Monday, October 24, 2011

What’s Your Epistemology?

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey
PhD Student, University of New Brunswick

To Prince Edward Island, by Alex Colville
(Collection of Library and Archives Canada)
 In surveying the research about teaching historical literacy, it becomes evident that an educator’s own epistemological stance (their philosophical worldview) about history will have a direct impact on how and what students learn about the past. It seems inevitable that our own biases will be present – no matter how objective we may try to be - in the choices we make about what constitutes an appropriate source, good question, or valid response about the past. Of course, curriculum documents guide us in making many of our choices… but in between the lines of outcomes and assessments, lays the fuzzy area of interpretation; and interpretation is always open to individualised meaning.

Through the digestion of experiences, Jörn Rüsen theorizes that individuals construct their own narratives, and their own temporal understandings of how the past is relevant to the present and future. In this way, he argues, history learning can best be described as a process of meaning construction that is actuated through (to borrow an analogy from Denis Shemilt) a kaleidoscope of experiences. This is because, as Jörn Rüsen points out, “those who do this construction and negotiate it in their social context are constructed themselves. They have been shaped by the same past which they are historically dealing with.”

Rüsen’s point is particularly significant, because cognitive research on the teaching of history has drawn notable parallels between student beliefs and teacher epistemologies. As Linda Levstik has noted in her study of a sixth-grade classroom, “the data clearly indicate” that students’ interest as well as their responses to the past are directly influenced by their teacher’s “manipulation of the classroom context.” Also, if as Mike Huggins has found, teaching practise makes a difference in what key ideas students inherit from formal schooling, then if a teacher is unclear about their own epistemology in the history domain, their students will be unclear as well.

Both Peter Lee and Rosalyn Ashby have strongly cautioned that students’ ideas about the past do not simply evolve of their own accord. Teaching greatly influences students’ ideas. They have also warned that while progression models for identifying development in historical literacy can be useful in understanding prior conceptual knowledge and mapping subsequent changes over time, they must not be used in a way that might structure or restrict students’ ideas about the past. Such algorithmic approaches to teaching history are likely, Lee and Ashby warn, when teachers “do not themselves have a good grasp of the ideas they are attempting to teach.” What is most significant in this statement, I believe, is that to “have a good grasp of the ideas” does not mean knowing the what of history; nor does it mean being able to follow the procedures of historical inquiry; or adopt conceptual benchmarks that are unique to the discipline. To “have a good grasp of the ideas” that are being taught requires an ability to orient all three of these components within one’s own epistemological stance, and to do so with a self-awareness that there are alternatives that rest outside each individual’s worldview. This is what Rüsen refers to as the individual process of “digesting the experiences of time into narrative competencies.” For students, such a process can be intellectually empowering because it centers the historical narrative within the individual, while at the same time contextualising the past within the scope of immeasurable possibilities.

Like Rüsen, Denis Shemilt has called for the adoption of a framework in history education that links “past with past and past with present,” so that students will be able to view the past (with all its complexities) through the lens of a kaleidoscope:

To be truly useful, the frameworks employed by pupils must not just be ordered and coherent, complex and multidimensional; they must be polythetic and admit of alternative narratives.

In order to be admitting of alternative narratives, however, we must be ever cognisant of how our own worldview may be limiting our kaleidoscopic lens – as well as the lens of others.

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