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Blog Contest--The Ethical Dimension

Posted by Angelica Radjenovic
15 April 2014 - 12:10pm

            The facilitation of research on the teaching and learning of history in Canada can be categorized by Peter Seixas’ ‘Benchmarks of Historical Thinking.’ This project has codified historical consciousness within six distinct categories including: historical significance, primary source evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, historical perspectives and the ethical dimension. These stages when practiced together can influence historical thinking to competencies in historical literacy (Seixas). While historical thinking has become a phenomenon across Canada, there has been world wide interest in how to teach and learn history in the classroom. Sam Wineburg argued in Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts that “historical thinking … goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think…it is much easier to learn names, dates, and stories than it is to change the basic mental structures we use to grasp the meaning of the past” (Wineburg, 7).

            With that said, this blog will focus on the ethical dimension which challenges students to make judgements about events and people in the past in addition to understanding the relationship between historical accounts and present-day ethical questions (Clark, 142). Peter Sexias defines the ethical dimension of historical interpretation as: “how we, in the present, judge actors in different circumstances in the past; how various interpretations of the past reflect different moral stances today; and when and how crimes of the past bear consequences today” (Clark, 142).                                                           

            The practice to think historically can not be taught through rote learning and it must entail a level of sophisticated mastery of the subject to engage with history. During the 1970s and 1980s, researchers in the United Kingdom argued that students need cognitive tools and ideas to “manage the complexities and uncertainties involved in making sense of an unruly past” (VanSledright, 434).  The ethical dimension encourages a need for meaningful historical accounts that can help students make either an implicit or explicit ethical judgement. However, in making these ethical judgments, one must acknowledge the possibility of imposing ones current morals on the past thus, one must recognize the historical context in which the situation takes place. The idea of the ethical dimension is to differentiate and not impose ones own assumptions on the past yet, these crucial skills are blatantly excluded from the revised 2013 Canadian and World Studies curriculum in Ontario. Arguably, is it important to point out that these stages are not “skills but rather a set of underlying concepts that guide and shape the practice of history” (Seixas).

            The exclusion of the ethical dimension is worth acknowledging albeit the lack of scholarly research and published material. To begin, the Ontario Ministry of Education proposed to create “a common structure and an element of unity that would encompass all of the subjects and disciplines together [including the Social Science, Civics, Geography, Law, Politics, and Economics courses]” (Hallman-Chong). The new curriculum would entail a level of skill and knowledge to encourage students to become responsible citizens through experience and engagement rather than rote and didactic teaching and learning. Subsequent to the implementation of the curriculum; there was a clear lack of consensus among the teacher-writers regarding the inclusion of this historical thinking concept in secondary school classrooms. Some believed that the “essence of the ethical-dimension was somewhat redundant, being already contained in the main purpose of history education” (Hallman-Chong). Many scholars have argued that the ethical dimension is taught although indirectly through the historical concepts and the citizenship education framework. Yet, more scholarly research is needed to understand the direct rejection of the ethical dimension in the curriculum.

Even though the historical thinking concepts were included in two provinces there is still a “large gap between what is written in the curriculum documents and how teachers teach history…there is still too much didactic teaching and student memorization of historical content” (Gibson).  For the historical thinking concepts to be effective, in-service teachers’ need to improve their understanding of historical thinking which could take the form of “professional development opportunities and financial support …[from] history faculties, teacher education programs, provincial social studies teachers’ associations, and ministries of education (Gibson). Arguably, the importance to reinvent and redefine teachers’ pedagogy is crucial to develop and maintain historical thinking in the classroom.

            The ethical dimension could influence and encourage the way in which Ontario students interpret and form their own understanding of the past. If the ethical dimension was included in the curriculum, students could develop their understanding of the past by identifying and investigating ethical concepts and values. This can also strengthen ones’ personal and social perspectives of the past in order to make decisions in the present. Peter Seixas argues that, ‘we rely upon evidence for inferences about how people felt and thought” (Clark, 144) when constructing perspectives of the past.

            In order to deal with these differences, Sexias identifies two approaches including one, the “error of dismissal: the thought that people who operate in ways different from us are irrational, ignorant, stupid, racist, or sexist… [and, two, the ] error of presentism: the assumption that historical people are more like us than they actually were, which leads us to impose our own assumptions, ideas and concepts on people to whom these would have been very foreign” (Clark, 144). Arguably, if students are not taught more sophisticated understandings of historical thoughts and consciousness of the past; they may interpret and understand the past through their own presentist lens and bias’.

            The purpose is to motivate students to deconstruct their own contemporary cultural, moral and ethical framework to make authentic judgements of the past. The very foundation of historical education and consciousness is reliant on interpreting and preserving evidence yet, this important concept is excluded from the curriculum. As Sexias argues, “without evidence, there is no basis for our accounts and explanations, and history becomes a myth” (Clark, 141). Conversely, Sexias argues that without the ethical dimension, “history has no consequence” (Clark, 142). In other words, because of the exclusion of both evidence and ethics; and the lack of accountability for teachers to incorporate these concepts into their classroom; history is just a mere myth with no consequence.



Works Cited


Clark, P. ed., New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada              Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.


Gibson, Lindsay. “Historical Thinking in the Secondary School Classroom.”            classroom/. (March 18. 2014)


Hallman-Chong, Stanley. “Democratically Creating Historical Thinking or the Common     Good.      for-the-common-good/. (March 18, 2014).


Hanson, Erin. University of British Colombia. “Indigenous Foundations.”            residential-school-system.html. (2009).


Seixas, Peter. “Benchmarks of Historical Thinking. A Framework for Assessment in           Canada. Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness.   


Sexias, Peter. "Conceptualizing Growth in Historical Understanding." The Handbook of      Education and Human Development ed. by David R. Olson and Nancy Torrance.          Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.


VanSledright, Bruce. “Thinking Historically.” Journal of Curriculum Studies. Vol., 41,      Iss., 3: 2009.


Wineburg, Sam. “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of      Teaching the Past.” Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.