History Education in Canada without Historical Thinking? A worrisome prospect

By Heather E. McGregor

Recently Peter Seixas announced that the Historical Thinking Project (the Project) was denied ongoing funding by the Department of Canadian Heritage. This change was said to be because the purposes of the Project do not coincide with, as quoted from The Canada History Fund, “projects that celebrate key milestones and people who have helped shape our country as we know it today”.

Key accomplishments of the Project to date can be viewed here. Jurisdictions across Canada have taken substantial steps to adopt the Historical Thinking Concepts in provincial and territorial curricula, and the approaches recommended through this initiative have begun to make a difference to history education. I am exceedingly disappointed to hear that the federal government is moving towards funding initiatives that are as limited as the celebration of key milestones and key people. The Department of Canadian Heritage seems to be out of touch in setting this direction at a time when decision-makers across Canada have indicated their support for historical thinking as a mandatory part of student learning in public education. 

My perspective is shaped by being an historian, a PhD Candidate and sessional instructor in Education at UBC, and someone with experience working on history curriculum, program development and teacher training in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. I have attended and benefitted from training delivered by the Historical Thinking Project. I am also an engaged Canadian citizen with concern for the state of democracy, as well as concern for the extent to which history informs present policies and conditions. I can think of dozens of reasons why the termination of funding to the Project is a step in the wrong direction, but I will limit myself to shining light on 3 here:

1. Thinking historically brings Canadians into conversations about shaping, and reshaping, their identities, social relations, political and economic commitments, and self-determination (among other things) in relation to changing views of the past.  Thinking historically is to ask tough questions about the past, to think critically about, open up and re-create interpretations of the past. Seixas’ work advancing the Historical Thinking Concepts gives students practice with, for example: using evidence to support historical claims, assessing that which is significant or consequential to social groups, drawing defensible ethical implications, and trying to understand the perspectives of others. Apart from potentially producing better history, this practice helps students put history to better use. Beyond discovering historical content, students may practice listening closely to each other, expecting and accounting for diversity and disagreement, assessing arguments using criteria, and navigating conflict. In other words, these concepts are fundamentally connected to history and to the practice of history as a discipline, but also extend into civic engagement more broadly.

There are aspects of historical thinking as it has been conceived to date that warrant further exploration, deliberation and exchange in themselves (such as similarities and differences with Indigenous ways of making meaning from the past). I have found that Peter Seixas has encouraged adaptations of his framework for historical thinking that have been generated alongside and in response to his work, and this is something we need more of.

Human experience in the past and present is complicated, messy, and ever changing; learning about history, memory, heritage and the past through the lens of celebration is woefully inadequate to serve the complex and varied interests, needs and aspirations of Canadians in the present.

2. The Historical Thinking Project provides crucial professional development and teacher support services. Many before me have written extensively on problems with history education in Canada and many have seen how the Project is helping to address them. Many teachers who instruct history courses are not historians themselves (or may have learned history through the previously-common content heavy, single narrative approaches). To reform history education teachers need to re-learn what history is, what it could be, and what it could do. They need to learn how to construct and assess interpretations of history, and how to scaffold student learning to participate in this kind of complex engagement with the past. Teachers need opportunities to work alongside those who have strengths in the discipline of history, such as through workshops with historians. Practicing together and developing sample lesson plans is highly valuable, as I have experienced myself by participating in the Project’s Summer Institute.

Historical thinking and teaching historical thinking is not something that can easily be learned in a short one-off session or through independent reading. Given that jurisdictions across Canada are making Historical Thinking Concepts required learning outcomes in history and social studies curricula, it will be a long road to support teachers appropriately to meet this expectation. Without funding for professional development, as has been available through the Project, it seems an impossibly long road.

3. Approaches to Canadian history that use “celebration” as a criterion are unlikely to adequately respond to the interests of Indigenous peoples in Canada, as well as other groups whose views of the past have been systematically silenced or ignored. We are in the midst of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, the tabling of a First Nations Education Act, other truth inquiries and outstanding claims, significant debates as to acceptable resource development initiatives, and repeated disappointments in dialogue between Indigenous peoples and the federal government. Particularly in terms of Indigenous-Settler relations in this country, and the ongoing challenges with implementation of land claims and treaties that shape those relations, spending our energies retrenching nationalist celebration is vacuous indeed.

The discipline of history and the views it has nurtured through history education, often leaving out or misinterpreting Indigenous perspectives, has done extensive damage; enough damage (as I have written about previously). Engaging with multidimensional and contested truths from the past, however difficult they are, is part of our experience as individuals, communities and societies. Whether Indigenous people choose to use the conventions of disciplinary history, or approaches to explaining the past that may be closer to their own traditions and cultures, Canadians must be more open to listening to what they have to say about our shared histories. Responsiveness to the past and present may sometimes include celebration, but ethical relations cannot be nurtured amongst neighbours in this country if we are not also willing to attend to conflicting interpretations.

So many notable changes have been undertaken in the area of history education, including the commitment to learn more from Indigenous perspectives, over the last 10 years. It would be a mistake to go back or abandon this project now. We must continue making space for all the emotions and activities associated with learning from and about the past, to make history education and heritage relevant to concerns in the present, many of which affirm, and contest and extend our notions of what ought to be celebrated.

I look forward to hearing from others through this blog about why historical thinking in Canadian education should be advanced, and how it can be advanced, in the context of this funding change.

Heather McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia. This essay was originally posted to THEN-HiER’s blog ‘Teaching the Past’ in December.

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.


Clark, Penney (Ed.). New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada. Toronto & Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.


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3 thoughts on “History Education in Canada without Historical Thinking? A worrisome prospect

  1. Sue Burvill-Shaw

    It seems as though the Canadian experience mirrors to a large extent the experience we face in Australia. Our Federal Minister has called for a rewrite of the recent National Curriculum in History. He claims: “I also want the curriculum to celebrate Australia, and for students, when they have finished school, to know where we’ve come from as a nation.” many teachers in Australia share concerns about a political focus replacing a desire to foster historical thinking skills in students. One wonders if politicians have realised the implications of producing a thoughtful, critical popultation?

  2. Barb Tremblay

    Thank you for your insightful article, Penny. Many History teachers have been excited and encouraged by the work of Peter Seixas and are embracing the skills of historical thinking in our lessons. The newly revised Ontario curriculum is taking the focus away from content and placing higher priority on “doing the discipline”, a shift that is both refreshing and relevant . Our Canadian government appears to be falling into the trap of cultivating a mythology of history, much like our neighbours to the south. Do Canadians really want a simplistic writing of our history, politically motivated and designed to “glorify” some, while excluding others? I sincerely hope not.

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