By Jill Colyer
When I first started teaching I didn’t feel very successful in my history classroom. (Of course, it is hard to feel successful at all when you first start teaching because the entire experience is overwhelming and incredibly difficult.) After a few years, my feeling that something was missing in my history classes hadn’t gone away.
I didn’t have this feeling in my other classes. When I taught psychology, or law, or politics, I felt that students were highly engaged in the subject matter and that they felt and cared deeply about the issues under investigation. Students would often come in to my class and share that they’d had an argument with a parent over dinner about an issue we’d explored in class, or that they’d seen a news item or documentary about something we’d explored together and they wanted to discuss the new information they they had learned.
Nothing like this ever really happened in my history classes, although I always had a few history buffs in my courseses who were excited about every minute detail we studied. These students often, in fact, had more historical information stored in their heads than I did.This all changed for me when I came across Peter Seixas’ work. Although it seems obvious to me now, I didn’t realize at the time that I was “merely” covering content, not drilling down and exploring deeply and critically all of the overlapping issues and perspectives that existed around any particular event or person. And I certainly didn’t have my students working from much primary source evidence – there just never seemed to be enough time to collect such materials.
Peter’s conceptualization of historical thinking made me think about history in an entirely new light. Not once in my entire career as a student or teacher had anyone pointed out to me that history is constructed based on physical evidence and the way that evidence is interpreted. Nor was it ever suggested to me that the way we interpret evidence, and link evidence together, depends a great deal on the significance we assign not only to the evidence we are examining but also to the particular event, development, or person(s) we are studying.
Because I wasn’t aware that history was constructed, I never started my history classes from this position. My students, as a result, were not invited into an open exploration of history as something that can be deconstructed and reconstructed based on evidence that exists. I wasn’t able to heighten their awareness of how interpretations of evidence change with time and distance from an event, and that interpretations change as new evidence is uncovered.
Although it might surprise some of the history specialists and historians that are reading this post, when I began working as the national coordinator of The Historical Thinking Project, I discovered that my description of being a frustrated history teacher was not an anomaly. Most of the teachers I have worked with for the past five years have repeatedly shared that they too had never really considered the fact that history is something that is constructed.
Two of my major responsibilities as coordinator of the HT Project were working with ministries of education across the country to try to have historical thinking integrated into curriculum guidelines; and working directly with teachers on how they could bring historical thinking and assessment into their classrooms. When people learned about the work I was doing with teachers they were often sympathetic. “Oh yuck,” was the usual response, “good luck getting teachers to do anything new.”
In contrast, I found the work I did directly with teachers to be the most rewarding aspect of my position. Without fail, teachers were willing to share the aspects of their classroom practice that they didn’t feel great about, and they were actively looking for new ways to engage their students. They were neither defensive nor dismissive, and in fact made me feel very welcome in their local communities and schools.
Teachers know their students. They know when something is working, and they know when there are kids in their classes who are completely disengaged and could care less about what is happening in class.
Furthermore, teachers care about their students. So when teachers see that what they are doing in the classroom isn’t working, it makes us feel bad. And we are motivated to improve.
If I had to pick the Top 5 Big Ideas in Historical Thinking that teachers have identified as takeaways from the work we have done for the past five years, they would be the following:
- History is not the same as “the past” (The past is everything that has happened to everyone, everywhere, while history is the selected events we choose to tell. History is therefore constructed.)
- The stories we choose to tell are based on the evidence left behind and how we interpret that evidence. Interpretations can be wrong, and new evidence can alter the way previous pieces of evidence have been interpreted.
- In most Western European cultures, oral histories have not been given the same weight and credibility as physical evidence. As a result, many peoples whose history is largely oral have not had their stories included in the main historical narrative.
- When we think we know something, we should step back and think again. What might we have left out? Overlooked? Misinterpreted? What is my own bias and perspective that I bring to this issue? How would peoples from other groups and positions see this issue? What else do I need to know about what was going on politically, socially, economically at the time these events occurred to understand the evidence before me?
- History is not neutral, so it makes no sense to attempt to neutralize the past for our students. How can we teach about internment, genocide, or falsely negotiated land treaties in a neutral way? We must rigorously examine the good and the bad from the past, and we must base our analysis on good evidence.
So where do we go from here?
The biggest shift required of educators who want to apply a historical thinking framework to their history classes is to cover less content; so that the content they do cover can be addressed more deeply and thoughtfully. We know we can’t teach everything. As one participant in a workshop said recently: “The biggest problem with history is that there is more of it every day.” But despite our knowing this, it is extremely difficult for teachers to let any content “go.” This will continue to be the biggest hurdle facing teachers as they move forward to integrate new curriculum requirements related to historical thinking.
Historical thinking (or more broadly, discipline-based thinking in the province of Ontario) has now been integrated into most of the curriculum guidelines across the country. Translating those guidelines into classroom practice and assessment is the next huge step. Here’s a path forward:
- Professional learning funded by school boards, districts, or even more preferably by ministries of education, is required if we expect teachers to change instructional and assessment practice.
- Administrators and leadership teams must be willing to support their teachers in trying new instructional and assessment strategies. If we are being encouraged to teach our students that learning is about exploration and inquiry, then administrators must support teachers in this same journey.
- Teachers must be willing to let go of some of the strategies that worked for them as students, and for which they were trained in faculties of education. Content alone, is no longer king, and it is not enough that we merely transmit information to our students that they can simply Google for themselves.
- Teachers and students must be given the gift of time. Dialogue, group work, exploration and reflection, all very important components of learning, require time. This is another reason why ministries of education – in their curriculum guidelines – and school administrators need to create the conditions that give teachers and their students more time to think.
As we bring the project to a close over the coming days, I’d like to thank all of the teachers, museum educators, archivists, consultants, principals, and ministry of education officials for sharing this journey with me over the past five years. And I’d like to thank the Department of Canadian Heritage and The History Education Network/Histoire et éducation en réseau (THEN/HiER) whose funding made The Historical Thinking Project possible.
Jill Colyer is the national coordinator of the Historical Thinking Project.
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.