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Report from the Colloque International of Didactics of History, Geography and Citizenship Education

Posted by Kate Zankowicz
29 October 2012 - 5:52pm

Greetings again from the University of Laval.

Here are some highlights from the conference (Colloque International):

Hilary Cooper’s teleconferenced talk dealt with constructivist approaches for history teaching in primary schools. In particular she linked constructivist thought with the historical process itself and provided case studies that exemplified how using constructivist processes of inquiry can be used to encourage young students to think more deeply about the past in terms of ‘what they know’, ‘what they guess’ and ‘what they’d like to know’.

Jocelyn Letourneau spoke about what may possibly be the largest data pool of narratives provided by school students in the country (over 4,000). He remarked that students come to the classroom filled with prior historical knowledge: Letourneau asked students to tell him the history of Quebec as they knew it to try and get a sense of how these students understood their pasts.  He found that students’ narratives were structured around French/Anglo dualities. Stephane Levesque and Raphael Gani spoke in particular about a smaller sample of narratives and using social identity theory, looked at 142 stories from Grade 11 students who were born in Quebec, were French speakers and were mostly boys. They found that the narratives  could be grouped in five categories: those that were descriptive in nature, those that focused on adversity, the "just cause", and the "victimhood" story.

Peter Seixas’s talk centered around the difficulties of assessing historical thinking, particularly by using the example of an exercise on the treatment of Ukrainians in Canada. He noted the impossibility of assessing each second order concept individually as students usually drew upon several to answer a single question. He also explained how multiple choice questions had little validity when assessing historical thinking.

The following day was a fascinating flight of talks, ranging from how Quebec students understand gendered history in textbooks post-curriculum reform (Marie-Helene Brunet), to how Swiss children construct ideas of their nations’ neutrality despite historical evidence of the contrary in history (Nadine Fink). Keith Barton spoke about his work with students in New Zealand and their conceptualizations of historical agency. His study found that students encountered several obstacles when making sense of history: they tended to personalize nations as if nations themselves had agency as well as homogenized the viewpoint of citizens in those nations. Students also tended to believe that historical events and the way they transpired was because people ‘back then’ simply did not have access to the same information the students had today. Students in fact remarked that learning history could help in keeping  history from repeating itself, so to speak. Barton underscored that when students do not understand that people in the past made choices, there is much at stake. The responsibility for the action becomes displaced when we don’t pay attention to personal agency. By this logic for instance, the bombing of Hiroshima becomes understood as justified, because of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour.

Carla Peck’s talk, a comparison of US and Canadian Students’ Conceptions of Democratic Participation focused on research she did in schools in Alberta, New York and New Brunswick. Her study, done in partnership with other scholars, found that Canadian students did not speak about the role of money in elections and democratic processes, while for American students the involvement of elites and corporations in the democratic process was a concern. Also, she found that students were more opposed to the use of violent protest than their American counterparts, although students in the US differed from Canadian students in their level of personal commitment to protest: students in New York said they would not participate in protest because of fear of police brutality. American students were also more aware of issues of race and class and how this affected their ability to become involved with democratic participation.

The discussion period focused on how understandable concepts of agency would be to students who had very little agency in their own school lives. A wonderful evening in the old city, where the walls themselves seem to reverberate with history, was had by all.

Kate Zankowicz

Rose Fine-Meyer

Cate Duquette