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Is Historical Illiteracy For Real?

Posted by Angelica Radjenovic
5 September 2014 - 3:21pm

If history illiteracy is on the rise, how are Ontario’s teachers teaching the aspects, concepts and facts of history? Is there a disconnect between history and today’s students? Is Ontario becoming historically illiterate? The Agenda aired a program on TVO entitled “Ignorant of History,” which sparked both controversy and support for the idea that Canadians are becoming historically illiterate. Many individuals including educators and parents alike commented on this episode.

How and can we lessen historical illiteracy?

Historical illiteracy, according to the comments that aired on the program, results from the actions of educators and students. One general argument goes a little like this: teachers (at any given level) don’t actually ‘know’ the history they are teaching and thus, cannot speak and elaborate on ideas, concepts and facts in the classroom. As broad and argumentative as this sounds, teachers may teach history out of ‘default’ which is a word that I use loosely. Due to budget or resource restrictions, administrators may have to place teachers instructing courses for which they were not originally hired. So, why can’t we just tell educators to ‘think more historically’ in order to convey those concepts and facts? Thinking historically involves sophisticated concepts, along with the need to cultivate “professional training, insight, and time” (Morton, 2000, 60). At the same time, the lack of resources and funding for these crucial elements persists. So then, I ask, what is to be done? 

Going back to the question above, I am confident in our ability to lessen historical illiteracy by engaging students (at any given level) in history. How do we engage students? A good place to start is to provide a united account of Canada’s story within the classroom. This can help create a national identity instead of our fragmented and disjointed history, which arguably changes depending on where in Canada you learn history. This idea may seem ironic but the provinces and territories of Canada hold their education autonomy dearly. Arguably, “education remains the most jealously guarded of provincial jurisdictions” (Morton, 2000, 55). With this in mind, we have to steer clear of rote learning in the history class and get students engaged and involved in understanding, learning and doing history. If the goal is to create a national united history story then educators alike must work with the students instead of coercing mandatory history credits reliant on rote learning and memorization of a fragmented past.

Where does this leave us today?

Like others, I am disheartened about how educators convey and teach history across Canada. Our story should be united and bold! We should be proud and excited to tell our history! Maybe we should take a few lessons from Canada’s anthem, “…With glowing hears we see thee rise, / The True North strong and free!” This hopefully reflects the future of history teaching in Canada and the need to extend historical thinking free of rote learning to include a united and triumphant story of Canadian history!


Works Cited:

Morton, Desmond. (2010). “Teaching and Learning History in Canada.” In Knowing Teaching and Learning History. By: Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas and Sam Wineburg. New York University Press: New York.

Photo credit: Library of Congress Public Domain.


Re: Is historical illiteracy for real

I would firstly like to thank Angelica Radjenovic for contributing to the THEN/HiER blog. In the spirit of debate and respectful criticism there are also several contentions provided in the article that I would like to comment on.

Radjenovic contends that the way to combat historical illiteracy is to, "provide a united account of Canada’s story within the classroom" and, "create a national identity instead of our fragmented and disjointed history."  Furthermore she states that, "Our story should be united and bold! We should be proud and excited to tell our history." For the author, the root problem of historical illiteracy is twofold: that school history offers a fragmented history of Canada rather than a united and triumphant story, and that teachers focus too much on rote learning and memorization rather than a historical thinking approach. In other words, the problem is the narrative that is offered and the pedagogy that is employed to teach the narrative to students. The solution according to the author is to take a historical thinking approach in order to "foster a national united history story."  

While I would agree that a history pedagogy focused on rote learning and memorization is problematic, the author's solution to the problem of historical illiteracy is contradictory. A historical thinking approach is a critical approach to history that attempts to teach students the disciplinary tools to analyze existing historical accounts and construct their own accounts and arguments about the past, not be passive consumers of a single narrative. Teachers cannot employ a historical thinking approach while also providing a united account of Canadian history. If the focus of history teaching is to improve their historical thinking competencies and dispositions, then surely they cannot be taught one definitive grand narrative of the past that is "united and bold."  

One of the problems with history curriculum and teaching in the past is that teachers tried to teach "a" united narrative of the past rather than introducing students to the multitude of historical interpretations and historical actors/groups that were involved in our national history. This narrative was often exclusive and failed to include the multiple perspectives of different groups involved (First Nations, women, immigrant and minority groups etc..) which lead students and others to disengage with history.

The author also misinterprets the thrust of Morton's argument in his 2000 (not 2010) chapter. Morton argued that greater national cohesion will not be accomplished by creating rigorous content standards for history education. Instead he pushed for a historical thinking approach to Canadian history that will help students assess competing accounts of events in order to build a deeper understanding of the Canadian past.

Lastly, I disagree with the author's assumption that the majority of history teachers across Canada teach history through rote learning and memorization. While this may be the case in several classrooms, there are also myriads of teachers that have adopted a historical thinking approach to history teaching. Furthermore, many curricula across Canada (Manitoba, Ontario and BC's new draft curricula) now include the six historical thinking concepts identified by Dr. Peter Seixas as part of the Historical Thinking Project, and the movement for improving the teaching of historical thinking continues to grow both in Canada and internationally.

I look forward to any comments or responses you might have.