periods, topics and colligations. Less typical were students whose conceptual ontology included reference to trends, themes, turning-points, change, development, process and patterns. It emerged that it was possible to capture students’ generalized understandings of the past by focusing analysis of their accounts of British history on two broad ontological categories that were defined as ‘event like’ and ‘process like’. The first coded category—‘event like’—identified accounts that gave priority to events, topics and ‘and then’ narratives. A number of student responses (35 %) appeared to move beyond producing random topic lists or partial or truncated narratives and provided some indication that their authors construed history as an unfolding process of change and development. These accounts were categorized as ‘process-like’. Only 12 % of the total of student responses (15- to 17-year-old students) moved beyond recounting discreet and unconnected events to offer a sense of important themes, trends or processes in the passage of British history; these students seemed to have a conceptual apparatus that enabled them to make connections across time. Overall, therefore, this study revealed that the small minority of students who were able to think of a past in terms of more sophisticated conceptions of change and significance appeared better equipped to consider issues of contemporary and future concern (Foster, Ashby, & Lee, 2008). Further empirical work, exploring students’ endeavours to construct historical narratives, has focused on modes and degrees of connectivity in students’ narrative construction and posited a tentative progression model related to narrative competence (Blow et al., 2015).

Overall, this work reinforces the conclusion—apparent in the earlier discussion of students ideas about cause, about accounts and about significance— that we need to attend to the tacit assumptions that students make about the ontology of the past and to tacit assumptions that are embodied in the ways that students organize their representation of the past and their thinking about representations produced by others. There is a clear need for further research in this area and on frameworks and big pictures in general. It seems probable that the achievement of many of the cherished aims of history education—such as enabling mastery of representations of large passages of the past and the development of usable historical pasts that can enable orientation in time—is likely to depend on developing a clearer understanding of the ideas that can impede or foster young people’s historical understanding at scale.

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