History Teaching and Critical Thinking


History Teaching and Critical Thinking

Snjezana Koren, PhD, Professor at the University of Zagreb and member of the CDRSEE’s History Education Committee, the history advisory committee for the Joint History Project, spoke in Thessaloniki on December 13, 2013. The HEC is committed group of academics that form a regional network to promote multi-perspective views of history in Southeast Europe. Dr. Koren gave this speech as part of “His Story or History: Europe in the Trap of Populism”, a regional conference organized by the CDRSEE in the center’s hometown of Thessaloniki.

History Teaching and Critical Thinking

My task here is to address connections and relations among and between historiography, history education, critical thinking, and public use of history. I will discuss it from the perspective of a historian and educator in the field of history teaching.

The issue of critical thinking has been on the agenda of CDRSEE from the very beginning: in many ways, Joint History Project has been dealing exactly with critical thinking in historiography and history teaching. Four sourcebooks and the recently published methodological handbook tackle this issue on the practical level. They do not offer ready-made recipes, but offer some crucial tools and ideas on how to do it: the very idea of critical thinking permeates and infuses the content and approaches of all these books.
The important question is, why are all these books published in the first place? I would like to compare it with the publication of a book on good manners: if everyone knew and followed the rules of etiquette, such a book would not be necessary.

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What is critical thinking? Most definitions assert that this is an individual’s ability and inclination to make rational decisions, to think reflectively and productively, to evaluate evidence and to make conclusions based on evidence. When it comes to history and history teaching, the development of “historical thinking” is often emphasised as one of the most important goals of history lessons (this is a convenient moment to recall the book by Sam Weinburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts”). Experts often emphasise that one important way to encourage students to think critically is to present them with controversial topics. Critical thinking is especially promoted when students encounter conflicting accounts of arguments and debates; when they are allowed to explore different sides of issues and multiple perspectives on topics; when they are asked to weigh competing evidence; when we want them to distinguish between verifiable facts and value claims, determine the credibility of sources and identify ambiguous or misleading claims and arguments, unstated assumptions, bias, and propaganda. Critical thinking is developed when we want our students to ask themselves, “Who is the author?” and “Where is he/she coming from?”, when they read a political commentary or analyze a cartoon, knowing that political orientation colours the author’s opinion.

It would seem that history teaching is a God-given school subject for learning and practicing critical thinking. Yet, it isn't so in too many cases. Allow me to share a few personal reflections on the subject – obviously, we are talking about different, mutually related and interwoven factors which include historiography, politics, public use of history, and pedagogy of history teaching (from primary schools to university).

History is a socially constructed knowledge. When communicating the knowledge about the past through education, history curricula and textbooks interpret and construct the meaning of past events in many different ways: for instance, through a selection of events, people etc. that are considered worth remembering, or through various meanings ascribed to past events in order to influence the understanding of the present societal life ant the process of the formation of social identities.

As a socially constructed knowledge, the content of (school) history is significantly determined by those actors who are in a given moment “entitled” to define the social reality – those members of the political and intellectual elite (politicians, journalists, historians, prominent educators etc.) that are in positions to determine and produce certain meanings and interpretations of the past and to design strategies and instruments for their dissemination (which doesn’t mean that teachers and students are only passive consumers of official versions of history produced by elites).

Today's politicians are linked to the past events; they use history as a reference point to explain current developments and to shape a perspective for the future. History helps them to frame specific politics and policy guidelines, it is important for the construction of political imagery and political symbols and rituals. But, politics can also instrumentalise history for the purpose of political legitimation or delegitimation of political opponents, or to create a hostile image of the “Others”. This problem escalates when such political interpretations, supported by the political power, are promoted as official ones (for instance, through curricula and/or textbooks) or even prescribed by laws.

For its part, modern historiography emerged in the period of 19th century nation-building, and historians played an important role in this process: they created national narratives and myths of origin and continuity, imagined national territories, and generally acted as apologists of their own nation and state. Since then, the relationship between historiography and politics has remained complex, often uncomfortable and most of all ambivalent. It could be said that historiography entered into a marriage with a national ideology of which it has not yet fully recovered, despite the linguistic turn, deconstruction, postmodernist claims, etc.

All this applies even more to the teaching of history. The pedagogy of history teaching has been very much determined by concerns other than the development of critical thinking. School education is a powerful socialising medium, and history curricula and textbook narratives are perceived as primary instruments to transfer official histories. In the territory of former Yugoslavia, since the end of the 19th century, history teaching has constantly been considered as one of the so-called “national subjects” (subjects such as language, history, geography, music). The term clearly indicates the special status given to these subjects: they are supposed to convey specific cultural and political traditions of the nation and to influence the construction of students’ individual and collective identity through attachment to affective values such as common language, culture, and memory. That is what Robert Phillips, in his book History Teaching, Nationhood and the State (about the shaping of the National Curriculum for England at the beginning of the 1990s), calls “the battle for a big prize” – a possibility to influence present and future generations through the control over historical narrative.

During the 20th century, it was mostly the content of school history that was subjected to constant changes – at the same time, there was a great deal of continuity in methodological assumptions and pedagogical approaches, as well as in the perception of the purpose of history teaching. History was, and still mostly is, supposed to convey to students one and only “proper” interpretation of the past. While academic history is perceived – at least declaratively – as a field of free research and contrasting of different opinions and positions, school history is still by many – not at least by historians – perceived almost exclusively through its formative dimension, as a means of political socialisation of students in accordance with the currently dominant ideology. In this way, critical thinking and intellectual activity is perceived only as a privilege of a narrow circle of political and intellectual elite, while the same right is denied to teachers, students and other users of the public history who are left only to adopt or promote the official version, imposed by the currently dominant system, ideology or political option.

I too often see how students, who study history and are trained as historians, and afterwards attend a teacher training course, are too easily – let me quote George Lucas – seduced by the “Dark Side of the Force”. They easily fall into the trap of uncritical recounting/retelling of textbook content and adopting the one-dimensional and black-and-white presentation of history offered by many textbooks. They are reluctant to go beyond prescribed interpretations in curricula – which is in our case a legacy of the way of learning and teaching history they experienced themselves as students and which is practised every day by many teachers.

This leads me back to the beginning. Learning to think critically is a complex activity, and it requires a great deal of practice. Some experts even assert that this is a skill that does not come naturally for the most people, but needs to be continually and constantly reinforced through a variety of teaching methods. It requires a classroom climate that values different perspectives and high levels of discussion. On the contrary, our schools – from primary schools to university – spend too much time on getting students to give a single (and simple) correct answer. Too many successful students get good grades and don’t even learn to think critically and deeply. Students are seldom asked, “How do we know?” and information provided by (text)books is taken for granted. In history, this is partly a consequence of curricula that are focused on content review and remain on the surface of problems rather than deeply engage students in meaningful thinking. Even when teachers ask “why”, they too often expect students only to reproduce causes listed in textbooks, and not to discuss their significance, possible hierarchy, etc.

Like some of the previous speakers, I don’t believe that history textbooks are solely responsible for this. In primary and secondary schools, many teachers avoid activities connected to the development of critical-thinking skills, considering them too difficult and too complex for students of a certain age. Is students’ age indeed a real problem? Or, are these activities simply too much trouble for them to handle, because they put them into the spotlight, out of the comfort zone of popularly held beliefs and viewpoints? At the university level, lectures still make up a high percentage of university courses (in many countries of the region more than 50%, according to recent research). University teachers mostly take it for granted that students somehow “know” how to deal productively with primary and secondary sources, and disregard the fact that they do not learn it at previous levels of schooling.

But, the most important question for me is whether such an approach to history teaching is even desirable by educational policy-makers in most of the countries in the region. It requires a more thematic approach, a smaller number of in-depth studies of certain selected topics and deep knowledge, instead of giving pupils constant overviews of historical events “from Plato to NATO”. But, there is another, more substantial problem: such an approach could also jeopardise the notion of the so-called “national history” or, more precisely, the nationalistic grand narrative which is still in the focus of many school curricula. So, what we are talking about is changing the whole philosophy of history teaching, developing a different idea of the purpose of school history – from a political pedagogy to a subject that nurtures critical attitude towards both the past and the present. I don’t see it coming anytime soon as a general development in the region, but I do hope that this project has nurtured a small core of history teachers that are dedicated to promoting and willing to practice a different type of history teaching – one with critical thinking in the focus.

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