Possible Research Questions for the Future

It seems likely that central to students’ understanding of the historical organization of the past is some awareness of the different nature and status of the possible components of a historical account, and, perhaps at a deeper level, the way in which chunks of the past are framed and given sense. Any research programme that pursues these matters would be wise to pay attention to problems raised by discussion among historians and philosophers regarding the nature and status of historians’ organization of the past. Judgements about these matters are decisive for how we construe students’ ideas. For example, if students who claim that history is ‘made up’ or simply ‘a matter of opinion’ were correct, it would be odd to characterize ideas held by other students allowing history to ‘go on’ as more powerful. Alternatively, if students’ historical ontology is confined to event-like entities, and colligatory concepts are assimilated to events, historians’ accounts of the past may seem to be fixed by pre-given structures that they ‘discover’.

Investigation of student assumptions about how historians make sense of the past offers the prospect of a better research-based understanding of the development of their ideas as to how historical accounts relate to the past and to each other, and of their thinking about the implications of the existence of rival and competing accounts of the past. In education, of course, students are offered a past already more or less organized into conventional chunks. It is therefore very important to make an attempt to uncover presuppositions regarding the status of colligatory concepts that students have already encountered in existing historical accounts. But we might also approach these matters in another way, by investigating how children and adolescents themselves attempt to organize passages of the past when they encounter them for the first time. How do they ‘chunk’ disparate elements into wholes? Do they recognize alternative possibilities?

An equally neglected cluster of research questions centres on the cognitive dispositions students must have acquired if they can be said to understand history as a way of making sense of the world. For example, in order to make historical judgements about the accounts they are offered in formal education or that they encounter in the wider world, it is not sufficient for students to be aware that such accounts cannot be construed as copies of the past, or must be congruent with relevant evidence. They must also have acquired commitments. They should not be content to plump for the most convenient or familiar account. More positively, they should show a genuine disposition to evaluate rival accounts in relation to the questions (implicit as well as explicit) that they claim to answer; to take into consideration their chosen scope in time and place; and to weigh their degree of success in explaining the evidence on which they rest.

Learning history is not just a matter of learning substantive history (knowing and understanding some ‘content’), and neither is it simply a matter of acquiring key second-order concepts (understanding how historical knowledge is possible and how history ‘works’). We can see this if we ask ourselves what we would say of anyone who claimed to know and understand history (in either or both senses) but was unashamed of making up whatever best suited his or her current wants or wishes. It would be similar to encountering someone who claimed to understand mathematics, but happily ignored its rules, or cared nothing for its standards of proof. As Froeyman states, ‘We can regard the ideal which guides the historian not as an obsession to discover the historical truth, but rather as the more general ideal of being a good historian’ (2012: 431). What kind of dispositions are at stake? We should distinguish between

  • 1. knowing that historical statements should be warranted (whether or not it is understood that the warrant for claims can be provided by valid arguments from and encompassing the available evidence);
  • 2. having certain attitudes to truth and validity—caring whether statements are supported and, thus, credible, or not;
  • 3. having a disposition to take steps to check or test whether a claim (or set of claims) is warranted or not—that is, a tendency to behave in certain appropriate ways in the presence of claims to knowledge.

It might be insisted that (2) must imply (3), or else (2) is empty. In many ways this is a fair repost, but in practice we must allow for the possibility that responses (whether in classroom or research tasks) might reveal students who adamantly assert that it matters that historians make warranted statements, vehemently dismiss any statement if they are told it is unsupported, but make no effort to check the warrant for statements with which they are presented even if the means of doing so is available to them.

Can we say anything about the acquisition of ‘cognitive ethics’ in history education? The initial answer must be that the empirical basis for any secure suggestions here is very thin. While there is a body of research investigating students’ ideas about the truth or validity of singular factual statements and accounts in history, and also exploring conceptions of what makes a good explanation, there seems to be no work directly investigating the development of relevant dispositions.

However, we can use existing research on students’ ideas about truth or validity in history to suggest possible ‘cognitive attitudes’, and from these hypothesize likely changes in dispositions. It seems reasonable to expect that both what might be called ‘cognitive attitudes’ (2) and ‘cognitive dispositions’ (3) will be qualified by the conceptual apparatus students have at their disposal. For example, if students’ ideas about how we can know about the past are in general at a testimony level (that is, they believe that we can only know anything if someone, preferably an eye-witness, reports truthfully on what happened), it will be very difficult for them to think of how we might check the validity of an historical claim in the absence of a witness (see Table 28.2 below for a fuller—but speculative—example of possible cognitive attitudes to reading or telling history stories, based on research into students’ ideas about historical accounts).

Nevertheless, we cannot assume that because students believe, for example, that historical accounts differ because historians make mistakes regarding matters of fact, those same students will automatically care whether either they or historians are careful in what they assert about the past in any particular historical argument or claim. Still less can we assume that the students will have acquired a disposition to take steps to avoid such mistakes. Moreover, our ignorance works the other way around. We cannot even assume that a student who has never gone beyond ascribing difference in accounts to factual error will not show signs of unease in the face of accounts that exhibit partisanship. Reliable claims about relevant dispositions await research, and our caution should be still greater regarding the relationships between dispositions, which may turn out to be highly context dependent.

Empirical investigation of dispositions (3) will not be easy: pre-existing loyalties and standpoints may produce radically different practical commitment to the testing of truth and validity. One way to begin such research might appear to be to offer students stories which we expect to be irrelevant to their day-today prior loyalties, but nevertheless seem to them to pose interesting mysteries or puzzles. There are pitfalls in such a strategy, however. CHATA research which used the story of King Arthur as one approach to exploring students’ concepts of historical evidence suggested that the story did indeed create interest, but that this led some students to subscribe to stories that fitted what they wanted to believe had happened (Ashby, 2005). Before we simply pounce on this as indicating something clear about their cognitive dispositions, we need to recognize that some measure of the ‘attractiveness’ of a story or hypothesis is required if we hope to develop instruments that can safely tell us anything about what dispositions have been acquired.

Table 28.4 presents the possible attitudes and dispositions related to the validity of historical accounts. For each level in the table: Reading refers to the assumptions about how we should read history likely to be adopted by students operating that level of the progression model; Writing refers to assumptions about how we should write history likely to be adopted by students operating at that level of the progression model; and Disposition as behaviour identifies behaviours that might count as evidence of a disposition to operationalize the cognitive values associated with each level that are likely to be adopted by students when asked to evaluate historical accounts.

Table 28.4 Possible attitudes and dispositions related to the validity of historical accounts


Probable assumptions and behaviours adopted by students operating at each level

1. Accounts are just (given) stories

We should listen or read carefully in case we get the story wrong. [Reading] When we tell a history story we must get it right. [Writing]

Checks whether the story is accurately repeated. [Disposition as behaviour]

2. Accounts fail to be copies of a past we cannot witness

We should try to get the facts right, but because we can't be sure of anything: the best we can do is to decide which story we like. It might matter which we choose, because we may have to support one side, or not upset someone who believes one version. [Reading]

It is impossible to be sure that any history story we tell is true, so although we should try to get the facts right, all we can really do is give our opinion. [Writing] Tests own opinion against wider loyalties/obligations. [Disposition as behaviour]

Table 28.4 (continued)


Probable assumptions and behaviours adopted by students operating at each level

3. Accounts are accurate copies of the past, except for mistakes or gaps

We should try to get the facts right. We should check for mistakes and gaps in case the writer did not know all the facts. We can check against books (like encyclopaedias) or by asking someone who knows. [Reading]

When we tell a history story we should check if we’ve got the facts right, although we might have to leave some gaps because no-one knows some facts. [Writing]

Checks against further authorities to fill gaps or eliminate errors.

[Disposition as behaviour]

4. Accounts may be distorted for ulterior motives

We should find out what the writer’s bias is, and try to stop it influencing us. We should look out for exaggerations, and especially for lies. [Reading]

When we tell a history story we should make sure we don’t distort the facts and that our story is neutral (unbiased) by any point of view. [Writing]

Looks for partisanship in story and in writer. [Disposition as behaviour]

5. Accounts are given from a (legitimate) personal viewpoint

We should find out what point of view the writer has: what are his or her values and aims in writing the story. We need to know how this has affected the selection of what goes into the story. [Reading]

When we tell a history story we should be aware of our own point of view, and what we are interested in finding out, recognizing that not everybody shares our viewpoint or interests. But this does not mean we can be cavalier with the evidence. [Writing]

Checks writer’s standpoint in relation to use of evidence and selection.

[Disposition as behaviour]

6. Accounts must answer questions and fit criteria

We should check that we know what the account is trying to do: what questions it is and isn’t answering, and what themes it purports to deal with.

We should try to make explicit the criteria that are implied by the historian’s choice of questions and themes.

We should consider to what extent the account meets these criteria. In particular, we should ask whether it explains the evidence, is coherent, and addresses its questions and themes in a non-arbitrary way.

We should ask how far different but related questions that might make things look different have been recognized or ignored. [Reading]

When we tell a history story we must be clear about what question we are asking, the themes that follow from it and the criteria it implies: we should recognize that other questions and themes are possible, and consider how they might relate to ours.

We should check that our story indeed answers our questions, explains relevant evidence and is coherent and non-arbitrary. [Writing]

Assesses account against questions it addresses and attendant criteria; considers effect of different questions. [Disposition as behaviour]

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