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Challenging the Big Ideas of History

Posted by Cynthia Wallace...
16 Mars 2013 - 9:01am

In a journal article that I have yet to find anywhere to publish, I have argued that history education must begin with Big Questions rather than Big Ideas.  In this context I have posed the somewhat dubious question: when adopting historical thinking outcomes as a way of engaging students in the past, should we be enabling students to ask Big Questions (which are the foundation of source-based inquiry), or should we be directing them towards the Big Ideas that embrace such subjects as social cohesion and national identity?

Certainly, there exists a large body of cognitive evidence to suggest that a Big Ideas approach to teaching about the past presents serious limitations for students’ abilities to engage in history. Bruce VanSledright and Margarita Limón (2006), for example, have identified pre-occupations with teaching first-order concepts and ideas as stemming from a perceived nation-building Big Ideas role for social studies education (p. 561-562). In this sense, Big Ideas are often equated with maintaining a society’s status quo.  Similarly, Stéphane Levesque (2009) has cautioned us on the intellectual limitations of a Big Ideas teaching approach “designed to tailor the collective past for present-day purposes” (n.p.). Likewise, Veronica Boix-Mansilla (2000) has also found, that to associate Big Ideas with a presentist perspective on the past is to presume answers where they cannot yet be found, because the past is still unfolding (p. 413).

Big Questions, however, in the Collingwood tradition of historical inquiry, suggests a dialectic role for history. This vision of teaching historical thinking, as Sam Wineburg (2001) has observed, has the potential to place students in the role of wrestling with multiple stories: “not just as arbiters of others’ accounts [i.e. judges] but as authors of their own [i.e. self-emancipators]” (pp. 131-132). Similarly, as Keith Barton and Linda Levstik (2008) have found, by making Big Questions an explicit part of classroom instruction, teachers can provide a forum for students to talk about history and make sense out of diversity in the past (p. 262).

Over the past eight weeks, I have been working with a group of grade seven students, exploring how to engage middle school students in historical thinking with museums. Undoubtedly, as anyone who has witnessed a classroom visit to a museum can attest, engagement in museums is seldom an issue. What is often the issue however, is empowering students to look beyond the Big Idea of the museum exhibition, and to ask their own questions.  In this sense, I propose that historical thinking requires a slightly different set of procedural skills - because reading objects (by nature of the medium) is very different from reading texts or images.

So returning to my opening question, what should come first in history education? Big Questions or Big Ideas? Currently I can report, that in this stage of my data collection, I am persuaded even more that asking Big Questions is key to breaking away from the status quo that many museums are all-to-often prone to maintain. I look forward to elaborating further upon this distinction, when my research is completed later this year. 

What do you focus on in your classroom or museum lessons: Big Questions or Big Ideas?

Photo: Author's photo