Who Cares About Thinking Historically?

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Graduate students working on the Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future project bring diverse perspectives that are shaped by the places they live. Rebecca is writing from Kingston, Ontario, situated on the territory of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples. Ian is writing from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver which is situated on Musqueam territory.

Rebecca Evans and Ian Alexander

The purposes of history are legion. In the context of Canadian schools, history and social studies were initially developed at the end of the nineteenth century to unite the nation and manage competing tensions among Francophones and Anglophones. History curricula concurrently omitted Indigenous perspectives as well as voices from other marginalized groups, from the national narrative, reaffirming the voices of the prominent group of white settlers. Much has changed, and history and social studies now offer much more than a unified national narrative. They hold the potential to play a significant role in developing young peoples’ capacity to think critically about crucial civic issues and engage in problem-solving –  both essential ingredients for building and sustaining a healthy democratic society. As students, our perspectives are shaped by the places we live, the people we interact with, and the histories passed down to us through intergenerational family conversations. Interactions with mass media and pop-culture also make their mark. Learning to identify and interact with these forces is a core component of thinking historically.

Developing the ability to think historically fosters a questioning disposition that enables young people to navigate today’s political, social, and cultural complexities. Thinking historically in classrooms requires that young people know and do history. The knowledge, skills, and competencies developed through learning how to think historically are transferable to present day issues, helping young people analyze and evaluate diverging historical interpretations, misinformation, and fake news.

But who cares about historical thinking? In this blog series, which will run over the next few months, we introduce some of the graduate researchers associated with the multi-partner project, Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future (THFCF) who care deeply about the future of history education in Canada. While our research areas are vastly different, we all uphold an interest in thinking historically. Staying close to this theme, Paul McGuire from the University of Ottawa starts off the series by highlighting the trickiness of using historical thinking methodology in kindergarten to grade 12 classrooms. Next, Harrison Dressler from Queen’s University challenges commonplace assumptions about the relationship between disability and education by highlighting the experiences of students who attended the Ontario Institution for the Blind between 1872 and 1917.

Rebecca Evans, also from Queen’s University, writes about her research on present-day experiences of Air Cadets of diverse identities, highlighting what civic engagement means to those who participated in the federally sponsored program. Moving us offshore, Ian Alexander of the University of British Columbia, highlights how history and social studies courses are organized in different societies and how teachers face challenges in teaching social studies courses abroad in accredited British Columbia offshore schools. Tifanie Valade of the University of Ottawa asks the question “Where are all the (non-White, non-elite) women?” In her work with the Framing Out Past 2.0 project, she examines issues of diversity and intersectionality in the creation of women’s history lesson plans for Ontario educators. Finally, our series concludes with Mallory Davies from the University of Waterloo who writes about the integration of teen mothers in public education. What binds us together is our association with the THFCF project.

The THFCF project was launched in 2019, with a view of making evidence-based recommendations for history curricula, pedagogy, and assessment. The project draws on voices from its pan-Canadian stakeholders including thirty researchers from across Canada, ministries of education, faculties of education, museums, social studies teacher associations, and Indigenous organizations. It is a large, seven-year Partnership Grant funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). THFCF brings together researchers, undergraduate and graduate students, and partners in three large research clusters relating to (1) Curriculum and Resources, (2) Teaching and Learning, and (3) Teacher Education. Organized in two phases, multiple research projects are currently underway (Phase 1) and are being planned (Phase 2) in each research cluster. Three major strands cut across each of these three clusters, including historical thinking, civic engagement, and Indigenous knowledges.

Graduate students, such as those writing in this series, live across the country and work as research assistants in various roles. They are hired by THFCF through their supervisors to support different research projects in the clusters. In typical smaller scale projects, graduate students help their professors complete tasks as solitary researchers, often through one institution. In contrast, by adopting a pan-Canadian approach, the THFCF enlists graduate students from across the country, fostering collaborative partnerships among emerging scholars.

When the Graduate Students Committee was established in 2019, its goal was to “establish and maintain a community of graduate students interested in history education and history teaching and learning.” This initiative has been successful, and the committee grew in the Fall of 2020 and thereafter as graduate students in multiple provinces were eager to connect on Zoom and build community. After in-person conferences recommenced in 2022-23, members of the committee were able to shift some special meetings in-person as well as maintain the important monthly meetings online. A stated goal of this large project was to socialize the next generation of history education scholars, and the Graduate Students Committee has been instrumental in achieving this goal.

As research assistants, we have taken on diverse tasks and roles including analyzing history and social studies textbooks, reviewing curriculum documents, interviewing teachers, and managing different aspects of the projects. Many research assistants have begun partaking in data analysis and contributing their perspectives and interpretations. In many ways, this work has been complementary to our own dissertation and thesis projects as we have found links between our studies and the topics in the THFCF projects, especially related to the concepts of historical thinking and civic education. Indigenous Knowledges is an area where significant professional learning is also occurring and remains a priority area for our professional growth. The Graduate Student Committee has opportunities to learn directly from Indigenous scholars on the project, who occasionally come as guest speakers to share their perspectives on decolonization, history, and what it means to do critical research in a good way.

As history and social studies educators and scholars, we straddle the worlds of history education and history of education. In this blog series, readers will see how these emerging scholars connect historical thinking with our own research, thus showing how this SSHRC funded project impacts research across Canada and generates relational connections. Our research areas are unique, but what binds us together is that we all care deeply about thinking historically. Across provincial,  territorial, and national boundaries, the THFCF graduate student community continues to engage in critical analysis of curricula, textbooks, and teacher education, with a view of promoting engaged and critical historical thinking to set the conditions for a flourishing democracy. Stay tuned to hear more about our work over this blog series.

Rebecca Evans, becca.evans@queensu.ca, Queen’s University. Rebecca is a doctoral candidate interested in how community organizations function as civic educators. She is the co-chair of the Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future graduate student committee and works on the project as a research assistant examining how history, social studies, and citizenship education is conceived in curricula in Northern communities. 

Ian Alexander, ianalex@student.ubc.ca, University of British Columbia. Ian is a doctoral student interested in the experiences of teachers who have taught social studies in accredited British Columbia offshore schools in China. He serves as co-chair of the Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future graduate student committee and works on the project as a research assistant mostly analyzing textbooks and curriculum documents.

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