Thoughts that emerged after this years Historical Thinking Summer Institute, Vancouver, BC July 6-11

I recently attended the Historical Thinking Summer Institute (HTSI) hosted by UBC and facilitated by Dr. Peter Seixas. This was an opportunity for educators, researchers, university lecturers, and others including museum staff interested in the topic of historical thinking to further develop their awareness around a very important aspect of History education. The conference focused on “The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts” elucidated by Dr. Seixas in his book. The 6 historical thinking concepts include:

  1. Historical Significance
  2. Evidence
  3. Continuity and Change
  4. Cause and Consequence
  5. Historical Perspectives
  6. Ethical Dimensions

It would be impossible for me to go into detail into each of these concepts. Dr. Seixas does an excellent job of this in his book, using good historical examples to enhance his points. Suffice it to say, The Big Six are tools that help teachers and educators think about approaches to the teaching of history. As Seixas puts it, “Historical thinking is the creative process that historians go through to interpret the evidence of the past and generate the stories of history” [p. 2]. There are a couple of words that strike me in this very brief description (which is much further nuanced in his book). The words “creative,” “process,” “evidence,” “past” and “stories” jump out at me.

What we need to realize is that History as a discipline is different from events of the past. History makes sense of the past. It is not, in my understanding, equivalent to the past. What historians do is look at the past, interpret the facts gathered from evidence, and construct (which is a creative process) a narrative or story of the past with regard to particular moments and events in time. As E. H. Carr famously said in his book What is History?:

The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.

History is carried out through an interpretive framework. The historian is selective in the histories that she/he focuses on. In telling this history, the personal agendas, biases, cultures, dispositions, etc of the historian will naturally influence the retelling of the past. Dynamics of power, race, gender, etc influence how history is represented, and just as importantly, whose history is represented. As I’ve written elsewhere, the ideas of Power and Memory, influence history and specific to education, curriculum.

This is where the HTSI really struck home for me. It allowed me to further think about ideas borne out of my earlier research. Specifically, I started pondering over these questions:

“Where does history stop? Where does it begin?”

To elaborate on this, I’m curious, what do we mean by “history” and what period are we referring to when we speak about the “past.” In essence, I’m wondering how far into the present does History concern itself. I would argue that History should value not only events that have occurred in the past, but also events as they are emerging in the present. While this may seem like a contradiction to the tautology that ‘history is the past,’ I believe that the personal narratives of our students as they are unfolding in the present are valid points of discussion in the wider topic of “History.” Therefore, to answer the question “Where does history begin,” it should, speaking as a teacher of adolescent youth, start with the student her of himself. From there, explorations of the past can be put in relationship to the students’ own place in the continuum of history. [I want to further explore the approach of the ISC’s “Historical, Contemporary, and Personal” curricular historical framework as I think it has a lot of potential here]

“Whose History are we presenting?”

Because History is so wide ranging and grapples with multiple events of the past, when teaching History, we represent specific narratives and tell specific stories that resonate with the culture or context we find ourselves in. Canadian History will look different and tell different stories compared to American History yet they are both Histories that have value. However, “value” is an ascribed thing from the perspective of the “consumer” of that history (I don’t like the latter term but fail at finding a better one). Therefore, Canadian History will be valuable to a Canadian because it is the story of her or his context. The follow-up question we should ask then is, “well, when speaking of ‘Canadian History,’ whose Canada are we talking about and whose ‘stories’ are we recounting?” This is an important question that I think we need to seriously think about. History is closely tied to identity. An individual’s identity is germinated our of various spaces of influence, from culture to religion, from language to socio-economic status. Intrinsically tied to this idea of identity is of course history. So the question is, how can we represent these personal histories and provide them meaning in a wider discussion of “group” history. How can the immigration experience of a child coming from Morocco to Montreal become part of the wider narrative on the modern/contemporary “History of Canada?”

“Who is represented? Who is excluded?

History is about representation. The previous question asks how the narratives of the members of a society can make their way within wider historical consciousness. This question hints at the significant question of representation and exclusion. Like the fish on a fishmonger’s slab, some are bound to be left behind while others are purchased by the monger’s customers. We are selective in the process of telling history but in that selective process, we choose to represent certain narratives and exclude others. If we want to create truly democratic societies, the heart of which I believe starts in the classroom, we must think of ways to represent these excluded narratives. Canada’s provinces have made some changes to their curriculums to speak more deeply about previously excluded histories, specifically from the Aboriginal and First Nations peoples of Canada and others. But these representations fall short at speaking about more recent and emerging histories in Canada, especially in the the Post-Colonial period and the experience of “New Canadians” that emigrated to the country in the last 50 or so years.

“How is Historical Thinking linked to other theories?”

Here I need to think further on this question but wanted to quickly jot down theories that might align themselves with Historical Thinking. The first thinker that immediately jumps to mind is Dewey and his work Democracy and Education. This is a foundational work in my practice and in his work Dewey speaks about the importance of creating democratic institutions through education. As Dewey says:

A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his own action [or, as I argue, history] to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men from perceiving the full import of their activity.

The idea of “conjoint communicated experience” speaks clearly to the idea of historical representation. If we want to create better societies, we need to be able to communicate our experiences, and our school system offers a great place to do this.

The second theorist that I believe has links to Historical Thinking is Bhabha who presents the idea of Third Space. In her work, Zaver (2013) suggests that our classrooms can serve as places of Third Space where identities can be negotiated and understood. The Third Space serves as a place where individual notions of identity can come into contact with others and reemerge more fully through this negotiation. The representation of multiple histories can facilitate this negotiation and further enhance the establishment of safe spaces for dialogue.

On the topic of safe spaces, the use of multiple histories in the classroom can instill in the classroom an “ethic of care” as espoused by Noddings who suggests the important contribution that care has on the wellbeing and education of the whole child. By representing multiple histories we are demonstrating to students that we value and ‘care about their history.’ This validation can go a long way in making students feel comfortable to explore their history and identity and to engage in meaningful dialogue with their peers.

Lastly, the idea of Historical Thinking is intrinsically linked to Historical Consciousness, a topic that Dr. Seixas is also well versed in. I wonder what links can be made between developing these skills in students and the position espoused by Freire around conscientization or critical consciousness. Perhaps by linking excluded histories within historical narratives  in schools, we can also build a critical disposition around the consciousness of the social reality of our students.

To conclude, this years HTSI was a great opportunity, a rare conference that left me feeling greatly inspired. It is rare to find Professional Development opportunities as educators that excites both the theoretical and practical worlds that teachers inhabit. I left with a better understanding of The Big 6 as they apply to history education and look forward to using these new tools in the classroom. Intellectually, I found the conference greatly invigorating and stimulating. What made the experience all the more unique was the diversity of participants who represented multiple different professions and geographies, with participants hailing from Singapore, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States as well as various parts of Canada. It is an opportunity I would advice other teachers and those interested in History Education to seek out.

I’d also like to thank The History Education Network (THEN/HiER) for their generous travel bursary and ITREB Canada for providing me the time and funding to attend the conference.

Alim Fakirani