Is our conception of history education “evolving” or is today’s focus simply a historical trend once again in vogue?

By Katherine Ireland

This is the first of four blog posts originally posted on THEN/HiER’s Teaching the Past blog reviewing the edited collection New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada (UBC Press) and responding to the question: “Is our conception of history education “evolving” or is today’s focus simply a historical trend once again in vogue?” 

In “What It Means to Think Historically,” chapter 5 of New Possibilities for the Past, Stéphane Lévesque suggests that although historical thinking is not a recent idea, it has, until recently, been marginalized in favour of a more dominant, content-driven approach to history education. What makes it new now, is the shift on students learning to do history like historians rather than simply absorbing content by memorizing facts. But this still raises the question: Is this current focus on historical thinking in history education a trend, or an example of history education becoming qualitatively more sophisticated?

Merriam-Webster defines a trend as:

A prevailing tendency or inclination; a general movement;
a current style or preference; a line of development

They define evolution as:

A process of change in a certain direction;
a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler,
or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state

If we were to think of the conception of history education put forth in New Possibilities as a trend, then it could be from more than one perspective. If we view the emphasis on historical thinking as a trend that is currently en vogue, then we might say that it’s no more than a drift or a swing in that direction, to be replaced by another approach in time. If we thought of it as indicating a line of development, we could argue, as I do, that this indicates an evolution of sorts, a process of growth.

In her introduction to New Possibilities, Penny Clark discusses some of the contentious issues and questions surrounding history education in Canada, identifying three perennial problems: representations of the past in official textbooks that are biased, inadequate or inaccurate; the role of and value placed on history in the curriculum; and rationale for why we need history and how we should teach it. Trends have certainly surfaced along the course of attempts to address these problems, some unsuccessful, such as the nation-building histories Ken Osborne discusses in Chapter 2 “Teaching Canadian History: A century of debate,” and others, fundamental, morphing and developing to provide the foundations for increasingly innovative policies and programs, such as The Historical Thinking Project.

Clark calls the return to teaching history as a discipline, ‘a way forward,’ in her introduction, rather than an alternative or a return to an old approach. Although she won’t go so far as to predict what the future holds for history education in Canada, Clark clearly views this shift as an indication of progress in the field, rather than a whimsical turn or temporary fancy. As we all should, since the stakes for history education are rising. Peter Seixas (2001) emphasizes that this is a necessary shift to deal with a uniquely 21st century problem: as our population becomes increasingly more diverse, nation-building myth histories are no longer adequate in describing our citizens’ experiences of past. Indeed, these narratives can exclude more students than they include, as Carla Peck illustrates in Chapter 15 “Ethnicity and Students’ Historical Understandings.”

How to include the vast spectrum of Canadians’ differing and conflicting pasts in our country’s history education? Students need to be able to deal with the raw content of the past themselves, to interpret it through their own lenses, and judge alternative perspectives critically. Scholars such as Alan Sears in Chapter 17 “Historical Thinking and Citizenship Education: It is time to end the war,” appear unsatisfied with the divide between old and new, and are actively attempting to steer this trend by examining where the previous approaches connect with new knowledge to move the field ahead.

The six historical thinking concepts and the theory that suggests students do history in order to develop mature historical thinking, have been gaining incredible ground over the past 5 or so years. Now, all of the provinces but two are formally adopting the concepts into their curricula, while there are numerous classrooms and educators already involved on an unofficial level as well. Whether the conception of history education that centres on historical thinking is viewed in the schools as a trend merely en vogue, or forging a lasting path remains to be seen, but it is clear that from the perspective of those who are refining the approach, writing and developing materials, this is not a trend but a purposeful evolution. The emphasis on historical thinking to counter mythhistories and foster historically minded students is inherently purposeful, intended to open up history as a discipline for classroom practice, making it a necessary component of history education in Canada. If this is indeed a bandwagon, we who jump on board can at least be confident that it’s blazing trails in a new direction.

What is your perspective: Is historical thinking a trend or evolution?

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One thought on “Is our conception of history education “evolving” or is today’s focus simply a historical trend once again in vogue?

  1. Merle Massie

    There is one more issue to consider. The arguments presented here still focus on content, albeit indirectly. Students are encouraged to muck through the sources for themselves in order to arrive at a historical perspective and evaluation that is considerate of multiple viewpoints — true. (And yes, history is messy…). But what I think we may be seeing, in a focus on learning how to DO history, is (finally!) a recognition that the skillsets we learn while doing history are valuable. The ability to critically find, read, understand, evaluate, and synthesize multiple sources into a coherent, logical, and persuasive argument/story is infinitely valuable, and marketable. For university students looking to enter the job market in any area of expertise, these skills are worth their weight in paper.

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