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Questioning Content: Inquiry Practices for History Classrooms

Posted by Dr. Rose Fine-Meyer
21 April 2015 - 11:59am

There is something good to be said about a University History Department’s efforts to maintain personal links with former graduates. Usually University links are purely financial; chasing after graduates with mailings and phone calls. History Departments, however, could provide an opportunity for graduates to stay connected to current scholarship in the field. Such is the situation at Laurier University where the History Department holds an annual gathering for history teachers in the Kitchener/Waterloo area, to attend the “Laurier History Teachers Colloquium.” Many are former graduates. For a number of years, the History Department has hosted an annual conference for teachers that feature lectures by Laurier faculty. Faculty share their research and teachers have a lovely lunch: tables set with white tablecloths, flowers and gift bags. Although the colloquium has taken place in this way for many years, this year the History Department decided to try “a fresh approach.” Instead of History faculty, they decided to invite a History Education scholar, who might provide some insight into current history education issues, and which might foster a dialogue between attending teachers and faculty. The keynote speaker they choose the past Friday was me. My talk, “Are Tar Sands as Canadian as Canoes?: National Identity through the Inquiry Process and History Education in Schools,” focused on the Inquiry Model, and I provide a much reduced version of it here.

The talk began with a reference to Jamie’s Swift’s recent Active history blog entitled “The Ideological Work of Commemoration.” Swift is co-author with Ian McKay of the book Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety, a book that argues that the current Conservative government has worked intentionally to alter Canada’s image as a peacekeeping nation to one that is all about war.i In this article Swift notes “Just as the Harper government’s spasm of bellicose patriotic storytelling got underway with the centenary of the War of 1812, Governor General David Johnson came up with a curious claim. He noted, “When we study our history and the wars in which we fought, the wars overseas, it has been to purchase our freedom, our liberties.”The article explores the implication of the government’s efforts to frame war in glorious, nation-building terms. But as an educator and researcher focused on Ontario history, I noted that it was clear Swift had never explored Ontario history textbooks, or he would know the Harper government was not the first government to frame war within patriotic and nation building terms. In fact, here in Ontario, we have established a clear nation building framework of war for 100 years in our history textbooks. My current research focuses on the ways in which Ontario history textbooks frame the teaching of the First World War and I have argued, in previous blogs and articles (Antistasis, 2013) and in a forthcoming publication, (Palgrave/Macmillan) that the teaching of war in Ontario is anchored in the concept of national identity and commitment to a shared community.ii But my research has also focused on the role of teacher agency in adapting pedagogical approaches that support students to question and challenge resources and to seek out multiple and diverse perspectives. In Worth Fighting For (BTL Press 2015)iii I noted that the problem lay in a general acceptance of content. If teachers support students to incorporate a critical lens at all times, and to all resource materials, even official state approved textbooks, then it matters less what that resource says.  

We understand, as historians, that all material about the past has a perspective, but that seems less noted in school history courses than it does in university classes. Books supported by THENHIER, such as New Possibilities for the Past, and Becoming a History Teacher in Canada, cover the areas of content development, critical thinking, historical understanding, and professional development and reflect on essential components of teacher education programs.iv But there still remains the challenge of empowering teachers and students to focus on questioning and deconstructing all the source materials they encounter at schools. And this is quite critical today as access to content is so widely available. Students today need to see that evidence matters. Social media has meant that anyone can have an opinion and share it with thousands…everyone becomes an “expert.” Unfortunately, most content one reads on the internet does not begin with “this is my opinion and is not based on strong evidence.”  A recent study by psychologists at Yale University noted that search engines like Google or Yahoo make people think they are smarter than they actually are because they have the world's knowledge at their fingertips and that browsing the internet for information gives people a ‘widely inaccurate’ view of their own intelligence. (Frank Keil, Yale University) People need the skills to think critically about everything they read. What I am suggesting is that teachers need to focus more on teaching students how to gather content, interpret content, and form positions about that content, than simply acquire and accept content.

I teach over 200 students at OISE/UT and my focus in all courses is on inquiry pedagogy and place-based learning. Lots of questioning, and evaluating, and reflecting on evidence. To get my point across right from the beginning, I begin all my classes in September with a class walk through Philosophers Walk (the beautiful path that runs through the middle of the St. George campus). I hand out sketching paper (heavy grade) and pencils. They put on their coats and out we go. Like a tour guide, I point out things along the way. Did they read the plaque at the cast iron Queen Alexander gate to the walk? (To commemorate the visit of the Duke & Duchess of Cornwall & York Oct. 10th 1901) Later known as King George V & Queen Mary. Did they note the way the path drops down from the street? I ask students to find evidence of the fact that there is a buried river there. Even though the river is hidden, I suggest there is ample evidence if they look for it. Some of them have walked the path for years—this will be the first time they actually critically explore it. They look at the kinds of trees that grow there, the bridges that cross the path, and the ways in which the land dips and curves. We walk to the stone amphitheatre half way up the path and I tell them it was a gathering place for the Anishinaabe people (Mississauga Ojibwe). Students anxiously share the evidence they have uncovered. We then move to the beautiful quad in the centre of the grounds of Trinity College and I ask them to sketch one of the doorways, as if it was the 17th century, and they were sending a friend their sketch so they might find their residence. The doorways are very similar, yet each one is slightly different, and leads to a different residence. They take great pride in sketching the gargoyles carefully. Most had never done this before, but they will never forget. The best part of the ‘first day exercise’ is when we return to the university, and students lay out their sketches. Students reflect on the fact that they all stood in the same place, at the same time and were given the same instructions, yet none of their sketches or their reflections are the same. And that’s the point I want to make. The significance of individual perspective.  So the resources and textbooks we use, the books and narratives we incorporate into our history classrooms, all have a particular perspective. I tell my students to that there are no unbiased materials. Everything is written for an audience.

We need our students to be good thinkers. And that’s my goal…to get students to feel empowered with evidence, so that they can form an educated opinion. I don’t want educators to tell students what they need to know. I want to help students discover it on their own, and I am suggesting that we focus on questioning the primary documents; statistic, charts, and maps, graphs, newspaper articles, and government and private records. Take the evidence found in these documents and compare it with others. And this approach of questioning resources and content can begin in grade one. One of my own students, who taught a grade one class this year, had her students explore school rules and regulations, and then asked the students to rewrite any they felt needed reshaping. The Principal was invited in to hear their positions. They argued that school rules restricted some of their freedoms, and also that stricter rules be enforced at the cross walk. The engagement in inquiry and place-based learning helped them better understand the social studies unit than if they had memorized the content, thereby covering the curriculum expectations, and then moved on.

Kyle Carsten Wyatt, editor of Walrus Magazine, and an American, recently took the new citizenship test. After successfully completing the test he notes, recently in an editorial for the magazine that, “Deciding to become a Canadian is not about the Rebellion of 1837–38, or the first leader of responsible government. It’s not about knowing that Sir Wilfrid Laurier Day is in November, or that oil was discovered in Alberta in 1947. Citizenship isn’t about twenty arcane questions.” (march, 2015) So what is it about?  Wyatt suggests its’ the connections we develop as people living in the same space; the link he felt with the others in the room taking the same test. Historical inquiry can allow students to think critically about what it means to be Canadian. The low youth voter turnout might suggest educators have perhaps focused too much on the minutia of content rather than inquiry.  Provide students with scenarios to get them engaged: real world issues such as, the government wants to build a highway through your community or close down the local school or build a condominium on land that’s a local park. You like the community the way it is. What steps do you want to take? What steps can you take? Basically it means creating a classroom where students become mini researchers and very critical people. With the Inquiry process teachers become facilitators of learning rather than content providers.

I ended my talk with a challenge. Canada will soon (2017) be turning 150. I’d like to see every school ask: What should we commemorate and why? The Canadian government website has their clear focus. I’d ask students to work in groups to create a list of what they feel we should commemorate for Canada’s 150. I’d ask that the list be diverse, reflect multiple perspectives, individuals and groups, reflective of gender, race and class. I’d ask that students present their findings in a major presentation—pulling out all the stops—like an Ad agency- using the evidence to convince us. Then as a class, we’ll vote on the winning group. Then create a plan to develop some form of commemoration for our school. So the challenge is not what the Canadian government will present for the 150th birthday, but what teachers will incorporate in their classrooms--to create a strong critical lens about our identity.

And to bring the talk back to my title. I asked: Will the 150th celebration reflect beavers, maple leafs, John A. Macdonald, hockey or more wars? The question for Canadians is what really represents who we are. Would a more realistic portrayal be the oil sands or the environmental poisoning of First Nations lands? Do we want to say that the oil sands are the new symbol of Canada…dirty, environmentally destructive, and poisonous? Let’s face it, beavers and canoes and clean water, is so much nicer as an image, as our identity. The stories of prominent Canadians and pretty landscapes are important, and are part of our past, but their stories are not the only stories out there. Far from it. Far more numerous are the stories of local communities, the people in them, and how they shaped this country in their own way, and the only way to really understand Canada is to empower students with the tools to think critically about content. The inquiry process might be something dreaded by teachers, not because content cannot be included, for it does, but because content can be challenged. The lesson here is for students and educators to approach all materials with a focus on questioning and analysis.


Photos: By Author

iIan McKay, Jamie Swift, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (Between the Lines, 2012)

ii “Teaching War in the History Classroom: Challenging Dominant Narratives” Antistasis. vol. 3, no.1, 2013 (

iii“The good teacher is a revolutionary”: Alternative War Perspectives in Toronto Classrooms, 1960s-1990s, in Catherine Gidney and Lara Campbell, eds., Worth Fighting For: Canada’s Tradition of War-Resistance from 1812 to the War on Terror  (Toronto: Between the Lines Press, March, 2015)

ivSee: Penney Clark, ed. New Possibilities For the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011); Rose Fine-Meyer, "Engendering Power and Legitimation: Giving Teachers the Tools to Claim a Place for History Education in their Schools" in Ruth Sandwell and Amy von Heyking, eds., in Becoming a History Teacher in Canada: Sustaining Practices in Historical Thinking (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014) and Ercikan, Kadriye, Peter Seixas, eds. New Directions in Assessing Historical Thinking (New York: Routledge, 2015).