Tuesday, October 22, 2013

History Wars Revisited: A Discussion on Battle Lines in Teaching about War in the Classroom

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

I recently had the opportunity to attend a public lecture sponsored by the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, held at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, on October 15. Guest speaker was Alan Sears, PhD, Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, and member of the Executive Board of THEN/HiER. His presentation was entitled “Battle Lines in the Schools: Teaching the History of War and Society for the Common Good”.

This was the first in a series of public lectures, hosted each fall by the Gregg Center. Sears seemed happily in his element, as he challenged the audience to reconsider their own pre-conceived beliefs about why teach students about War.

Harkening back to the History Wars of nearly 20 years ago, Sears commenced by outlining how the “what” of history has long been a point of contention in many countries (including Canada), particularly when it comes to War. Rather than obsessing about what narrative would be “good” for students, Sears argued, our efforts are better spent focussing upon the “how” behind such narratives. In this way, he reasoned, the “competing visions” of War can provide ample opportunities for engaging students in the on-going heated debates that are central to any democracy.

Sears described the "Battle Lines" of teaching about War as drawn between two extremities. On one side stands the “three cheers” approach to history education, epitomised by J.L. Granatstein’s (1998) highly controversial polemic, Who Killed Canadian History, which positions War as front and centre in nation-building. On the other side, stands the “social cohesion” approach to history education, exemplified by Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel’s (2008) two volume History of the Canadian People, in which War takes a back seat to other social factions.

Why teach the history of War in the classroom? Sears responded to this question with four clearly articulated reasons as to why NOT. We should not, he said, teach about War in order to simply:
  • Create historians or students of history;
  • Foster love of nation;
  • Imagine a nation that should have been;
  • Commemorate the fallen.
These, he explained, reflect the politics of War in the classroom. They are designed to shape the student to fit the Nation (either real or imagined).

Alternatively, Sears challenged the audience to consider War as an educational tool for engaging students in the messiness of democratic ideals. In this sense, he explained, the debates can remain ever fluid, ever contested, ever open to an expanded view of humanity.

Indeed, much of Sear’s theoretical argument has been outlined within his chapter in the publication New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada (2011). For this reason, as a preface to listening to his lecture, I’d recommend that you read his chapter, in order to gain a fuller understanding of how Sears has aligned Historical Thinking with Citizenship Education. Drawing heavily from the Common Good paradigm of Keith Barton and Linda Levstick (2008), Sears has argued that history and citizenship work hand-in-hand, fostering democracies that are “participatory, pluralistic, and deliberative” (p. 355). These principles of citizenship education lingered within his lecture of October 15.

After having torn down the aforementioned political reasons for teaching about War, Sears brought his audience back to the central question: Why teach the history of War and society in the classroom?

To this, he presented 7 bold reasons as to why the topic of War can contribute to a student’s vision of a common good:
  1. It is significant: Because War has impacted so many people, in so many different ways, and continues to be a threat to the safety and wellbeing of so many people worldwide, its’ role in past, present, and future cannot be ignored;
  2. It is iconic: The timelessness of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ transcends all social, political and pedagogical barriers. Regardless of one’s own beliefs, the profundity of War can make for a highly effective learning opportunity;
  3. It is contested: The battle lines that have been drawn around the teaching of War, are, in themselves, a good thing. This is because the contentious nature of War actually enables students to be actively engaged in deliberations that are characteristic of any democratic society;
  4. It is multilayered and complex: The history of War can (and should) be approached from many different angles and historiographical positions. In this way, the topic is never one-dimensional, and there are never any easy answers;
  5. It takes us beyond ourselves: It is important to remember that Canada was part of an alliance of nations. War involves individuals acting within the broader context of many people, many nations, and many political fronts;
  6. It is accessible: War touches upon local communities and local history, so it provides an effective way of placing localities within the broader context of world events;
  7. It is unfinished: The study of War enables students to participate in historical questions that are not already answered. War is constantly open to re-examination, as new sources of evidence become available to the classroom, and as world events impact our perspective upon the past.
All of these reasons point to the role history education, and (more specifically) teaching about War, can play in a student’s education. The solution, Sears advocates, rests in embracing controversy, and opening up messy discussions within the classroom that require careful historical analysis, reasoned judgement, and active deliberation.

full recording of Professor Sears’ one-hour lecture can be found here:

Monday, April 29, 2013

“Because, although I don't know much about it now, I really want to know more about my family.”

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey,
PhD Candidate
University of New Brunswick (Fredericton)

After 15 adventuresome weeks of classroom fieldwork, I am nearing the end of the data collection phase of my research. It’s been an invigorating experience, working with a group of 5 community history museum volunteers, as well as 24 grade seven students, and their teacher, to explore how a heritage community can assist middle school students in deepening their historical consciousness. By “deepening”, of course, I am referring to Jörn Rüsen’s (1993, 2004) typology of historical consciousness—in particular, what Rüsen has labeled as a “genetic” sense of how we know what we [think we] know, and how this relates to our temporal relationship with the past.

Through my research, I am particularly interested in exploring how 12 - 13 year-olds perceive the concept of “truth” in history; and in turn, how they may be empowered to reach their own understandings about the past, using museum collections as tools for historical thinking. As a result, I have adopted a phenomenological single case study design (Yin, 2009) that is bounded by time, as well as by the formal arrangement of a seventh-grade classroom, and a specific community history museum fieldwork experience.

In this blog entry, it is not my intention to discuss the details of the fieldwork experience. Instead, I’d like to reveal to you a little bit about the importance my students place upon the past.

At the outset of developing my research design, I pondered whether this particular case study could be considered “typical” or “exceptional” of other Canadians. As Bent Flyvberg (2001) has asserted, both breadth and depth are necessary elements of research (p. 87). Hence, Flyvberg has argued, both are equally valuable, because both work hand in hand “for a sound development of social science” (p. 87). Since I have found this argument to be very compelling, when developing my research design, I turned to the well-known national survey Canadians and Their Pasts to establish breadth against which I could compare my case study of seventh-graders.

Launched in 2006 (with data collection completed in 2011), Canadians and Their Pasts, represents an elaborate alliance of 7 academic researchers, 19 collaborators, 6 universities, and 15 community partners, for the purpose of “exploring the role that history plays in the lives of Canadian citizens” (Canadians and Their Pasts, 2012). In the subsequent survey, participants were asked questions designed to: 1) measure levels of general interest in the past; 2) identify activities participants engage in that relate to the past; 3) probe how these activities aid in their understanding of the past; 4) measure the perceived trustworthiness of specific sources of information; 5) probe the relative importance of various pasts; and 6) identify participants’ individual sense(s) of the past (Conrad et al., 2007; Muise, 2008). The resulting data provides a rich profile about what adult Canadians (18 years and older) think about the past, and the role of specific sources of information in shaping their thinking.

Adopting the exact same set of survey questions as Canadians and Their Pasts, I began my phenomenological case study in January, by administering these questions to all of the case study participants. For the purposes of this blog entry, I will limit my discussion to items 1 and 5 of the original survey. Let me tell you a little bit about my seventh-graders…

With regard to interest in history, the largest majority (63%) of the 12 - 13 year-olds reported that they are somewhat interested in history. This figure is slightly above Canada’s national adult average of 50% (Conrad et al, 2010), which might suggest that more than most of the students occupy the ambiguous position of having a budding interest in history (that perhaps could just as easily be nurtured or squashed at this point in their education). It is also interesting to note that by contrast, only 18% are very interested in history. This figure places my students well below the national adult average of 34%.

With regard to the relative importance of various pasts, an overwhelming majority (69%) of the 12-13 year-olds reported that the past of their family is most important to them. This is distantly followed by the past of their country Canada (10%), and their ethnic or cultural group (7%). Students’ explanations for placing such an importance upon family past ranged from such reasoning as “Because I love my family”; to “Because I want to follow them…”; and “Because, although I don't know much about it now, I really want to know more…”. These survey figures, while slightly higher than the national adult Canadian average, are not significantly different, since 54.5 % of Canadians also place the past of their family as most important to them; while the past of their country Canada (6.5%), as well as that of their ethnic or cultural group (6.5%), remain equally lower than the student average. Interestingly, what sets my students apart from other Canadians, however, is that none of these individuals (0%, versus a national average of 3.5%) considered the past of their province as important. They also did not seem to possess any concept of a regional identity.

As to how these findings relate to historical consciousness is another discussion for another day. Also of note is how my students perceive “truth” and complexity within history. In the interest of providing you with a little carrot… preliminary findings certainly suggest that, like many Canadians, these students believe that museums will present them with the truth about what happened in the past… But such discussions must wait for another day. Currently, I am looking forward to conducting a post-survey with the students, to see how their perceptions of history and the past may (or may not) have changed as a result of the experience of doing historical thinking with a museum collection.

Friday, April 5, 2013

What does historical thinking look like?

(This article has some interesting links to historical thinking resources!)

by glennw on March 26, 2013
Mmm . . . I get this a lot. Especially over the last few months as we’ve rolled out the new proposed social studies standards document for Kansas.

The current document is all about content – with specific indicators that must be taught because they will be on the state-level multiple choice test. And we’ve done a great job over the last decade or so of training our teachers to only worry about whether or not their kids have memorized the tested indicators. The pendulum swung way over to foundational knowledge at the expense of critical thinking... Read more...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Challenging the Big Ideas of History

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey,
PhD Candidate
University of New Brunswick (Fredericton)

In a journal article that I have yet to find anywhere to publish, I have argued that history education must begin with Big Questions rather than Big Ideas. In this context I have posed the somewhat dubious question: when adopting historical thinking outcomes as a way of engaging students in the past, should we be enabling students to ask Big Questions (which are the foundation of source-based inquiry), or should we be directing them towards the Big Ideas that embrace such subjects as social cohesion and national identity?

Certainly, there exists a large body of cognitive evidence to suggest that a Big Ideas approach to teaching about the past presents serious limitations for students’ abilities to engage in history. Bruce VanSledright and Margarita Limón (2006), for example, have identified pre-occupations with teaching first-order concepts and ideas as stemming from a perceived nation-building Big Ideas role for social studies education (p. 561-562). In this sense, Big Ideas are often equated with maintaining a society’s status quo. Similarly, Stéphane Levesque (2009) has cautioned us on the intellectual limitations of a Big Ideas teaching approach “designed to tailor the collective past for present-day purposes” (n.p.). Likewise, Veronica Boix-Mansilla (2000) has also found, that to associate Big Ideas with a presentist perspective on the past is to presume answers where they cannot yet be found, because the past is still unfolding (p. 413).

Big Questions, however, in the Collingwood tradition of historical inquiry, suggests a dialectic role for history. This vision of teaching historical thinking, as Sam Wineburg (2001) has observed, has the potential to place students in the role of wrestling with multiple stories: “not just as arbiters of others’ accounts [i.e. judges] but as authors of their own [i.e. self-emancipators]” (pp. 131-132). Similarly, as Keith Barton and Linda Levstik (2008) have found, by making Big Questions an explicit part of classroom instruction, teachers can provide a forum for students to talk about history and make sense out of diversity in the past (p. 262).

Over the past eight weeks, I have been working with a group of grade seven students, exploring how to engage middle school students in historical thinking with museums. Undoubtedly, as anyone who has witnessed a classroom visit to a museum can attest, engagement in museums is seldom an issue. What is often the issue however, is empowering students to look beyond the Big Idea of the museum exhibition, and to ask their own questions. In this sense, I propose that historical thinking requires a slightly different set of procedural skills - because reading objects (by nature of the medium) is very different from reading texts or images.

So returning to my opening question... what should come first in history education? Big Questions or Big Ideas? Currently I can report, that in this stage of my data collection, I am persuaded even more that asking Big Questions is key to breaking away from the status quo that many museums are all-to-often prone to maintain. I look forward to elaborating further upon this distinction, when my research is completed later this year.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Lois H. Silverman and The Social Work of Museums

Around the world, museums are using their resources to benefit human relationships and foster social change. How can art, artefacts, and exhibits serve as tools for health and mental health, especially for those in dire need? Museum studies specialist Lois H. Silverman looks at some compelling research findings and inspiring projects that reveal the potential of museums to serve as therapeutic and social agents for all, including those all too often forgotten...

View the Lois Silverman presentation here: http://vimeo.com/19213313