What is History Teaching?, pp. 5 of 10

To demonstrate historical understanding, students need to be able to use important historical concepts. They also need to understand the methods of a historian and the criteria that knowledgeable people (historians) have developed to build a comprehensive historical account. They need to appreciate the purposes that inspire the writing of a historical account and they need to be able to use such work to understand why the world in which they live in is the way it is today.

To reach a sophisticated historical understanding, content should be shaped by second-order concepts and historical procedures, also known as syntactic knowledge (Cercadillo, 2001) These are concepts that give shape to the discipline of history. To acquire historical understanding students should go through the process of doing history. In constructing the past, students of history will encounter the following:

  1. Evidence – the concept of evidence is central to history because it is only through the use of evidence that historians are able to write their accounts.
  2. Historical empathy – this involves explaining that what people did in the past make sense in terms of their ideas about the world and when students read the evidence, they have to put themselves in the shoes of these people in their time and place.
  3. Causation – this is not only about people’s reasons for acting in a particular way, it is also about why large-scale events or processes occurred. Causes is not just a list of events. Historians tend to pick out only necessary conditions from a wider set. If these necessary conditions did not occur, then the event would not have occurred.
  4. Time – The concepts of time and change are central to history. However, history deals with time over a long duration. Thus primary school students may have trouble estimating the long duration of time that a historian deals with and trying to transfer their preconceived ideas about time may pose a problem for students studying history.
  5. Change and Continuity – history deals with change over long scales, not moment to moment change. Connected to the notion of change is the notion of continuity. There is no notion that nothing has occurred. Rather, though there is no change, certain things continue.
  6. Accounts – this concept is related to that of evidence. Accounts deal with how students view historical narratives. Many young students tend to accept what they read especially if it is in their textbook, as true or accurate.

So how then do we teach history so that students will encounter the complexity of this subject and see the relevance in studying it? This should be through historical inquiry. Like detectives who solve their crimes by looking for clues to help them to solve the case, students too should be detectives. The difference is that their clues are the sources left behind from the past. By doing this they emulate what historians do.

Historical Inquiry

When we conduct a historical inquiry, we are basically experiencing the same process that a historian encounters as he does his investigation. A historian would have an area of history he is interested in studying further. He would come up with a hypothesis or a question which he hopes to investigate. However, unlike our students, the historian would already have read substantially in that area. He would then collect sources to gather evidence for his investigation. He would analyse and evaluate the sources and then make a judgment about his investigation. He would finally write his account either as an article or a book based on the available evidence.

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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