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Lazare, G. “A Feeling for the Past: Adolescents’ Personal Responses to Studying History.” PhD. Diss., Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, 2005.


The study aims to to discern how a student makes the exercise of reading history relevant to his or her own life, and what part in the body of a historical text students relate to. Other topics of inquiry include the relationship between students’ emotional engagement while reading history and final grades; which sources of historical information are most engaging for adolescent learners; and how students relate the study of history to their sense of personal development and national identity.

Fifty-four Grade 12 and OAC students from a multi-cultural, urban high school in Toronto, Canada, participated in this study. The students were drawn largely from working class, immigrant neighborhoods and the primary language for 74% of the school population was not English. The students read two historical accounts, both dealing with primary accounts of refugee experiences in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Students were asked to mark the places in the text where they recalled a memory from their own life with Ms (memories), Es (emotions) and Ds (distractions), complete a History Questionnaire aimed at assessing how they engage with the past, and provide written accounts of their emotions and memories.

The study finds that adolescent readers make personal connections between history texts and their own experience. Content analysis of specific “engagement spots” in the readings established that young people use their subjectively experienced understanding of the world to take meaning from history texts. By finding that student’s final grades in Grade 10 Canadian History were negatively correlated with their most intense emotion and memory ratings, the study demonstrates that students who engaged least with the assigned readings earned the highest grades, confounding the widely-held belief that studying Canadian history is a transformative experience resulting in informed and responsible citizens. The study also found that adolescents believe the history lessons they experience at home or from the media are less reliable yet more engaging than classroom learning. These results provide call attention to the importance of extra-curricular history learning and also remind educators that adolescents are not passive recipients of curriculum, but have agendas of their own.

Five areas of research serve as a backdrop for the study: current debates in history education, constructivist learning theory, the communicative theory of emotions, recent works in “emotionology,” and insights from the nascent field of historical consciousness. The discussion also explores the following topics: whether or not secondary school students make connections between the historical passages and their own personal experience; whether participants’ most intense emotions correlated with the texts that incited such emotions; and the ways in which students relate the study of history to their personal development and national identity.

This study has implications for the ways that students might be encouraged to respond to reading history. “Action research” projects (partnerships between district schools and universities) could explore the following issues: is it in students’ interests to wrestle with potentially controversial historical accounts in the classroom? Might indifference to the past and skepticism toward the study of history invite neo-conservative social movements, as Martha Nussbaum (1995) and Charles Taylor (2002) have warned? Similarly, does emotional engagement depend on students’ ability to see themselves reflected in learning materials? If so, can lessons be made more personally relevant to adolescents given the ethnic and cultural diversity in our schools?

Mary Chaktsiris