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Incorporating Multiple Perspectives in Elementary History Teaching

Posted by Katherine Ireland
29 March 2013 - 6:44am

Something I struggle with when getting feedback from colleagues on my work doing history in the elementary grades is the assumption that in doing history with young students, historical content doesn’t matter. It usually goes something like this: I’ll bring up the challenge of taking historical perspectives and what this might look like in a group of K-2 students. What links can I make to the curriculum in the lesson? What historical story is a good example, and can I find enough evidence to work with non-readers? The response is usually something like, why not have the students talk about what happened in class this morning and get their classmates’ perspectives, or have them ask family members for different accounts of a summer holiday?

Why not indeed? Certainly, it would help them to develop historical thinking skills. Relating the concepts to familiar content allows students to draw on events that are significant to them, and gives them a framework for their own past experiences. While I think that it’s important to help students connect their own lives with the bigger picture of history, I’m not convinced that this the best approach; it certainly shouldn’t be the primary way we do history with young students. One of my primary concerns is that this will not help students learn to take the perspectives of those who are more different from them than they are like them, an important consideration that elementary schools often gloss over in spades in favour of teaching social cohesion. Historical content is no less relevant to younger students, and early experiences with history may provide an important foundation for the history they are expected to enage with once they are reading to learn.

One of the best examples of exploring multiple perspectives in the younger grades is Linda Levstik’s (1997) work on Christopher Columbus with 5, 6, and 7-year old students. She engaged them in a historical inquiry of the evidence surrounding Christopher Columbus, with the aim of having them question the popular stories about the historical figure. In her description, she emphasizes teaching children to address historical content from their own perspectives in order to foster awareness that the popular or official version of history is not a universal truth, but is interpreted and filtered through particular perspectives. She found that these very young students were, with the proper support, well able to consider the alternatives to the official narrative, and treat these as equally valid forms of evidence. By the end of the unit, some had changed their perspectives and determined that Columbus was not a hero because of his treatment of Aboriginal peoples, while others remained convinced of his hero status, but were better able to articulate why they thought so.

In the history unit that I did with Grade One students, my intention was to re-imagine a topic that is typically taught from the perspective of pioneer life in Canada using the expanding horizons approach, and teach it so that the younger grades will have a multi-centric foundation for understanding this part of history as they continue in their history education. I wanted to address the Canadian immigration boom from multiple perspectives to create opportunities for students to confront alternative accounts in a way similar to Levstik’s. I hoped that this approach would provide a foundation for students to begin examining where their history fits in the larger picture of Canadian, and global history, as they progress in their history education, as well as providing them with a model for including the histories of others in their examinations.

As I mentioned in my previous post on using performance in the history classroom, role-plays were the primary way in which we explored multiple perspectives in our unit on Canada’s immigration boom. As Barton and Levstik (2011) suggest, role-play allows students to construct discussions and inquire into the historical content in a non-prescriptive way. I like to think of it as creating space for them to take what they discover in the evidence and pursue it. For students who can’t yet read or write, this is a valuable form of historical inquiry.

Cooper (1995) also advocates for this kind of talking historically through play so that students can interact with history, recreate, explore, speculate and make inferences (p. 64). Barton and Levstik emphasize that students need this oral activity in doing history as much as they need text-based activities, illustrating the value of oral discourse to draw out questions that cannot be found in a text: “This is particularly important in classrooms where the children come from diverse linguistic or cultural backgrounds” (p. 25). A text by nature may limit the depth of inquiry, whereas a conversation can continue at length, change course, adapt, and open further doors for young students. It is also important to note that they suggest “talking historically” stems from an environment where multiple perspectives are valued, a point which Cooper also stresses. It seems to be, therefore, a self-perpetuating process, where the more oral engagement with history children have, the more receptive they will be to alternative perspectives, and will as a result continue this oral discourse in doing history.

As Katherine Joyce pointed out in her post, the use of primary source evidence is an important component of exploring multiple historical perspectives in the classroom. I compiled a variety of items for this unit: various period photographs of settlers and farm life, First Nations people, Chinese railroad workers, the Home Children, the Komagata Maru, different immigrant neighbourhoods in urban areas; a Chinese head tax certificate; posters used in Holland and in the United States advertising immigration to Canada’s west; a pre-confederation map of Canada and a map of the different treaties with the First Nations peoples. We played four different versions of the game, with the students taking a different perspective each time: the Canadian government, the First Nations peoples, the Mennonites, the Home Children, the people on the Komagata Maru, and the Chinese railway workers.

The results of these activities were encouraging. In my post on implementing diversity in the classroom, I mentioned one student’s very poignant question to the group playing the Canadian government during one of our role plays: “Why did you give better deals to the Mennonites than [to] the First Nations people?” This was by far one of the more sophisticated questions in the activity, but many other students were asking questions along similar lines, requiring that their classmates engage with one another by considering the positions of the various actors in the story we were exploring.

Levstik (1997) notes that looking at multiple perspectives with young students can be difficult and takes thoughtful planning: “One problem is that perspectival history runs counter to children’s perceived need to know ‘the truth’” (p. 50). She also points out that children, as well as parents and institutional agents, may feel threatened by this approach, not only because they are taught to avoid conflict and controversy but also because they generally adhere to a right/wrong, winners/losers paradigm (p. 50). Egan’s perspective that beginning with binary opposites and fostering children’s ability to mediate between them, thus opening learning up to a wide spectrum of possibilities, may be a solution. This is something I continue to explore in my current work.


How do you incorporate multiple perspectives in elementary classrooms/museum lessons with young children?



Images Canada is where I found the majority of the evidence I used in this unit, including the Head Tax certificate and the posters.


Barton, K., & Levstik, L. (2011). Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Cooper, H. (1995). History in the early years, Teaching and learning in the first three years of school. London: Routledge.

Levstik, L. (1997). “Any history is someone’s history”: Listening to multiple voices from the past. Social Education 61(1), 48-51.

Photo: Home Children, Wikipedia Commons. A boy ploughing at Dr. Barnardo's Industrial Farm in Russell, Manitoba, c. 1900.