Democratically Creating Historical Thinking for the Common Good

By Stanley Hallman-Chong

The history curriculum in Ontario is part of a larger set of curricula that embrace several other subjects and disciplines, including Social Studies, Civics, Geography, Law, Politics, and Economics. Hence when the Ontario Ministry of Education proceeded to review its history curriculum, it sought to create a common structure and an element of unity that would encompass all of the subjects and disciplines together. With this Hegelian task in mind, we will see how historical thinking became a part of Ontario’s revised curriculum and provide some account for why it took the shape it did.

The revision and review of curriculum in Ontario was guided by a formal process that solicited input from a wide variety of sources. Along the way, research was conducted on current trends in education in general, as well as in history education in particular.  In order to gage what the public wanted, the Ministry also consulted with teacher and subject organizations, parent groups, and other stakeholders.

During these consultations, the common message coming from academics and teachers was that the memorization of facts was not good enough; concepts of historical thinking should provide the guide for changes in the history curriculum. The message coming from the general public on the other hand, was that new the curriculum should focus on developing skills and knowledge that would facilitate responsible citizenship. Eventually, it was concluded that historical thinking should develop thinking skills that would make students responsible citizens in a pluralistic democracy. So goes the development of curriculum and education in a contemporary electoral democracy.

This end had already been portended by the previous curriculum in several ways. The Ministry made it clear that there was never an intention to reinvent the curriculum. The curriculum would only be tweaked to stay in tune with current trends and the needs of the public. As stated in the previous curriculum, the purpose of Social Studies, Civics, Geography, Law, Politics, Economics, and History education was to remain as serving the common good. [1]

Although developing citizenship as the ultimate goal of history was challenged by some parties during public consultations, it was never discussed as a negotiable conclusion. With the grand purpose of citizenship education in mind, teachers around the province agreed that in order for history to be relevant to students, they must see connections between the past and their own lives. History then would not be an end in itself, but would be studied for a more noble purpose, that is “to serve the common good.”

This raises the question, should we assume that connections to the present and to the public good are always there hovering in time and that the purpose of history is to find them? Or, would this mean that we would only study topics that remain connected to the present? Positivism and pragmatism may be the cornerstones of the Ontario history curriculum. Also, with the conclusion of historical inquiries already stated a priori, one wonders if there would be any inquiry at all.

The Ministry decided on the general principles for the curriculum revision, i.e. to structure it around the concepts of historical thinking and citizenship.  Teachers were then hired to write the curriculum based on these principles during the course of five weeks. In order to make the curriculum representative of the different regions of the province, these teacher-writers were hired based on their location of origin. This meant that there was a set proportion of writers coming from the rural and the more remote regions as well as the urban centres. Balancing the denomination of the teachers’ employer boards, i.e. Catholic or Public was also a factor.

During this process, the concepts of historical thinking were familiar to only a few teachers in Ontario, most of whom came from the Greater Toronto Area. The Ministry believed that historical thinking was already a part of every good teacher’s implicit pedagogy, so when the writing of the curriculum began, the writers were given very little training in the concepts of historical thinking. In fact, their main knowledge of the concepts aside from their implicit understanding, came from a particular teaching resource, which they were asked to peruse it on their own time. [2]

Since the history curriculum was part of a set of policies covering Social Studies, Civics, Geography, Law, Politics, and Economics, the Ministry decided that each of these subjects and disciplines also needed to be guided by their own “concepts of thinking.” However, unlike history, the other subjects and disciplines had little research from which to extract concepts. Instead, the teacher-writers were asked to brainstorm the basic concepts for each of the other disciplines. Thus the historical thinking concepts became a prototype for the concepts in the other subjects and disciplines. Furthermore, without consulting research, the teacher-writers decided that evidence was not a concept to be included in the list of historical thinking concepts. Again, the democratic decision-making model became the procedure of curriculum development; evidence was shifted to an area called “the inquiry model” which used evidence as a fetishized thing to be found and gathered rather than as a concept of thinking.

Finally, the sixth concept, that is “the ethical-dimension” disappeared altogether because not everyone was comfortable with it as being a basic concept of historical thinking. When it was raised that there was evidence coming from research to include “the ethical-dimension” as a concept of historical thinking, the Ministry rejected this information. Some of the teacher-writers also believed that the essence of “the ethical-dimension” was somewhat redundant, being already contained in the main purpose of history education, i.e. the development of responsible citizenship.

In the end, the incorporation of the concepts of historical thinking into the Ontario history curriculum is a step forward. However, the way these concepts were assimilated and expressed may be more the result of their common sense meaning than their meaning arising from disciplined thinking and research. For example, is it clear that historical perspective-taking is more than finding different points of view?  Is historical significance more than the magnitude of the impact caused by a particular event or person? Understanding a pluralism of ideas and celebrating the great deeds of the past may serve the common good. However, the question lingers: Is this history for the good, good history?

Stanley Hallman-Chong is a former Aboriginal Studies, Social Studies, and History/Geography Instructional leader at the Toronto District School Board. He was also the Education Officer who lead the revision of the current Social Studies and History/Geography grades 1- 8 curriculum for the Ontario Ministry of Education.

This week ActiveHistory.ca is running a series of 11 essays marking the end of the Historical Thinking Project. Click here to see a list of all the papers published during this theme week.

[1] Not unlike the 2004 curriculum, the purpose of studying these subjects is stated as such: “The social studies, history, geography, and Canadian and world studies programs will enable students to become responsible, active citizens within the diverse communities to which they belong. As well as becoming critically thoughtful and informed citizens who value an inclusive society, students will have the skills they need to solve problems and communicate ideas and decisions about significant developments, events, and issues.” The key goal of developing citizenship was common not only with the previous curriculum, but was also in keeping with all of the other policy documents published by the Ministry. (The Ontario Curriculum: Social Studies, Grades 1-6; History and Geography Grades, 7-8, 2013 (revised) Pg.6.)

[2] Teaching about Historical Thinking: A Professional Resource to Help Teach Six Interrelated Concepts Central to Students’ Ability to Think Critically about History by Mike Denos, Roland Case, Peter Carr Seixas, Penney Clark, Critical Thinking Consortium, Published 2009. Although Seixas’ contribution to this book is mainly in the introduction, teachers in Ontario refer to this work as Peter Sexias’ book and it remains as their main source for all background knowledge of the concepts of historical thinking.

3 thoughts on “Democratically Creating Historical Thinking for the Common Good

  1. Carly D

    Thank you so much Stanley for this frank reflection about the curriculum revision process. As teacher who was absolutely itching to know what the process entailed, I was continually frustrated with the veil of secrecy that seemed to surround the proceedings. I was equally frustrated with the lack of actual change upon reading the finished product. The “revised” document has left me feeling that the Ministry has only paid “lip-service” to the academic research surrounding Historical Thinking.

  2. David

    Apart from assessment practices and other elements of the Growing Success document, the Ministry does not tell history teachers how to teach the content. That is up to the teacher. If a teacher wants to include an ethical element to a unit or lesson plan (something the Ministry rejected as prescriptive element of the curriculum) they are free to do so. So long as the curriculum expectations are met, Ministry requirements are being satisfied.

  3. John Myers

    Fine piece. I understand a political body’s reluctance to tackle the ethical dimension, but history is evidence-based so that omission is disturbing.
    It would have been nice for the writers to have been brought up-to-date on recent developments in the filed.

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