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How does ethnicity impact ones experience in the history classroom?

Posted by Angelica Radjenovic
19 April 2015 - 5:57pm

Peck’s (2011) chapter entitled “Ethnicity and Students’ Historical Understanding,” in Clark, ed., New Possibilities for the Past, raises many questions about the intersection between ethinicty and historical understanding. Peck’s main research question is: “What is the relationship between a student’s ethnic identity and his/her ascription of significance to phenomena in Canada’s past?” She conducted her research in Lower Mainland, British Colombia and included Aboriginal, immigrant, and Canadian-born grade twelve students (p. 312). To avoid any assumptions of student’s ethnic identities, “she asked students to complete a questionnaire eliciting demographic information and also asked them to write a paragraph describing their ethnic identity” (p. 312). Subsequently, she asked students to work in small heterogeneous working groups in which students were asked to create a timeline of the ten most historical significant events, chosen from a larger set of thirty event cards, each of which provided a brief description of an event from Canadian history (p. 313). Her research findings were presented using four vignettes, which demonstrate “their (the students') ability to articulate both their perceptions of the ethnic identities and their awareness of the impact their ethnic identities may have on the ways they think about the past,” (p. 317). Peck argues that students bring complex identity-related frameworks to their study of history (p. 317). How can teachers use these findings to teach complex ethnic-identities in the classroom?

Arguably, history educators must “explicitly investigate how identity can influence these understandings” (306). However, this type of investigation becomes rather complex, as “there are no clear-cut definitions of ethnicity or ethnic identity” (Peck, 2011, p. 308). This complexity can be described as “a conceptual maze” (308). The notions that ethnic identity is in constant flux and there is a need for researchers to directly study the relationship between students’ ethnic identity and their historical understandings (Peck, 2011, p. 319) contributes to the idea that “ethnic identity is both individually and socially constructed rather than determined a priori” (Peck, 2011, p. 308).  

I agree with Epstein’s (in Peck, 2011) argument that students construct perspectives of the past, which influence how they see and learn history (pp. 309-310).  Peck’s (2011) research with grade twelve students sheds light on the relationship “between a student’s ethnic identity and his/her ascription of significance to phenomena in Canada’s past” (312). She argues that students bring “complex identity-related frameworks to their study of history” (317).

A student’s ethnicity can directly impact their history experience, and in many ways, teaching about ethnicity in history classrooms contributes to what it means to be Canadian. Two questions I leave for you include: one, how can teachers become aware of “the impact on how students learn history?” (Peck, 2011, p. 319) and two, how can we better understand the intersections between ethnic identity and the acquisition and experience of learning history (Peck, 2011, p. 319)?


Peck, C. (2011). Ethnicity and students' historical understandings. In P. Clark (ed.) New Possibilities for the Past (pp. 305-324). Vancouver: U.B.C. Press.

Image: Taken by the Author