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Barca, I. “‘Till New Facts are Discovered’: Students’ Ideas about Objectivity in History.” In International Review of History Education, Vol.4: Understanding History: Recent Research in History Education, edited by R. Ashby, P. Gordon and P. Lee, 68-82. New York: Routledge Falmer, 2005.


The purpose of this study is to understand how students apply notions of objectivity when judging the adequacy or correctness of one explanation about why something happened in the past over another. This chapter draws from data collected from 119 students in grades seven, nine and eleven randomly selected from two schools in northern Portugal. The students were first asked to choose from five explanations to answer the following question: “Why did the Portuguese manage to establish a maritime empire in the Indian Ocean during the sixteenth century?” A follow up interview was then conducted with twelve randomly selected students to clarify the written answers.

The data were analyzed into three conceptual clusters: “access to truth” (can we know the past?), “methodological detachment” (can we remain neutral in our judgments?), and “explanatory consistency” (do explanations coincide with logic and evidence?). Results indicated that students responded in one of the following five ways. Students understood each explanation as “all the same thing” noting that while they varied in form they did not vary in content. Explanations were judged in terms of truth or falsity and a “more correct version” was determined. Students argued for gathering information from each explanation to make “a more complete version” of the past. Some participants maintained that a “definitive explanation” was possible only if the reader was completely neutral and, finally, students argued for “provisional explanations” maintaining that the adequacy of each explanation depended on the point of view of the reader. The results suggested that students drew from access to truth, methodological detachment, and explanatory consistency at varied levels of sophistication.

Ana Laura Pauchulo