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“Although I don't know much about it now, I really want to know more about my family”: How Students Understand the Past

Posted by Cynthia Wallace...
29 April 2013 - 7:00am

      After 15 adventurous weeks of classroom fieldwork, I am nearing the end of the data collection phase of my research.  It’s been an invigorating experience, working with a group of five community history museum volunteers, as well as 24 grade seven students, and their teacher, to explore how a heritage community can assist middle school students in deepening their historical consciousness. By “deepening”, of course, I am referring to Jörn Rüsen’s (1993, 2004) typology of historical consciousness—in particular, what Rüsen has labeled as a “genetic” sense of how we know what we [think we] know, and how this relates to our temporal relationship with the past.

      Through my research, I am particularly interested in exploring how 12 - 13 year-olds perceive the concept of “truth” in history; and in turn, how they may be empowered to reach their own understandings about the past, using museum collections as tools for historical thinking. As a result, I have adopted a phenomenological single case study design (Yin, 2009) that is bounded by time, as well as by the formal arrangement of a seventh grade classroom, and a specific community history museum fieldwork experience.

      In this blog entry, it is not my intention to discuss the details of the fieldwork experience.  Instead, I’d like to reveal to you a little bit about the importance my student participants placed upon the past.

      At the outset of developing my research design, I pondered whether this particular case study could be considered “typical” or “exceptional” of other Canadians.  As Bent Flyvberg (2001) has asserted, both breadth and depth are necessary elements of research (p. 87).  Hence, Flyvberg has argued, both are equally valuable, because both work hand in hand “for a sound development of social science” (p. 87). Since I have found this argument to be very compelling, when developing my research design, I turned to the well-known national survey Canadians and Their Pasts to establish breadth against which I could compare my case study of seventh graders.

      Launched in 2006 (with data collection completed in 2011), Canadians and Their Pasts, represents an elaborate alliance of 7 academic researchers, 19 collaborators, 6 universities, and 15 community partners, for the purpose of “exploring the role that history plays in the lives of Canadian citizens” (Canadians and Their Pasts, 2012). In the subsequent  survey, participants were asked questions designed to: 1) measure levels of general interest in the past; 2) identify activities participants engage in that relate to the past; 3) probe how these activities aid in their understanding of the past; 4) measure the perceived trustworthiness of specific sources of information; 5) probe the relative importance of various pasts; and 6) identify participants’ individual sense(s) of the past (Conrad et al., 2007; Muise, 2008).  The resulting data provides a rich profile about what adult Canadians (18 years and older) think about the past, and the role of specific sources of information in shaping their thinking.  

      Adopting the exact same set of survey questions as Canadians and Their Pasts, I began my phenomenological case study in January, by administering these questions to all of the case study participants. For the purposes of this blog entry, I will limit my discussion to the first and fifth item of the original survey. Let me tell you a little bit about my seventh graders…

      With regard to interest in history, the largest majority (63%) of the 12 - 13 year-olds reported that they are somewhat interested in history.  This figure is slightly above Canada’s national adult average of 50% (Conrad et al, 2010), which might suggest that more than most of the students occupy the ambiguous position of having a budding interest in history (that perhaps could just as easily be nurtured or squashed at this point in their education). It is also interesting to note that by contrast, only 18% are very interested in history. This figure places my students well below the national adult average of 34%.

      With regard to the relative importance of various pasts, an overwhelming majority (69%) of the 12-13 year-olds reported that their family's past is most important to them. This is distantly followed by the importance of Canada's past (10%), and their ethnic or cultural group's past (7%). Students’ explanations for placing such an importance upon family past ranged from such reasoning as: “Because I love my family”; to “Because I want to follow them…”; and “Because, although I don't know much about it now, I really want to know more…”. These survey figures, while slightly higher than the national adult Canadian average, are not significantly different, since 54.5 % of Canadians also place the past of their family as most important to them; while the past of their country Canada (6.5%), as well as that of their ethnic or cultural group (6.5%), remain equally lower than the student average. Interestingly, what sets these students apart from other Canadians, is that none of these individuals (0%, versus a national average of 3.5%) considered the past of their province as important. They also did not seem to possess any concept of a regional identity.

      How these findings relate to historical consciousness is another discussion for another day. Also of note is how my students perceive “truth” and complexity within history. In the interest of providing you with a little carrot: preliminary findings certainly suggest that, like many Canadians, these students believe that museums will present them with the truth about what happened in the past. Currently, I am looking forward to conducting a post-survey with the students, to see how their perceptions of history and the past may (or may not) have changed as a result of the experience of doing historical thinking with a museum collection.

How do your students understand the past? What pasts are important to them? How do they interpret museums and their role in interpreting the past?

Photo Source: Author's photo.