A Signature Pedagogy for History Instruction?

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Paul McGuire

This is the sixth entry in a monthly series on Thinking Historically. See the Introduction here.

Photo by author.

At least twice a year, we take a trip to the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. One of the most beautiful parts of the valley is Grand Pré and Hortonville. From here, you can see Blomidon and the vast expanse of the Minas Basin. Hortonville is also one of the ports used during the British expulsion of Acadians in 1755. Just down the road, you can see a Parks Canada plaque commemorating a vicious massacre of New England troops by French and Mi’kmaq fighters in the dead of night during a winter blizzard; some New Englanders died before they could stir from their beds.

Plaque describing the Attack at Grand Pré. © Parks Canada Agency / Agence Parcs Canada.

When I read the plaque at Grand Pré for the first time, it caught my attention. Somewhere in the recording of the battle, there was the suggestion, just a suggestion, that this nighttime raid may have been one of the reasons the Acadians in the area were expelled from their homes eight years later.

This is what history does: It captivates the reader and hints at the consequences to come. This is the way we need to teach history in public schools: Give the students a spark to ignite their desire to dig deeper and explore further. But how do we do this? Is there a method, a pedagogy, that teachers can use to engage students in historical inquiry?

For years, I have worked on digital science textbooks for elementary students. Each topic is introduced by displaying some natural phenomenon – an earthquake, dust mites in your carpet, or the loss of vital habitats for plants and animals. For every wonder, a path was laid out for further inquiry into the science behind the opening act using a focusing question. Based on the scientific method, this procedure is called the 5E Method. Each stage of the model draws students further into the investigation. The teacher guides the process, but the students carry out the exploration.

Using the scientific method to anchor inquiry acts as a standard or signature pedagogy for educators involved in science instruction. Similarly, Shulman (2005) observes that lawyers, doctors, and engineers are taught in distinctive ways that characterize their professions. However, there is no signature pedagogy for teaching history. Many consider an in-depth knowledge of the subject matter all that the teacher needs. While educators seem to know what to teach, there is no consensus on how to teach history.

Can we borrow a page from science educators and develop a unique history teaching method? Will the 5E Method work for history instruction?

How does this relate to Grand Pré in 1747? Just as in science, history students need a problem to structure their investigation.

The 5E method consists of five unique stages:

Engage the student in an activity to promote curiosity and explore prior knowledge. This can include a focus question that spans the entire inquiry.

Exploration is a series of activities—in science; this may include lab work—that begins to examine the different elements of the topic introduced in the first step. In history, this might include the investigation of maps or other primary documents that allow students to gather more information.

Explain—At this stage, students can apply what they have learned to historical thinking concepts.

What caused the conflict between the French and English?

What was the battle’s significance to the larger conflict in Acadia?

What evidence are we using to learn more about the battle?

What changed with the expulsion of the Acadians? Did anything remain the same?

Elaboration—Here, students can apply their learning to a different context, possibly their community, a larger area, or even themselves.

Evaluate – At this point, the teacher can introduce some form of assessment to understand what students are learning. Students could demonstrate their understanding in any number of innovative ways.

What I have written here is a quick summary of the 5E method. For a full explanation, Edutopia offers some helpful articles that explore this methodology in science class.

To give an example of what this might look like in practice, I offer a brief example to quickly illustrate how a historical event can become a class investigation. Inspired by my encounter with the historical plaque in Nova Scotia, I  am using the battle (or, some say, the massacre) of Grand Pré in 1747.

The Battle of Grand Pre

Jacques Nicolas Bellin – Carte De L’Accadie Map of Acadia, from Histoire Generale des Voyage1757. Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center.

The battle of Grand Pré took place during the winter of 1747 between the French and British as they struggled for domination of Acadia. As a first step, students could read or listen to a historical account of the battle written in 1889 by William Kingsford, which reads in part:

The troops were quartered among the people of Grand-Pré, scattered in twenty-four houses, payment being made for their subsistence. They considered themselves perfectly secure during the severe months of winter. Warning, however, had been given them by the inhabitants that they would certainly be attacked. Unfortunately for themselves, the warning was neglected, and little precaution was taken. Indeed, the night was so stormy that men sustained by the conviction that attack was impossible would not be actively on the watch. It was three o’clock when the Canadians reached the spot. Owing to the thick falling snow, they were unseen until close upon the sentries, for their guides unerringly led them to the houses where the troops were quartered. An alarm was given by the shots which were fired. But there was no delay in making the assault, the doors of the houses attacked were easily forced, and the troops surprised in their beds. [1]

I found this account in the digital collection at the University of Alberta. It is important to provide students with primary sources ahead of time. It’s really important not to give your students the task of finding primary evidence. There is a lot out there, and students can quickly become frustrated if left to do the sleuthing.

As part of the Engage phase, students can be introduced to an inquiry question, or they can make up their own. The question will guide their work in the following stages. Here is a possible question—there does not need to be a definitive answer to this question; students will use evidence in Explore to develop their ideas.

How did events such as the Grand Pré Massacre contribute to the decision to expel the Acadians in 1755?

Explore allows students to sift through a collection of evidence to develop some answers to the inquiry question. For the teacher, the big decision will be what to include and what to leave out. A quick search reveals a number of primary sources that could be adapted for student use:

Primary documents

La Corne’s account of the battle. Collection de documents inédits sur le Canada et l’Amérique. 1888.

Explain – As noted above, Explain allows the teacher to incorporate different historical thinking concepts into the inquiry. Each concept can be introduced as a question for students to consider as they move from the gathering evidence to the analysis of their materials.

While many history education theorists agree that using historical thinking concepts can help students work like historians, there is also agreement that teaching historical thinking is difficult. A general template for historical inquiry could act as a tool for teachers interested in developing a stronger inquiry stance in their students. I have seen the 5E method applied to a vast array of subjects in science. The same process can be used to examine the conflict between colonial powers in Nova Scotia in the 18th century or any other historical issue. Following this inquiry approach will allow students to do the work of the historian rather than sit by as a passive observer. History teachers don’t need to reinvent the wheel; taking a page from the scientific method is the right tool to encourage more historical inquiry in the classroom.

Learning about the battle at Grand-Pré presents no challenge for students. Arriving at conclusions about the profound effects this battle may have had on the Acadians turns the class into active investigators of the Acadian Expulsion.

Paul McGuire is a graduate student at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. Paul is also a retired educator with 31 years’ experience in the public school system.


[1] William Kingsford, The History of Canada?: [1726-1756] (Rowsell and Hutchison, 2018), 346-349.

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