On Teaching History

Crossposted at And So I Teach

It’s always interesting to talk to non-teachers about their perception of teaching because I feel like they think they know better than anyone else since they were, at one point, students. I agree that more people in contemporary Western society have been in school than not, but it’s naive to think that people who aren’t actually in education and in schools truly understand what it’s like to teach.

I believe wholeheartedly in public education as the best (and, in my view, only) way of developing kids into the kinds of citizen that we want them to be. I think that religious schools and private schools and charter schools all need to be done away with so that we can use our resources for better public education, so that our kids can benefit from adequately funded classrooms with solid resources and teachers who have time to do their jobs properly.

So it’s with a heavy dose of skepticism that I look at criticism of the draft curriculum document for the new Alberta Social Studies program of study. The document looks a lot different from what we’re currently teaching, because it follows a logical path through issues, rather than taking a piecemeal approach like we’ve done over the last few years.

There’s been a movement away from teaching history the way I learned it (through rote memorization and very little context) and toward teaching historical events as part of a political, social and economic continuum rather than as events that occur in isolation. Teaching similarities and differences between historical events (like the rise of fascism in 1930s Germany and the shift to the alt-right in 2016) is more useful than teaching a simple chronology. Content without context is meaningless, and rote memorization is merely content at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy. 

I had a look through the draft document, and discovered that there are six ‘essential understandings’ in the new curriculum, all of which help to address the rationale behind this program of study (emphasis mine):

Social studies fosters the empowerment of students as active citizens. It is an interdisciplinary subject that draws from the humanities and social sciences. Social studies honours multiple ways of knowing and provides opportunities for students to develop an understanding of their relationship with the past and who they are, who they want to become, and the roles that they play in shaping the society in which they want to live.

An acknowledgement of the past is in the rationale for the curriculum document, along with multiple ways of knowing (which sounds a lot like ‘knowledge’ to me). We want our kids to be empathetic and able to look critically at multiple perspectives on a particular issue (or event) and recognize that just because we do something in a particular way here in Alberta, we are not in a position to feel superior over others who don’t live here.

Without having access to the actual curriculum document (which won’t be finished for some months), it’s difficult to see what specific content will be included. Based on the language in the draft, however, I put together my best approximation of what grades would have historical content (spoiler: all of them). 

  1. Active citizenship builds inclusive, respectful and resilient communities in which diverse people live well together. (2-5, 8-12)
  2. Exploring diverse historical narratives informs actions and decisions to promote pluralism and reconciliation. (K-12)
  3. Stories of place and knowing the land and how it sustains us foster a sense of belonging and personal and collective responsibility to be stewards of the land. (K-12)
  4. Exploring diverse identities, experiences, stories and ways of life builds cultural awareness and a sense of belonging to foster social cohesion. (4-12)
  5. Power influences governance and relationships and contributes to reconciliation and an equitable, just society. (2-12)
  6. Exploring diverse perspectives on quality of life informs decision making to promote the well-being of self and others. (5-12)

The essential understandings within the curriculum provide a broad framework for inquiry into specific contexts and content, and will certainly give Alberta students the opportunity to broaden their worldviews using critical thinking skills, along with reading and writing to effectively communicate their ideas. 

I think the criticism comes from the use of “change” in the document, and the apparent absence of history. But all of history is a series of changes. The Protestant Reformation was a marked change in the religious structures in Europe, and the unifications of Italy and Germany significantly changed the political structures in Europe (and the world). The alliance system that European nations entangled themselves with was a direct cause of World War I, and strict terms of peace combined with an economic depression provided a fertile breeding ground for the development of fascism in Europe. These events do not exist in isolation, and talking about them as if they do is dangerous. To contextualize the world our students live in is to give them access to the way things were and are, and allow them the opportunity to project their own ideas for the future on a society.

A good social studies curriculum will allow for all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation) to be explored, and students will be able to communicate the knowledge they have through more comprehensive means. It will allow for students to explore what causes and creates change in the world (both positive and negative) and should let students decide for themselves what active citizenship and engagement mean. 

19th century educational models, where students are treated as empty vessels and teachers function solely to provide information, are outdated. Teaching history the way my parents learned it is a surefire way to make it as boring as possible to all but a select few students. Teaching history through multiple perspectives enables students to build empathy and understanding of the differences between us.

There cannot be a social studies curriculum without history, just as there cannot be a study of history without a study of change.