Possible Implications for Teaching

The dichotomy ‘knowledge versus understanding’ has proved to be a false one. Knowledge implies understanding of the grounds of historical claims. Good teaching has, then, to enable children and adolescents (even adults!) to understand why it is possible to have different accounts in history and to understand the standards that valid historical accounts must meet. The progress of his?torical knowledge lies in the recognition of a plurality of alternatives. A key purpose of history education must, therefore, be to highlight the features of specific narratives and to relate these features to the facts that the narratives variously choose to highlight and foreground. As the Stanford History Education Group has argued (SHEG, n.d.):

In the end, students should conclude that they don’t have a simple, definitive answer about what happened. It is understandable if some students are uncomfortable with this. Many students have been taught that history is a single, true story about what happened in the past. Lessons can be devised for them to consider who writes history and how history is written—which requires a tolerance for uncertainty that many students haven’t yet learned.

History education research is both basic and applied. It is basic because it addresses crucial issues in the epistemology of history and the ontology of the past. It is applied because its findings can be used to inform teaching that aims to foster genuine historical learning. The empirical models of progression that we have discussed are provisional, but nonetheless important. Because they draw our attention to preconceptions that students may be likely to hold, they allow teachers to plan learning in ways that can challenge students’ thinking and avoid the assimilation of new conceptions to old, less powerful, and ideas that students already hold. As research develops a better understanding of students’ preconceptions, it becomes easier for teachers to predict the kinds of misunderstandings they are likely to encounter, and to make decisions about which of these prior conceptions block new understandings and which can become foundations to build upon.

Research on students’ assumptions and tacit understandings of history— or on what we might call their ‘meta-historical thinking’—can have a range of uses. Thus, for example, understanding barriers to progression can make assessment and formative assessment for learning both more sensitive to the nuances of how children are thinking and more effective in helping teachers develop that thinking (Seixas & Morton, 2013). Perhaps most importantly, however, the findings of studies such as those that we have discussed can give us the confidence to be ambitious in teaching and, more broadly, in curriculum design. Whatever else these studies have shown, they have certainly demonstrated the sophistication with which some young people can approach knowing and understanding the past and, in doing so, demonstrated that school history can aim to do much more than simply to develop children as reservoirs of factual knowledge (Shemilt, 2009). Teachers and researchers alike have reasons to be cautiously optimistic, because, when surveyed using methodologies that interrogate understanding, rather than through simplistic quizzes and factual tests, students often reveal that they know a good deal about the past and about the discipline of history that can give this knowledge epistemic warrant and cognitive power.

History should be present in school curricula not because it can claim to develop social cohesion through the internalization of a particular national story or offer citizens a sense of belonging but because history has a privileged status in relation to any other sources of accounts of the past. This ‘privilege’ is important but limited. Historical ways of understanding the past are privileged only in relation to certain kinds of question. Such questions presuppose that no one can own the past or segments of it, and that any serious questions about the past may demand answers that run against our practical interests and deepest feelings. Practical questions whose answers order the past to suit out hopes and fears, comfort and share our wounds, or serve our practical interests of course remain legitimate. But if we let these control our understanding of the past, we are likely to misunderstand both the past and the very interests, hopes and fears that we seek to service. Moreover, ‘the disposition to investigate and analyse the past from the perspective of possible futures is a key development in historical consciousness and one that transcends the all too common perception that “the past is dead and gone”’ (Lee & Shemilt, 2009: 197).

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