History for Education

By Philip Roberts and Dr Simon Leonard

The social condition in which we find ourselves is largely ambivalent to history and historical thinking.   We have for instance the the history wars of the last two decades where views of what we know and how it should be used have been the terrain of ideological battles.  This partisan history is often overlooked as the foundation of what we know about the educational use of history, as while the nature of its use may be contested, that it is of use is not.  In this project we explore the notion of history for education as a framework for the development of historical thinking in pre-service teacher education students.  We argue that this framework is useful in teacher education, history teaching and museum education.

As one of the early foundations of education all pre-service teachers were taught about the history of the profession they had elected to enter.  This suggests at some level a view that knowledge of the history of education was important in framing the professional preparation of the next generation.  However with the rise of performative governmentality agendas in education and standards based systems of teacher preparation and competency, history as a foundational study has declined, and is lucky to remain a small topic within broader foundational studies (Christou 2009).  This trend conflates the history of education with the nature of history itself as both are reduced to a level of functionality aligned to clearly observable, measurable and accountable standards.  Facts, or knowledge, are not contestable within this context. More troublesome however is the corollary that standards agenda’s are also not contested. As Connell points out this creates a new logic of the good teacher as one who follows and applies the ‘system’ (2009).

As Christou (2009) argues this leads to a reduction in the ability of the pre-service teacher to think critically, thus limiting their professional preparation. Consequently they do not question the social situation we find ourselves in today and become complicit in their own positioning. What is needed are meta-competencies that enable teachers to connect the standards and examine them (Connell 2009).  We argue that one of these meta-competencies to challenge the pervasive performativity agenda is historical thinking, in the form we have called ‘history for education’.

This is a deliberate play on words as we want to signal a reference to the history of education but emphasize a renewal and revitalisation.  It is our argument that to know history as conceived today is not enough for it is to in-fact not know history at all.  Furthermore that too much of what passes as history of education lacks a clear theoretical frame or purpose other than self perpetuation. In many ways the discipline of the history of education has fallen into antiquarianism brought about by a rigid adherence to principles of history for its own sake rather than extrapolating the lessons of history.  In the face of persistent and compounding distinctions in educational achievement and disadvantage we can no longer continue to simply describe the past and allow theory in other disciplines to mobilize change.  Instead it is time to move the paradigm and mobilize history as a theoretical tool; to recognize that indeed ‘Non Statis Scire: To Know is Not Enough’.

This approach re-orientates the history of education away from a focus on recording the past and legitimating the present, to a theoretical orientation to studying the present.  As Campbell and Sherington (2002) argue the history of education was co-opted to legitimate the place of teacher education in universities (see main pages on the tensions in teacher education).  In this vein it focused on telling the stories of great educators or the development of educational ideas, and in the process became alienated from the broader field of history.  In this approach we want to return the study of educational history to the field of history more generally.

This project is itself the proposition of a perspective and the development of a new theoretical framework, namely ‘history for education’. In making this bold move we build upon the field of historical thinking in education and communities, specifically the notions of historical literacy (Taylor & Young 2003), historical consciousness (Sexias 2006, 2008)  historical thinking (Lévesque 2008) and standpoint theory (Nakata 2007).  We also recognise the influence of a critical perspective by arguing the influence of regulation and standards on education as a profession (Connell 2009).

However we also claim that this position builds upon Shulman’s (1986) notion of pedagogical content knowledge and Christou’s (2009) call for the reinstatement of the history of education as an education foundation.  In this claim we agree with both Shulman (1986) and Christou (2009) that the separation of theory and practice is a false distinction, and propose that history for education is a philosophical stance that allows teachers to connect these two dichotomies in a rich and meaningful way.

This ‘history for education’ approach is primarily theoretical in orientation.  It develops an alternative theoretical perspective to analyze existing theories in relation to historiography, historical thinking and understanding, and the question of theory and practice in teacher education.  As such it is largely a textual analysis, however it also draws upon a few qualitative studies of teachers beliefs and practices, and some work with teacher education students by the authors to illustrate the main argument.

In developing this orientation we have turned to theoretical works in relation to historical thinking and consciousness, the discipline of history, standpoint theory and the general sate of teacher education.  Specifically it uses the notions of historical literacy (Taylor & Young 2003), historical consciousness (Sexias 2006, 2008)  historical thinking (Lévesque 2008) and standpoint theory (Nakata 2007).  The discipline of history and its disciplinary character is examined (Pace & Middendorf 2004, Chick, Hayne & Gurung 2009) along with Shulman’s (1986) notion of important knowledge for teachers.  In doing this the paper draws upon critical theory in relation to teacher education (Connell 2009) the decline of foundational studies in teacher education (Christou 2009) and the role of the history of education in teacher preparation (Kliebard 1995).

In addition to the theoretical analysis the paper also draws upon the discussions at a major national symposium, in the Australian context, that facilitated discussion about historical thinking in teacher education and museum education (Reference withheld as it was convened by one of the authors).  This symposium explored how historical thinking is developed in these contexts and explored new and emerging directions.  Furthermore some examples from the teacher education courses in which the authors work are used to illustrate the approach being advocated in this paper.

Through using the approach of history for education in small scale classroom activities in their teacher education courses the authors have found that students are better able to mobilize theory to understand the debates they confront in their studies.  This has suggested to the authors that the theoretical approach has merit and needs to be further developed as a tool in teacher education.

While we agree with Christou (2009) and Shulman (1990) about the importance of the foundations in teacher education as the basis upon which other learning is built, and with Kliebard (1995) about the role of history in this, we feel it needs to be deliberately and systematically taught and developed.  We feel that given the time any historical foundation is likely to have, as well as the general disposition that historical inquiry skills need to be used to be developed, we argue that an approach needs to evolve over a series of units rather than within one or two.

We argue that the work in relation to develop historical thinking (Taylor & Young 2003, Sexias 2006, 2008 & Lévesque 2008) and the work in relation to disciplinary knowledges in relation to history (Pace & Middendorf 2004, Chick, Hayne & Gurung 2009) all position these skills as unique to history and in need of explicit fostering and development: they cannot be left to develop by association only.  To allow the skills and dispositions of history to develop by chance runs the risk of inadvertantly developing the traits of history teachers without disciplinary knowledge who merely present historical facts as part of a grand national narrative, thus reinforcing an array of social stereotypes.  Instead we argue that to reflect effectively (Schön 1987), and to connect theory and practice (Shulman 1986) in a way that critically examines the disaggregation of theory and practice implicit in professional standards models of the profession, pre-service teachers need to develop a new set of meta-competencies (Connell 2009) .  Foundational to these meta-competencies is the disposition of history for education, from which the skills of historical inquiry, critical analysis, synthesis and the habits of mind of reflective practice, can be deployed throughout the disciplines to understand education and the educative process and not be constrained within one.

This approach is significant in that it brings a new theoretical perspective to two substantial bodies of academic work – the field of historical thinking & consciousness, and pre-service teacher preparation. It outlines an approach that the authors argue mobilizes theory to enable pre-service teachers to critique what passes for theory and practice in recent years, and to bridge the perennial gap between theory and practice.  This approach furthers the arguments for the reinstatement of history as a foundation study by positioning its disciplinary knowledge as an important theoretical tool across disciplines.  Finally we conclude that through the use of a history for education approach pre-service teachers are better able to understand the historical and social development of an array of social issues that education struggles to address, and in so doing works to address these issues in their practice. This approach moves history from a position of ‘knowing’ to a utility value of mobilizing that knowledge, disciplinary skills and thinking.


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A couple of relevant links: