Do you know what the children are learning?

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By Samantha Cutrara

What is the purpose of learning history? Are we doomed to repeat it? Do we lose grounding? Are we stranded without space or place? Does history provide us with the skills for understanding evidence or content for narrating experience? As adults, as educators, as historians, we answer these questions with a blend of cliché and seriousness, never precisely getting at the reason we sense history’s importance, but never completely abandoning the dime store clichés that frame our popular engagement with the past either. The moral panic that accompanies these questions is often directed toward youth, as if the frivolity of adolescence will somehow erase the past and the lessons it can teach for the future.

Young girl reading a book, Central Circulating Library at College and St. George Streets, Toronto, Ontario (1930-1960) Department of Manpower and Immigration. Library and Archives Canada, e011055621

It is with this fear that History and Social Studies is often racked with so much public debate about what, how, and why it should be taught. Education historian Ken Osborne has shown that these conversations have been happening in Canada for over a hundred years, with the pendulum shifting to a new fad every 25 years. These debates are often sparked by a panic about the decline of national identity and are used as a rallying call for educational reform by those who want straight facts, those who want historical redemption, or those who want greater transferable skills. But even with all these questions and panic and ideological shifts, do you know what Canadian youth are actually mandated to learn about Canadian history?

This year I am pleased to join Active History as a Contributing Editor with a focus on history education. In this role, I will be writing and editing a series of blog posts that will profile the history curriculum of each province and identify some broad themes about what is covered, how, and when. As a concept, curriculum is both intangible and tangible and can act as a metaphoric black box filled with assumptions and fears about what is covered and how. In this series, I am interested in opening up this black box to demonstrate the concrete objectives that students are intended to meet in their mandatory Canadian history courses, and in doing so, I hope to provide tangible examples of where historians can provide information and resources to teachers and where teachers can find academic support for deeper or greater knowledge from historians. In this series, my goal is to dispel some of the panic surrounding history curriculum by demonstrating what the actual curriculum covers and where historians and teachers can better support each other’s work.

With these objectives in mind, this series is designed to be informative and interactive. If you have experience researching, writing, or implementing curriculum, please let me know. We can find ways to integrate your perspectives into the monthly posts. I am also hoping that provincial teachers’ associations can get involved with the posts and share how the curriculum looks in practice, as well as have historians, archivists, and/or librarians comment on their experience working with teachers and/or curriculum. I am specifically looking for contributors to review the French history curricula in Québec and perhaps provide information on the undergraduate history curriculum across Canada. If you think you’d be interested in sharing your perspectives in this series, please contact me at or the editors at Active History at for more information.

To review each province’s history curriculum is a large undertaking, but a useful one nevertheless. What are the children learning? How does this help them as the Canadians who will inherit this country? In this series, I hope that these overarching questions can provide some foci for speaking about and supporting Canadian history education.

I look forward to your input and to an active school year ahead!

Group of children running toward photographer in school yard of Broadview Public School (1960)
Chris Lund. Canada. National Film Board of Canada. Phototèque. Library and Archives Canada, e010975644

Dr. Samantha Cutrara is a History Education Strategist and is currently completing a manuscript for UBC Press entitled Creating a New “We”: Canadian history education for the 21st century. Find more information about her consulting and academic work on her website


The author would like to acknowledge that this work was created on land that is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and the author is grateful to have the opportunity to write, study, teach, and learn in the community, on this territory.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

3 thoughts on “Do you know what the children are learning?

  1. Joel Berger

    From my personal experience, I worry that there may be one major continuity in history curricula. My eleven-year old came home last fall and said, “Daddy, history class is boring. It’s just a bunch of explorers that we’re supposed to memorize.” I had a flashback of myself at the same age, confronted with a mass of trivia about people of whom I knew nothing and cared less, appearing out of nowhere and supposedly founding a country that I knew only as “somewhere beyond Granville Street”. If the pedagogical goal was to teach that history in general and Canadian history in particular was hopelessly dull and completely irrelevant, then it was a rousing success. The material improved significantly in grade 10 and 11, but I suspect that for a lot of kids the damage had been done. Despite having taken my fair share of Canadian content in university, whenever I encounter an interesting story from Canadian history there is still a tiny part of my mind that is faintly surprised.

  2. Kent den Heyer

    excellent that you are doing this… perhaps ‘what are the children supposed to be learning?’ if focus is on programs of study, and it is as, you note further above, ‘mandated’. obviously that question is different from ‘what are children learning?’ but you know this. just want to wish you all the best with this endeavour!

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