Textbooks and History Education

Compared with the amount of sustained inquiry into pedagogical methods and into educational theory and policy generally, research into the use of textbooks as a crucial element (or not) in history classrooms was until the 1990s a low-yield activity that was methodologically varied and geographically scattered. This paucity of attention is almost certainly because of the huge number of variables associated with the use of textbooks in the classroom. For example, large-scale empirical studies would, in many democratic societies, encounter teacher-to-teacher, school-to-school, year-to-year and publisher-to-publisher variations that might militate against anything other than the most anodyne conclusions. Further, classroom micro-studies, while useful anecdotally, can only offer, at best, vivid but isolated and often atypical findings. What this means is that our understanding of any patterns of the relationship between textbooks and historical controversy remains fragmented and incomplete (Pingel, 2010: 46).

Consequently, apart from the highly regarded work of Germany’s Georg Eckert Institut (www.gei.de/en/the-institute.html), the field of history textbook study is relatively barren. The UK history educator Stuart Foster (2011) has bemoaned the lack of a corpus of literature in such a key pedagogical area, stressing the central importance of more research in the field. In attempting to produce conceptual categories that might frame new research he has arrived at a two-part classification of how history textbooks are, and might yet be, researched and critiqued.

His first category is the conciliatory tradition approach, where textbook researchers work with practitioner educators from a range of nations to produce textbooks that show a broad, common understanding of past events and at the same time are aware of the histories of other nations. This approach, from 1925 to the present, has been applied to much of the work of the League of Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and to the activities of the Georg Eckert Institut (see e.g. Aleksashkina, 2006). The second category is the critical tradition in which academics and researchers examine textbooks as a way of answering questions about the development of historical consciousness, as in Peter Seixas’s view (drawn from Macdonald & Fausser, 2000) that this kind of consciousness is an amalgam of ‘individual and collective understandings of the past, the cognitive and cultural factors that shape those understandings, as well as the relations of historical understandings to those of the present and the future’ (Seixas, 2006: 10).

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