History has often served as a point of reference as we advance, looking back at experiences that have shaped our present state of being. Seixas & Peck (2004) suggests that the role of history in education is to give students a basis on which to “make sense of their lives.” How are we helping students to connect their learning to past experiences? How do we help them to look critically at the curriculum when given traces and accounts of the past? Seixas & Peck argues that the past shapes everything we do. In light of that, a deeper understanding of the term learning helps us to embrace the concept that learning is a lifelong process. We gather information from the past and use it to shape our future.
Creativity and innovation also have historical connections. Whereas creativity presents a unique idea or product and innovation builds on what already exists, they both have some historical links. Creators and innovators often look at past inventions for inspiration or direction. Seixas & Peck suggests that we use the past as “basis for inferences.” While we may not get full accounts, the traces of the past offer “a starting point to reconstruct what happened and why and what it all means.”
Werner (2008), talks about teaching for hope and suggests that without hope there is no incentive for learning. The students in our classrooms today will be the leaders of tomorrow. It is very important that we inspire hope. In society today, there so much happening that can discourage the learners we encounter. In spite of the challenges we see around, the seeds of hope must be planted. Werner emphasizes that teachers foster the students’ creative envisioning of desirable futures. He stresses that ‘‘youth need to theorize about possibilities.’’ It is in this context that we examine how we have approached teaching in the 21st century when compared with the past. Historical thinking helps the teacher to guide learners to think critically as they become the problem solvers of the future. Werner advices that “anyone who is a teacher is necessarily an optimist. Our working with young people represents a commitment to the future.”
How do we balance the conversations we have with students about world problems or issues, both past and present, as we strengthen their sense of hope for the future?
History in Education
History is the study of events in the past. Within the classroom, history plays a very important role in how teachers guide learners. Students need to be able to make some connection with the past, even as we exist and prepare for the future. Kliebard (unknown) suggests that “historical awareness will keep us from repeating only a relative handful of that infinitude of mistakes.” We have often promoted the growth mindset and a willingness to take risks in the classroom. With this in mind, we can appreciate the mistakes of the past that have lead to great inventions of today. Consequently, we find innovative ways to present an old concept. Innovation exists in the historical context.
Cuban (2001) suggests that there is some benefit to be gained from a scholarly look at the past and “methods historians have used.” Creativity suggests presentation of a new concept or idea. Even if a concept is new, creators often refer to past inventions for inspiration. In the classroom, we seek to promote creative thinking and problem-solving. Teachers use history in education as a means of inspiring students to become great inventors and critical thinkers. Cuban goes on to suggest that policymakers find some merit in historical methods and solutions to similar problems that they face. A look at how it was approached in the past will help to guide thinking and process.
Teaching and learning have evolved and the 21st century, the focus has shifted to teachers facilitating growth and emphasizing areas such as collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving. History has a part to play as we inspire critical thinkers. Many great inventions of the past have inspired learners to, themselves become pioneers in various fields of endeavours. Although Cuban warns against interpreting history and using it to guide policy, it serves as a point of reference for today’s issues. The question is, how can we as educators encourage students to develop an appreciation for history in the classroom and to look critically at issues that provide relevance in today’s context?
Reflection and Additional Questions
The question on the role of history in education is a pertinent one. The resources consulted while working on this post have provided some food for thought as we examine the historical foundations of teaching. As teachers, the question remains; how much of history is a deliberate part of the planning process? Also, how do we help students to make important connections to the past and use the lessons learnt to inform their thinking and perspectives?
Cuban, L. (2001). Can historians help school reformers? [Review of the books The Failed Promise of the American High School 1890-1995 by D. L. Angus & J. E. Mirel, Moral Education in America: Schools and the Shaping of Character from Colonial Times to the Present by B. E. McClellan, & Schooled to Work: Vocationalism and the American Curriculum, 1876-1946 by H. M. Kliebard]. Curriculum Inquiry, 31(4), 453–467. doi: 10.1111/1467-873X.t01-1-00207
Kliebard, H. M. (Unknown). Why history of education in teacher education? Unpublished manuscript, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI.
Lagemann, E. C. (1989). The plural worlds of educational research. History of Education Quarterly, 29(2), 185–214.
Werner, W. (2008). Teaching for hope. In R. Case & P. Clark (Eds.), The anthology of social studies, volume 2: Issues and strategies for secondary teachers (pp. 193–197). Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press.
Seixas, P., & Peck, C. (2004). Teaching historical thinking. In A. Sears & I. Wright (Eds.), Challenges and prospects for Canadian social studies (pp. 109 – 117). Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press.