Abstract of a talk to be made at Prague on October 10th 2014, in the conference School vs. Memory? Conflict, Identity, Coexistence
The aim of the talk is to propose a pragmatic approach to teaching the past to kids in the context of a strong presence of community memories everywhere in society, assuming that kids learn history in and out of the classroom. The proposed approach comes from a study effectuated in Quebec (www.tonhistoireduquebec.ca) which consisted in gathering short narratives (N = 5000) and phrases (N = 3423) produced by students responding to two questions: 1) “Tell me the story of Quebec as you know it;” 2) “If you had to summarize in one sentence the historical experience of Quebec, what would you write personally?”
Analysing this corpus is fascinating in that it brings us to where students are in terms of their knowledge of the past. Instead of addressing the question of history teaching from the perpective of the «abstract kid», we are more in tune with how kids make sense of the world, including past worlds, in amalgamating informations from different sources.
This presentation must be seen as a contribution to explore a more practical way to come to terms with the difficultness of the historical thinking approach, a method hard to implement in the classroom due to the strong presence of memories (family and community) in and out school.
This research helps us reflect on how to teach history to youth. We know to which extent, over the past twenty years, the historical thinking paradigm has influenced academics and teachers. Without diminishing the important contribution this intervention has made in teaching history, we need to acknowledge that historical thinking is not easily implemented in the concrete context of the curriculum or classroom.
We have arrived at this conclusion by examining a subset of students in Quebec’s mandatory History and Education to Citizenship course who, in principle, have been introduced to historical thinking methods. It appears from their submissions, however, that even after learning about historical thinking, students continue to adhere to canonical visions of Quebec’s past; a past that’s binary, simplistic and divided. Of course, it is possible that the historical thinking paradigm was not fully applied in the classroom and therefore these responses have nothing to do with its putative failure to fulfill its promise. It is equally possible, however, that the strong voices supporting this paradigm under-estimate a number of significant realities:
Youth develop their understanding and vision of history outside of the classroom as much, and often more, than inside the classroom.
Youth quickly forget most of what they are told or learn in class.
The grand national narratives remain a ready-to-use framework or template for young people diligently searching to make sense of the past that allows them to live efficiently in society (or at least pass the exam!).