Lindsay Gibson Makes the Case for History Education


Good afternoon. My name is Lindsay Gibson
and I’m from the University of Alberta. I’d like to recognize that we are in the
traditional territory of the Anishinaabe people. And one of the things from an
educational standpoint, I also live in Edmonton in Treaty Six territory, and I’m also maintaining a home in Kelowna in the unceded territory of the Okanagan people. And I think it’s really important that when we do these acknowledgments with our students, especially, to really explain to them
“What does unceded territory actually mean?”, and “Why do we do these
acknowledgments and why is this important?” So today I’m going to talk
about history education in Canada, which is something I’ve spent, you know,
the last 20 years of my life devoted to, and I’m going to start by talking
a little bit about the context of history education today. And this is actually an opening piece from a grant that we wrote, an unsuccessful one, if there’s any SSHRC applicants out there who can commiserate with me about this. And what we said is this: “In a world that is increasingly complex with new communications technologies, a radically new migration context, increasingly diverse societies, whole world regions destabilize in new ways, increasing disparities in wealth, the impacts of global climate change, and the belated
recognition yet continued contestation of demands for reconciliation, reparations, and national status for Indigenous peoples, Canadians face a
level of political, social, and cultural complexity that demands, among other
things, a solid grounding in the past.” Now, when we when we think about the context today, as well, and I’ve only pulled in […] one particular of the of the 94 Calls to Action that really focuses specifically on history education. How are we going to reteach the way that we teach about Indigenous peoples in Canada and the history and legacy of schools? How are we going to
build students capacity for intercultural understanding and empathy and mutual respect, and identifying teacher training needs amongst other things. And my big question, overall, today as part of my presentation is “To what extent has K-12 history education changed in the last 50 years to meet the challenges of the present context?” So a lot of you might know this
study from 1968. Bernie Hodgetts wrote this study. He surveyed 947 schools, elementary
and secondary. He started in 1965, so, you know, I think prompted by the hundredth anniversary of Canadian Confederation. 947 schools. 10,000 student essays and
surveys. 1,000 teacher interviews [and] teacher education students. And this is the the summary that we always draw out of this: “We are teaching a dry as dust
chronological story of uninterrupted political and economic progress told without the controversy that’s an inherent part of history. The great debates that could bring our history to life, the natural conflicts of opinion, the new interpretations of the past by successive generations of historians, …are all grayed out of existence…” Now, I would wonder in thinking about [it], “Well how much has
things actually changed in the last 50 years?” Well the traditional approach to
history education […] I’ve used some old textbooks on the side […] it was focused on
nation-building grand narratives. It was focused on teaching students to learn the key facts of the past. The purpose was to promote group solidarity and
pride. Build a sense of national heritage and citizenship. To strengthen beliefs
and values and moral habits. To learn important lessons from the past. And obviously this particular kind of history education was, you know, began when history education […] when history began getting taught in schools in the 1890s. And I think in a lot of ways this still exists in some of our schools today, and I think a lot of people in the audience will say “Yeah, I remember history like that.” So […] and part of the problems with this kind of approach to history is these grand narratives. These narratives that are told as an unbiased, objective, and authoritative story of the past. In English-speaking Canada, this was been dominated by the English Canadian grand narrative, that if you read Tim Stanley’s work in 2009 lays out kind of these component pieces. If we look at Létourneau and Lévesque and
several other ones, we also see this
“La Survivance” narrative that exists in Quebec, this idea of nation-building at the same time period. And the problems with these […] types of grand narratives is […] and the traditional approach overall is it treats history as informational. “How much stuff do you know?” I meet people regularly
in this street and they say, “I’m really good at history trivia I guess I should be a history teacher.” And I say “Well, not quite.” [Laughter] It’s incredibly passive. Our students are told to learn other
people’s interpretations. It’s uncritical. Rarely do we invite
students to critique interpretations of the past or interpretations of sources
that we’re looking at. It’s incredibly flawed in terms of their understanding
of the discipline. People […] students grow up to think that history is facts to be remembered and not interpretations to be debated and constructed and
deconstructed and reconstructed. It’s teleological in the sense that it builds
towards a logical conclusion, right? And part of that is this idea of natural. Students begin to see Canadian history as being, “Well we are this way because that’s what we were meant to be.” And I remember as a history teacher, it took me 15 years to come to a realization that what I wanted my students to realize at the very end, and it seems like maybe a minor goal, was that they [would see] Canadian
history as not being inevitable. It wasn’t bound to be this way, and it was a really important understanding. Now obviously, as well we see, that it can be exceedingly stereotypical and marginalizing to various communities and, that could be Indigenous people, but ethnic, gender, disabled people, the list goes on and on and on. In terms of not seeing themselves
in this curriculum and we hear that repeatedly in history education research. How do we design a history education that students can see themselves in? Now in the 1970s and 1990s, there was a response to this […] and I call this “History under Threat” […] that we see that history was integrated into and replaced by interdisciplinary social studies and Canadian Studies courses, and people […] history scholars like my […] education scholars like myself are very divided about our beliefs about whether this is a good thing or not. History was very closely tied to contemporary issues and values education and citizenship education, and the goals were really about trying to teach Canadian history to contribute to a different form of citizenship. Not one about patriotism and accepting other peoples’, but trying to take more of an activist role. Now a lot of you whoever happened to read this book that I’m showing up on the screen here […] In the 1990s and 2000s many
countries around the world went through what we call the History Wars, and that was about history education. And lots of these were settler states. Australia, Canada, the United States, that really debated these stories that we were telling about the past. And they complained. They said, “Look… the problem with this new kind of social
studies and history education kids are getting these days is that they’ve got no coherent story. They don’t know, they don’t understand or have a sense of national identity. It focuses too much on injustices and
negative parts of the past, what they call in Australia the “Black Armband History.”‘ They say that not enough time was spent on history in schools. Too much focus on skills and not enough on the basic facts. They said that history is
watered down in multidisciplinary social studies classes that should be predominantly history classes. They complained about the pedagogy and said, “Geez, these teachers are just too student-centered these days. They care too much about these students personally, and they need to be more rigorous. They need more academic rigor. More exams, more studying, more expository essays.” And they
blamed everybody. They blame social and cultural historians, they blame multiculturalists, they blame school boards, they blame Faculties of Ed, they
blamed Ed professors, they blamed provincial bureaucrats for the state of history. But we saw that, really, at the end of these History Wars, we saw some big developments, and these were not just developments in Canada. These were developments by an international history education community, and they really came up with some interesting findings. Firstly, they said Jean Piaget is a scholar who if you have any educational background you might know, but he had a stage theory about learning history. And what he said was, “Look, students can only begin to learn history and it’s abstract forms when they get older.” And in Britain, a famous history education scholar, for some reason, came up with a number and said it’s 16.8 years old. Okay, so students only really begin to understand history when they reach 16.8, and I would have loved to be around at six whatever – what’s point eight of a year? – and whenever that point was, what it would
have looked like when they became able to deal with the complexity of history. So these historians, really, and history educators tore this theory apart, and said, “Look, what we know is that students are bringing an incredible source and wealth of knowledge. They learn it from their families, they learn it from television, they learn it from Heritage Minutes, they learn it from all of these things that that we can think of that were part of the construction of history for us.” The second big piece that came about was there was a consensus among scholars, and [they] said, “We really think that the goal of history education is not to fill them full of facts, but it’s really to teach
them deeply to think about history.” Historical thinking. And a lot of scholars spent some time thinking about, well, what exactly does this look like? And what they said was that, “We really have two kinds of concepts in history that we want students to understand. We want them to understand
the stuff, the substance of history, but we also want them to understand what we call these second-order concepts. How we organize and think about the stuff of history. So things like significance and continuity and change and evidence and historical perspectives. How do we help students really think? And we said, “You know, in a lot of ways, it’s quite unfair to think that students are gonna learn the history, not only of Canada, but in lots of cases the world, by the time they reach 18.” Now I’m only 42 years old. I’ve been at this for a while, and I’ve got
some pretty big gaps in my historical knowledge, and I don’t know why we expect
18 year olds to be able to do the same thing. So, they really said, “The goal
then is if we can’t fill them up full of stuff, maybe the goal is that we can
really teach them to think deeply about history. That regardless of the history
that they learn throughout their lifetime once they get outside of school, when they’re sitting around the dinner table, when they’re talking in their community, can they think about this in really sophisticated ways?” And the last idea was really about progression. How can we understand how students’ thinking progresses over time period? So, there’s some really key understandings
for this, and what we teach students is, we say, “Look, there’s a difference between history and the past. And we’ve done this with Kindergarten students, and Grade 1 students, all the way up to our graduate students, and they see this difference of saying, “Oh. The past is everything that ever happened and history is a selection. We’ve chosen some elements out of this to construct into our narratives.” The second one, that history is constructed from evidence left behind. There’s no one inventing this, it’s not the Wizard of Oz. That people are really that we only have what we have, and we analyze this evidence to construct it, and sometimes there’s an absence of evidence and
sometimes we have to be able to make our best inferences about what we think might have happened or what it meant. Our interpretation of evidence, and what we
include or don’t include in our narratives changes the stories that we tell. History is partial and selective. There’s no such thing as one true
history, but there may be multiple plausible types of or conclusions about history. And lastly, this is what I battle with all the time with people in society and other things, who say, “Oh, you’re all just a bunch of revisionists.” And what we say to them is, “Well look, every history is revisionist, in the sense that it’s shaped by the conditions and priorities in the present, and we revise these as things change, as we get new perspectives on society as we go through.” So, Peter Seixas is my PhD supervisor and a lot of people in this room have drawn from his theories. He kind of mapped out a framework of saying, “This is what historical thinking is and let’s conceptualize this.” And if any of you know Peter, he’d be the first one to say to you, “This is not the or only model of historical thinking. This is the best we had at the time period.” And he’d be happy to debate anybody about what else … and he’s very aware of these other concepts that might be included in it. Now I’m not gonna go through them any
great detail. Now the important understandings for us about this kind of history was to say that this historical thinking concepts are, yes, concepts for students understand, but what they are really about are the problems of doing history. How do we construct an understanding of the past using evidence? How do we deal with trying to understand a time period in the past that where their values and beliefs might be so different than what we believe today. That we know that there’s different conceptions of historical thinking. And what I’ve really found as powerful as these concepts over the last 10 years we’ve worked with them is that it’s established a vocabulary for people
across Canada and internationally to talk about history in the same way, and
we heard this today. I tweeted out earlier during the earlier pieces. If it would have been a drinking game, we’d all be in trouble. Every time we took a
drink if historical thinking was mentioned. It was mentioned already
dozens upon dozens of times already. So, and lastly, and this is a big
understanding for teachers. Historical thinking concepts mean nothing without content. We can’t just do historical thinking about nothing. And a lot of teachers in their practice we say, “How do we combine the content, what you’re studying with, with these concepts to help students understand this more deeply?” Okay? Okay, so why do we want to do this with students? Why do why do
we think this is relevant? Well, from our experience it’s more interesting for
students to do history than it is to memorize history. So for a long time
period, I think a lot of you could relate to this, that we were always
taught to memorize and learn other people’s conclusions about history. But yet in math class we get students to do math, and science they get to do experiments, but in history, we never get to do any of this. So how can we get them doing history? It deepens understanding of students about how historical knowledge is created, right? We don’t have people debating and saying, “Oh, if you take down that monument, you’re erasing history.” “Oh wait a second, history is
constantly constructed, we’re in constant conversation. I understand why there’s different interpretation and how’s that there’s different interpretations.” It strengthens our abilities to think, to ask questions, to communicate, to do all of these other pieces. It deepens our understanding of the past and its relationship with the present. And lastly, this is a big concept, and I see this as being really central to the work about making history relevant: How do we help
students improve their historical consciousness. Their ability to make sense of the past, to orient themselves into the present, but to help them make ethical decisions into the future. If that’s not the purpose of
history education, I’m not sure exactly what it is. So in terms of successes for
those of you involved in historical thinking project, we’ve been we had
enormous success over time. 8 provinces have now included historical
thinking as important goals for frameworks of inquiry in the curriculum. We have the historical thinking concepts have been integrated into dozens of textbooks and countless resources across Canada from many of our partners. Historica, Canada’s History. Lots of these resources that have been coming out include these. Teachers have written materials and uploaded onto the
website. We have 3,000 sets of Historical Thinking posters in French and English all across Canada. Every year we host a Historical Thinking Summer Institute, and by my count, we’re roughly around 600 teachers across Canada now have received intensive training on embedding historical thinking as part of their regular practice of teaching history. We’ve done hundreds of professional
development across Canada, and we had an annual general meeting with historians, history educators, museum people, museum educators, curators, ministry officials, and these meetings were really helpful in terms of building a united vision, in terms of what are we trying to do in history education. Right? We also see, for
example, in heritage fairs in BC that I’ve been involved with, the historical thinking concepts are used to assess students assignments, and if you want to be really impressed, listen to a student explained to you from Grade 4, why their project is historically significant. What evidence they use to
construct their understanding of their particular topic. And we see this being used in the Governor General History Awards and in assessments and various teachers awards across Canada. Now my last couple points are just about, “Okay, well your question was how has history education changed and what does this even mean?” And of the changes that have taken place, does it it help us be able
to deal with the realities of what we’re gonna be facing in the present but also in the future. And the answer to that question is
is a difficult one. We have an incredible network of history educators across Canada. People get confused all the time. They say to me, “Are you a historian?” I say, “No, are you a teacher?” “Well, not exactly.” “Well what do you do?” “Well, I teach teachers and I work with curriculum and I do other things about teaching history.” And we have a network. I see my colleagues Catherine Duquette and
Rose Fine-Meyer and others in the in the crowd today, who really devoted themselves of this kind of work. And the goal of this group is to say, “How can we better understand how students are learning history?” And so the research that’s really gone on too has looked in these particular areas. How do students actually learn history? What kinds of things, by going into
classrooms and assessing their thinking, what what really works and what doesn’t
work? How do history teachers teach? What are
the struggles they face? What kinds of training do they need? Is the training
they’re getting sufficient for what they’re actually doing? How do history teachers learn how to teach? And lastly, what messages do
textbooks convey? Well, the difficulty with this research is that we’re not really sure from a research standpoint. We have a great community of colleagues
working in Quebec and also in English Canada. They’re increasingly collaborating together. Cate and I, for example, are working on a big study right now that’s studying students narratives in Grade 5 and Grade 10 about Canadian history, comparing them between Alberta and Quebec and using some pedagogy that we think might have an impact on changing the narratives that they might actually tell. But the difficulty is that we’re not really sure what’s going on in history education across Canada. Here we are, fifty years after Hodgetts, and we actually can’t say in the same definitive way that he did of saying what exactly is going on. I’d like to tell you a story and say, “Hey we’ve transformed it.” It’s completely changed the way that teachers are teaching and students are learning. It’s having a big impact on society,” but we can’t do that. So what I’d like to leave with today is myself the principal investigator Carla
Peck who’s my colleague at the University of Alberta, 20 other co-applicants history education researchers across Canada proposed a project called
thinking historically for Canada’s Future. It’s a SSHRC partnership grant
and involve 50 partners across Canada it’s a seven year two and a half million
dollar project. We applied for an LOI which is the letter of intent which is
we call the greatest misnomer in history a letter of intent you’d think it might
be a nice letter it’s a hundred and fifty pages long. We applied we, we were
successful, we received the first round after you get through the LOI, they
say to you okay you went through that now we’ll actually
let you submit the full project. So we submitted the full project last year in
February and we found out in the spring that they said this is a great project
we would recommend it for funding but there just isn’t any funding. So that was
so much fun for us what we decided we decided that we’re gonna do it all over
again so and not to be glib but we learned a lot from that project and we
tried to bite off more than I think that we could chew and I think that that not
not getting that that grant was one of the best things that happened to us because
it helped us and our partners refocus what do we really want to focus on what
really matters going forward and so what we’re planning is we’re going to be
submitting in February of 2018 they don’t let you they make you go back to
zero it’s like snakes and ladders or something and the idea is that we’ll
be submitting a grant in February of 2018 of this year we hope to find out in
the spring that it’s successful and then we’re gonna be submitting the full grant
hopefully finding out by 2019 and the questions that we want to ask are the
exact same ones that we’re raising here how our students…how is history being taught by teachers across
Canada. We want to nurture a community as you can see of academic historians,
researchers, indigenous scholars, graduate students, educators, and museums, archives.
We want to provide opportunities to engage with this research. We want to
develop and test innovations. What’s actually working? We look at…we get our
inspiration from Governor General’s Award winners and we say let’s see what
you’re doing in this classroom and and what made that so powerful? Was it your
passion? Was it the design? How can we replicate that? Can we try that in some
other classrooms and see the degree to which that’s going to be successful? We
also want to engage in the development of assessment. How we
know assessment drives classrooms and instruction across Canada. How do we
assess whether students are actually improving their ability to think about
history? And that does not mean multiple choice fill in the blank or knowledge
regurgitation exams but how can we find out whether we’ve made an impact on
their ability to think historically. We want to transform classroom practices in
terms of connections with groups all across Canada in designing resources and
supporting them in designing resources and conduct professional development. So
in that last piece I guess you know I maybe sold this presentation a little
bit short in the sense I said to you how has history education changed and I
think you maybe thought well maybe he’s going to give us an answer at a 30,000
foot level we’d say yes it’s changed a lot, we’ve got new curriculum, we’ve got
people trained in historical thinking, we’ve got them pushing, we’ve got them
working with each other, and collaborating. They’re thinking about how
are we going to reteach history to be more inclusive in Indigenous perspectives
and other perspectives. How are we going to do this but we don’t know whether
it’s making an impact yet and that’s what we want to find out. So we’re hoping
maybe next time we talk that we will have relaunched Hodgetts. For 2017, to
me I think this is really the the work that I want to do the rest of my life,
how can we rethink and change how our students in K-12 are thinking about the
past and we know they’re bringing a lot of knowledge in from the classroom but
the point of history education to me is is that if it was just about allowing
students to pursue their own interests there would be no point for school. What
we want to do is bring their knowledge from their communities and from their
families and from their own experience and challenge them to think and rethink
and reconstruct that understanding so that it can help them orient themselves
in the present and again make ethical decisions in the future. So, I thank you.

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