Reports from New Directions in Active History: Pathways to Active Historical Engagement in High Schools

By Neil Orford

DHP logoThough it may be apocryphal, Thomas Aquinas was reputed to have said that “History is a foreign land to which  few will ever travel.” After teaching history for 30 years in the Ontario Secondary system, I believe he may have been  right.

The notion of ‘Active History” is an intriguing one – knowledge mobilization for students, designing a new robust curricula founded upon Historical Thinking Concepts, demanding 21st century digital competencies that present historical understandings in multi-dimensional ways – an idea which is rich in possibility, inventiveness and intellectual rigour.

Yet the October 2015 Conference on “New Directions, challenged me to make a frank assessment of the current state of history education, albeit from a decidedly “Ontario-Centric” perspective. The workshops, speakers and roundtable debates suggested that public history (and history education) are at a crossroads between teaching traditional narrative to establish ‘the story of Canada’ or teaching  for critical inquiry and skill-development.  True, the two ‘directions’ are not mutually exclusive and they can (& do) intersect with ease. However, within the limitations of a compulsory semester-long Grade 10 history course, which should be the ‘road  more-travelled?’

Perhaps more to the point; which provides the better chance for ‘active historical’ engagement?

The (revised 2013) Ontario Grade 10 “Canada & World Studies” curriculum clearly emphasizes skill development at the expense of the narrative. Rooted in the work of Roland Case and Peter Seixias, the Historical Thinking Concepts (known informally as “The Big Six”) establish a ‘skills framework’ upon which specialist teachers can design inquiry lessons to uncover (rather than ‘cover’) curriculum. As well, the Grade 10 curriculum makes an expressed demand for teachers to design ‘active citizenship’ opportunities for students to understand their history in an authentic context, utilizing 21st century digital tools to create competencies that are ‘transferable’ beyond the historical experience.

These are lofty expectations for the seasoned history professional, let-alone the Gym teacher dropped into a Grade 10 History class by virtue of their having taken a few classes at university! All-too-often in Ontario, students will face a marginally-qualified generalist in their Compulsory History course, not a  ‘specialist’ teacher. The consequences are obvious:  a poor (often mythological) version of the traditional Canadian narrative, as told by a 20-year old textbook, is taught.

I was thus challenged at the conference to wonder about such ‘new directions’ in the face of some sobering realities: (a) many students may be ill-equipped to embrace a skill-based curriculum; (b) many teachers are likely ill-equipped to teach for critical inquiry; (c) both schools and teachers may be ill-equipped to instruct using 21st digital technologies;  & (d) in today’s society, the gravity with which history is treated seems to have declined.

Despite a rigourous Grade 10 History curriculum and a new (many argue) more demanding Senior Grade 11/12 Curriculum (revised 2015), one wonders whether the subject can survive in a school climate seemingly obsessed with Math & Science? Though no organization of which I am aware collects data on numbers of students taking Senior History beyond Grade 10, anecdotal evidence would suggest that there is atrophy is the system. Evidenced  by recent provincial decisions (ie. In New Brunswick) to diminish the role of compulsory history in secondary programming, one wonders how long the Ontario Ministry of Education will defend it? Further to that, if history is perceived to be too complex & onerous by virtue of a skill-based curriculum, then will parents rush-the-barricades to defend it? After all – Math & Science are the ‘hard’ subjects….not History!

I was amused to see some Parent-Groups (often faith-based in origin) protest the introduction of a new Healthy & Active Living Curriculum in 2015 – their passions aroused largely over fears associated with  sex education. In many ways, would it not be wonderful to see parents so moved by a history curriculum?


Digital Historians in Distillery District to see “The Great War” at Soulpepper Theatre

Since 2013,  I have been developing and I now teach a  History/Math ‘hybrid’  program at the senior secondary level for Grade 11 students. Dubbed the “Digital Historian Project” (DHP), this ‘pathway’ approach is a ‘blended—learning’ experience for students, delivered in situ at a local Museum (in my case, the Dufferin County Museum & Archives, in Rosemont, Ont).  For an entire semester, students leave their traditional school and study at the Museum under the tutelage of two teachers – one History; one Math. They receive 4 credits for their experience, three of which are at the Grade 12  University Level. Open to students from 3 contiguous secondary schools, 15-20 participants spend four months doing deep research, archival interpretation, curate their own museum displays, complete statistical analysis utilizing data available on-line, reinforcing curricula delivered on a dedicated digital platform.

On a daily basis, students explore challenging questions that integrate cross-curricular themes  in history, Indigenous Studies, Data Management and Archival research. One of my favourites, asks students to consider “what Canadian stories are NOT worth telling in our Museums?”  Responding to a question such as this move students from traditional narratives into the ethical dimension, while also demanding attention to the Historical  Thinking Concepts.

Students in the DHP are utilized as “Museum Ambassadors” and regularly present workshops for the public featuring their research. They travelled to Normandy to present digital biographies of Dufferin County Veterans and designed digital artifact exhibits for the museum, buttressed with deep archival research for each display. In 2015, the DHP was awarded a Government of Canada History Award from Canada’s History. Graduates of the DHP describe the program as: ‘ the best experience in high school;‘an incredible learning journey;‘  ‘ a great opportunity (they were) so glad to have taken’… – how much better could it get than that?

Acknowledging the dilemma posed by the new Ontario curriculum between traditional narrative and skills-based inquiry, I did as Yogi Berra recommended when faced with a ‘fork-in-the-road’ ….I took it. Students in the DHP embrace the richness of narrative history, yet pursue a skills-continuum from which to articulate their historical understandings.

Never more so than today,  has a rich creative historical consciousness been necessary. ‘New Directions in Active History’ make demands upon the teacher to create intriguing historical ‘pathways’ from Grade 10-12 for their students. Designing inventive opportunities for students to navigate a system which prioritizes Math & Science ahead of History is essential for the survival of the subject in secondary education. Regardless of (perhaps in spite of) curricular expectations, history must no longer be Aquinas’ ‘foreign land’….providing safe passage to its shores for all travellers will ensure its future.

Neil Orford teaches history at Centre Dufferin District High School in Shelburne, Ontario. Last year he was awarded the Government of Canada History Award for Teaching and in 2013 he received the Canadian Governor Generals Award for History Teaching. Check out the Digital Historian Project at:


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