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.
Want to weigh in on a major controversy in history education in Canada? Be a part of THEN-HiER’s national Teaching the Past blog contest this March! THEN/HiER invites you to engage with a major issue in history education (for example, one of the Controversies from our website, or another issue) by blogging about it. Blogs will be judged by members of THEN/HiER’s Executive Board. First and second prize winners will choose from one of the following prizes:
• A Parks Canada Family/Group “Discovery Pass”
• A copy of Je me souviens? Le passé du Québec dans la conscience de sa jeunesse (2013) by Jocelyn Létourneau (in French)
• A copy of Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology (2014) edited by Kevin Kee
The deadline to submit your post is March 31st. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Winners will be announced in April.
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!).
This book is a scientific study. What is a scientific study?
A study is research based on data gathered methodically and analysed rigorously to convincingly demonstrate one or more ideas.
How long did your study take?
The 3,423 statements that form the basic material for the study were collected between 2003 and 2013. This is one of the largest collections of its kind in the world.
Who were the subjects of the study?
The statements were gathered from Secondary IV and V students in schools in many regions of Québec. The collection also includes statements produced by cégep and university students. The statements were gathered from Francophones, Anglophones and Allophones.
How did you conduct the survey?
The survey was held in class anonymously (the respondents did not have to identify themselves), suddenly (they were not prepared for the survey) and with few guidelines (no answers were considered unacceptable or inadequate out of hand).
Why did you conduct this study?
The purpose of the study was to test the hypothesis that young people know generally without knowing specifically. In other words, young people have strong visions of Québec’s past without detail knowledge of what happened. Indeed, the ignorance of the young people is not an emptiness waiting to be filled, but a fullness that can be turned into account.
Whose idea was the project?
I designed the project. I also began the research and obtained the funding required to carry it out. I engaged a team of assistants – master’s and doctoral students – who carried out various tasks. I want to mention in particular the extensive contribution of Raphaël Gani to this process. Many teachers and professors also helped gather the data by agreeing to have their students answer the survey.
What are the main results of the study?
There are many, many results, so I will limit myself to mentioning one: the historical perspectives of young people are complex, hard to understand and even more difficult to account for in light of the diagnosis of ignorance.
Why is this book interesting?
We know lots about the knowledge that is transferred to youth. We know far less about the knowledge they receive, internalize, understand and put to use to construct meaning that is useful to them. The value of this work is that it lays bare the system of representations that Québec youth hold about the past of their society. This is the most exhaustive study that has been led to date in Québec and in Canada.
Why is this book relevant to the reform of the teaching of history proposed by the Parti Québécois?
It is unfortunate that the PQ government has decided to reform the History and Citizenship Education program without first conducting a serious study of its virtues and shortcomings. Much has been said about the deficit of young people’s knowledge about Québec’s past. When it comes to ideas about history, the true religion in Québec, feelings run extremely high. This study provides fuel for a more grounded and more nuanced re-examination of the historical education of young Quebecers.
What makes the book original?
The idea behind the book is the simplest but also the most promising I have ever had. Studies based on mine have been conducted in France, Catalonia, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany, English Canada and French Ontario. It is original in that, to test the historical conceptions of young people, rather than restrict them to the structure of an established questionnaire created to assess their answers according to standardized criteria, we let them speak freely and respected what they said and analysed it as stated. By doing this, we discovered what remains of what is transmitted to them; we also discovered the visions of history that they create from what they hear about the past. In this way, we got right into the heart of the structuring representations of collective identity that they translate to their own individual scale.
Who is this book for?
Teachers, professors and education students, of course, who are directly affected by the content of the book, but also anyone interested in young people’s relationship with the past; people who are concerned about the way history is presented in the public space; people who are worried about historical education; people who want to know whether, in terms of the interpretation of Québec’s past, there are differences between Francophones and Anglophones, between boys and girls, among young people at different educational levels, between youth and the general public, between youth who have taken the History and Citizenship Education course and those who haven’t.
Why did you choose this cover?
Besides the fact the Garnotte’s brilliant caricature is closely related to the content of the book, it is a nudge to people who, quick to judge, consider today’s youth to be ignorant of history, careless of their connection to their predecessors, uninterested in anything that relates to the past and depoliticized. It is true that most young people do not know the name of the first premier of Québec. So what? Their smart phone can tell them in three seconds! They may not have encyclopedic minds, but young people are nevertheless inhabited by visions of history that, in general, reflect the identity themes of their reference community, whether that community is Francophone or Anglophone.