Why am I teaching about this? Historical significance in Canadian history

By Lindsay Gibson and Catherine Duquette

Historical significance raises one of the most fundamental and unavoidable questions for understanding history; which events, people, and developments from the past should be studied and remembered?[i]

The past is everything that ever happened to everyone everywhere, but it is impossible to study or remember everything that occurred. History is comprised of narratives about the past that are shaped by conditions and priorities in the present. No narrative can present all that is known—historians are selective about the topics they focus on and the details they include in their narratives.

Focusing on the Winnipeg General Strike instead of the Toronto Printers’ Strike of 1872, for example, places daily life over political events, marginalized people over well-known people.

Additionally, all historical narratives are framed from a particular perspective that influences what is included and excluded from a narrative, and how the event or person is described. Analogously, all history teachers, whether in K-12 or post-secondary, make decisions about historical significance when they create a course outline, design a lesson plan, or explain the causes of an event.

For the past three years we have been working on a project where we created sets of cards focused on significant events in Canadian history and designed pedagogical strategies to teach students to think historically about Canadian history. The first set of cards Snapshots in Time: Significant Events in Canadian History Set 1/Clichés d’histoire : Événements importants de l’histoire du Canada 1er ensemble focuses on 50 significant events in Canadian history, and we recently completed Set 2 of Snapshots in Time/Clichés d’histoire, which focuses on 50 additional significant events in Canadian history.

An example of the cards in both languages.

Selecting 100 significant events in Canadian history to feature in the two sets of cards was a complicated task. We began by compiling a long chronological list of 350+ events in Canadian history after reviewing history books, websites, and provincial and territorial curriculum documents. We developed criteria to guide our selection of significant events, and after countless revisions, narrowed the list down to 150 events. We then reached out to teachers and historians to provide feedback on our list, and were struck by both the similarities and differences in the events educators selected as historically significant. We decided the topic merited a more systematic study and set out to design an online survey that would identify the events K-16 educators select as most historically significant and the criteria they use to make such choices.

Thanks to the technological prowess of graduate student Mallory Davies, we created an online survey in French and English entitled Significant Events in Canadian History/Événements importants de l’histoire du Canada that was launched on March 30, 2020. The survey asks educators who teach Canadian history in Canadian K-12 schools, CEGEP (Québec), or colleges and universities to rate the historical significance of 100 events in the history of Canada using a 1-10 scale as well as suggest and rate up to five additional events. Participants are also asked to select three factors that most influenced their decisions about which events are most significant, and answer ten demographic questions.

Why this study matters

Historical thinking focuses on teaching students to “interpret and assess historical evidence in order to understand, evaluate, and construct narrative accounts about the past.”[ii] Over the last three decades the structure and form of historical thinking has been conceptualized by scholars using the notion of “second-order historical concepts,” which are defined as disciplinary (or procedural) concepts that shape, “the way we go about doing history.”[iii] Rather than measuring students’ accumulation of factual knowledge, students’ increasingly sophisticated ability to applying second-order concepts like historical significance, evidence, and cause and consequence to historical content defines their progress in learning history.[iv]

In Canada, Peter Seixas’ influential framework comprised of six second-order historical thinking concepts was conceptualized to be intelligible and communicable to teachers and students, yet generative enough to guide investigations of fundamental epistemological and ontological challenges in doing history.[v]

Most research on the historical significance second-order concept has focused on students’ rather than teachers’ thinking.[vi] Asking teachers to identify the three factors that most influence their ratings of the historical significance of events in Canadian history improves scholarly understanding of how teachers conceptualize historical significance and apply it in their practice. After completing the survey, several educators emailed to say that completing the survey helped them reflect on the events they think are most historically significant and the reasons why they think they are significant.

Although curriculum documents and course syllabi are helpful for understanding what is intended to be taught (the intended or planned curriculum), it cannot be assumed that everything included in the documents is actually taught (the enacted curriculum), or that content or procedural knowledge not included in the documents are focused on.

When teaching history, educators constantly make decisions about who and what to teach about, how to teach about the event or person, how much time to spend teaching about the person or event, and what students should be taught about the person or event. Knowing which events history educators think are historically significant provides important insight into what topics might be getting taught more often or in more depth.

This is not to assume that educators only teach about events they select as historically significant, but that teachers’ beliefs about historical significance influence what and how they teach about different events and people in Canadian history. For example, will history educators rate events in  Indigenous history as being historically significant given the increased attention to Indigenous issues in the last five years?

We also think that comparing different groups of history educators’ selections of historically significant events, using a variety of demographic variables (e.g. gender identity, ethnicity, education, teaching experience, geographic location, current teaching assignment, and others) has the potential to highlight how these factors influence history educators’ ratings of significant events.

Students in M. Gérald Charron’s history class working with the cards

Do history educators with PhD’s in history, who teach in post-secondary institutions, select different events than elementary, middle, or secondary school teachers? How do factors like ethnicity, gender, and geographical location influence which events educators select as being historically significant?

This research study also has the potential to be expanded into a longitudinal study that investigates continuities and changes in the events history educators select as being historically significant over time.

Knowing which events in Canadian history educators think are most significant can also inform polemical debates about history education in Canada that have featured a great deal of rhetoric, but little empirical evidence.

Do Canadian history educators rate military and political events that emphasize national accomplishment and development as being historically significant as Jack Granatstein[vii] hopes? Or do they rate events that feature unjust treatment of marginalized groups including women, Indigenous people, workers, ethnic minorities, and others as more historically significant?

So far 370 educators have completed the survey (97 French and 273 English), including educators from elementary schools, middle schools, secondary schools, CEGEP, and colleges and universities. History educators in nine provinces have completed the survey, but no educators in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut have responded yet. In order to improve the validity of the findings, we hope that more history educators will complete the survey, which will remain open until May 15, 2020. We invite the readers of Active History to ask themselves: What are the most historically significant events in Canadian history?

Click here for the English survey: https://ubc.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_eyB9wGVKYbwD1GZ

Click here for the French survey: https://ubc.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_ey2zeyuCjTrDXaR

Lindsay Gibson is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia. Catherine Duquette is a professor of history education at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.


[i] Seixas and Morton, The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts.

[ii] Stipp et al., Teaching Historical Thinking: Revised and Expanded Edition, 3.

[iii] Lee and Ashby, “Progression in Historical Understanding among Students Ages 7-14,” 199.

[iv] Seixas, “A Model of Historical Thinking.”

[v] Seixas, “Benchmarks of Historical Thinking: A Framework for Assessment in Canada”; Seixas and Morton, The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts.

[vi] Peck, “‘It’s Not like [I’m] Chinese and Canadian. I Am in between’: Ethnicity and Students’ Conceptions of Historical Significance”; Cercadillo, Chapman, and Lee, “Organizing the Past: Historical Accounts, Significance and Unknown Ontologies”; Cercadillo, “Significance in History: Students’ Ideas in England and Spain”; Counsell, “Looking through a Josephine-Butler-Shaped Window: Focusing Pupils’ Thinking on Historical Significance.”

[vii] Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History?

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