What is History Teaching?, pp. 2 of 10

What is History?

Marwick defines history as “the bodies of knowledge about the past produced by historians, together with everything that is involved in the production, communication of, and teaching about that knowledge” (Marwick, 2001). The Greek word for history is ἱστορία, “historia” meaning to inquire (Joseph & Janda, 2008). Inquiry is defined as “seeking the truth, information or knowledge; seeking information by questioning (Dictionary.com). However, as in any discipline, History is not only about seeking information or getting content information. It is also about understanding what the discipline is about. Mansilla and Gardner (1997) define understanding as the ability to think with knowledge within a specific domain. They divide understanding into two dimensions: “domain-specific knowledge” and “understanding of the disciplinary modes of thinking embodied in the methods by which knowledge is constructed, the forms in which knowledge is made public and the purposes that drive inquiry in the domain” (Mansilla & Gardner, 1997, p. 382). This according to Nichol and Dean (1997) is the “know how” or the process of “doing history”. Thus, the discipline of history is one whereby historians construct the past by interpreting the available evidence. Thus, learning history should not be about memorising facts. Students of history should inquire into the past by using the available evidence to construct the past, just as science students conduct laboratory experiments to prove a hypothesis.

History Allows Us to Acquire Historical Understanding

It is through the study of a broad sweep of history that we understand why certain things or events change and why some continue. History also shows us the many ways in which problems are posed and resolved in society. “We learn to recognise and weigh the different interests, beliefs, experiences and circumstances that guide human beings in their societies. History enables us to understand how such interests, beliefs and experiences drive human beings to construct knowledge, and makes us aware of the value of knowledge and of its relative nature” (Lacoursiere, 1996).

Knowledge of the past is essential to society. What happens in the present and what will happen in the future are essentially governed by what happened in the past. To make judgements about events that happen in the present without fully understanding what led to them in the past is like people making judgements of you without understanding how you came to be what you are today

History and Social Studies

In the United States, History falls under the umbrella of social studies as do other subjects in the social sciences. In Singapore, it is studied as a standalone subject at the secondary level. History is the study of the human past and human contributions which led to historical events. Social studies, on the other hand focuses  on society as a collective human entity. It is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. “The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world” (National Council for the Social Studies, 1994). Both subjects use inquiry as a key  pedagogical approach. History plays an important role in social studies. It plays an important role in developing citizenship as history helps to train the mind.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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