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Barton, Keith. C. “‘You’d be Wanting to Know about the Past’: Social Contexts of Children’s Historical Understanding in Northern Ireland and the United States.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (San Diego, CA, April 13-18, 1998).


This study examines the influence of differing social contexts on the historical understanding of primary and elementary students in Northern Ireland and the United States. Although children in both locations learn about the past not only at school but from relatives, historic sites, literature, and the media, the U.S. emphasis on a narrative of national development leads students to emphasize inventions, rational progress, and individual achievements in attempting to explain change over time. Primary students in Northern Ireland, however, encounter history not as a story of national development but a series of portrayals of social and material life in other times and places; as a result, they are more likely to explain historical change in terms of economic factors, legal and institutional developments, or changing fashions. U.S. students conclude that the purpose of learning history is to understand themselves and the national community with which they identify; primary students in Northern Ireland think history is important to learn about people who are different than themselves.