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Teaching history, thinking critically

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The federal government recently announced the creation of the Canada History Fund, designed to support projects that "celebrate key milestones and people who have helped shape our country as we know it today."

Regrettably, it is also ending funding for the Historical Thinking Project (HTP), based at the University of British Columbia but national in scope, the goal of which is, or was, to invigorate the teaching of history in Canada's schools.

The government's decision might seem of interest only to those directly affected by it. It deserves, however, a wider audience, not least because the teaching of history in our schools is generally regarded as preparing the young for the exercise of citizenship, and thus ensuring the health of Canadian democracy.

Few people would object to the government's claim the study of history should introduce us to the key people and events that have shaped today's Canada. In saying this, however, the government ignores two key questions. Should not the study of history be directed towards understanding the past in all its dimensions -- warts and all -- not simply to celebrating selected aspects of it? And who will decide what is or is not worthy of celebration?

There is nothing to celebrate about residential schools, for example, although, as the Free Press has rightly argued, they should be assigned an important place in Canadian history courses. As with residential schools, there are other aspects of our past that no one would judge worthy of celebration but which nonetheless must not be forgotten.

If it is to be of any educational value, history must be more than celebration. To take a local example, in 1917 a University of Manitoba historian, Chester Martin, urged history teachers to follow the example of their colleagues in science and teach history as the investigation of problems. To study history, he argued, required "thinking and reasoned reflection" and not "mere docility in learning." In other words, just as students learn the basics of the scientific method in science class, so their study of history should help them think historically, or, to use the language of the 1890s, make them more historically minded. In this same spirit, HTP emphasizes helping students master what it describes as "the difficult tools of thoughtful, critical, evidence-based historical understanding" so they can better understand the past and its meaning for the present.

In their The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts (2013), Peter Seixas and Tom Morton explain how HTP seeks to achieve these goals. Students learn (1) to judge the historical significance of events and people in the past; (2) to test evidence and construct defensible explanations; (3) to identify continuity and change; (4) to analyze the causes and consequences of past events; (5) to place events and people in historical perspective; and (6) to assess the ethical dimensions of history.

To see what this might mean in practice, consider these apparently factual statements from an old history textbook describing the 1673 building of Fort Frontenac. It tells us that Frontenac "loved decisive action," that his expedition to Lake Ontario was "truly impressive in the eyes of the admiring Indians" who were "astonished" by his new fort, and that "he knew exactly how to deal with the Indians" so that "the whole affair was a great success."

Anyone who possesses even the rudiments of historical thinking will smell a rat. What kinds of evidence would prove that Frontenac was decisive, rather than, say, rash or foolhardy? How could one possibly know whether the Iroquois were impressed and astonished, rather than wondering whether to chase this invader out of their lands or how to turn his fort to their advantage? What impression of the "Indians" does the textbook create? How might one decide whether Frontenac's project was a great success? And, not least, why does the textbook present history in the way it does?

Beyond these questions, the building of Fort Frontenac can be placed in the wider context of the settlement of New France, of relations between the First Nations and Europeans, of the role of geography in shaping history, and on and on. All six of HTP's concepts have a place.

The goal is students learn the facts but also realize what passes as fact in history is not always as clear-cut as it seems. They also learn what questions to ask and what evidence they need to answer them when studying history, while also viewing the past through the eyes of the people who actually lived it.

Presumably HTP lost its federal funding because it was deemed to be insufficiently celebratory. Despite its name, the Canada History Fund has no room for a project that was working successfully to strengthen the teaching of history in Canada's schools.

 

Ken Osborne began teaching history at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate in 1961. He is now Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 13, 2014 A9

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