By Dr. Samantha Cutrara, history education strategist and author of Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imagining a New “We”
The pandemichas shaped, and will continue to shape, education far beyond this moment. From embracing new teaching and learning methods, to figuring out what engagement looks like behind a computer screen or mask, we all had to adapt to a new educational landscape. This also includes bringing more of ourselves to the classrooms: our fears, our (inequitable) lives, our understanding of the world needing greater (or different) justice. This vulnerability can be scary, but it can also open up space to engage in teaching and learning differently.
In particular, in history education, I see the opportunity to centre the learner in a community-based exploration of the effects of history on our lives and the ways we interact in the world. This is not only about assessing historical evidence, but about exploring the messy experiences that don’t always fit within the boundaries of traditional history. Our students know they are living through a historical moment that people will write about for decades. They’re also aware of the parts of our past we need to face in order to work for greater justice. The time is ripe to build on this historical moment to teach and learn history meaningfully.
I define meaningful learning in history education as students engaging with history that has significance to their lives now and in the future, both inside and outside the classroom, and with interpretations of the past that align with students’ sense of familial or community history, in and for the wider world. With this definition, I see meaningful learning in history education developed through a triad of connection, complexity, and care.
I have yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t see the value in connecting students to history. However, sometimes these connections are based in our expectations rather than students’ realities. I remember wanting to teach a concept and thought I’d bring in “cool” music to start the class. But when I put on a Destiny’s Child song, students looked confused—they had never heard of the song! I felt so old. Just because it was cool when I was a teen, doesn’t mean it’s cool now (in fact, it was the opposite!).
If I really wanted to prioritize connection in this class, I should have introduced the concept and asked students to come up with songs that they thought illustrated it. But I thought I knew what would connect to them, so I didn’t think I had to ask them.
I have come to define connection as historical content that links to students’ prior knowledge and provides depth to their interests, identities, backgrounds, worldviews, and/or futures in ways that meet students where they are. Rather than say, “Here’s the connection, trust me,” connection in history education means that teachers set up conditions for students to engage with material in ways that can reveal students’ prior knowledge.
I remember asking a disengaged student to tell me about her experiences at a heavy metal concert the night before, and then asking her if she saw any connections between her experience at the concert with the French Revolution, which we were studying at the time. She came up with such an interesting analytical take on revolutionary riots that I no longer can think of one without the other. The same happened when teaching about 1950s rock’n’roll in a Canadian history class. Students were able to draw on contemporary artists to talk about ongoing appropriation of Black cultures and music. In these classes, I hardly talked at all! I let students weave the connections between the past and the present. Connection, in this sense, is about making you, as the teacher, as much of a learner as your students; you are creating the conditions to learn about your students as they learn about history.
Connection is closely tied with complexity. When we facilitate connections between students lived experiences and course materials, we have an opportunity to reflect on the complexities featured in these connections. For example, do these connections encompass complexities related to students’ identities and experiences of gender, race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality?
Complexity in history education involves complex stories that high-light more critical understandings of the past. I like to think of this as what critical race theorists call “counterstories”: stories that are counter to the mainstream; stories that inspire and uncover narratives of action, resilience, resistance, and hope. It is not just teaching stories of connection and then moving on, but letting those connections demonstrate the complexities of the stories and experiences from the past and present, and inviting students to learn these in active and meaningful ways.
For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made clear that although the inclusion of Indian Residential School histories in our curricula was an important Call to Action, these histories need to be included in ways that align with Indigenous worldviews and help develop ongoing relationships of reconciliation. In other words, teaching about residential schools without challenging a political system and individual attitudes that started the schools and allowed them to continue, doesn’t actually answer the Call to Action. We must teach history in ways that counter and challenge traditional understandings of the past and present. We must teach history in complex ways. In avoiding the complexity of the past (or avoiding the material I think might be “difficult”), I would also avoid exploring with my students the ways the past shows up in the present—and this is a key element of history education.
The third element of meaningful learning in history education is care. Care is foundational to the work we do. This year has forced us to care about more things, different things, and show our care in different ways, while also (I hope!) caring for ourselves.
But sometimes we can care in ways that are not beneficial for our students. Sometimes our care can look like connecting to students in one-dimensional ways or simplifying history to protect students from knowledge we determine is “difficult.” These ways of caring work against what we often want to do in our classes. My definition of care involves the willingness and affective demeanour to invite connection and complexity of the past and present into your classroom in ways that develop a learning community. In a learning community, teachers and students actively work together to make sense of the difficult, messy, complex, and sometimes painful world around us. This engages in the study of the past, but also invites discussions about the present from the multiple perspectives of the people in your classroom.
Approaching history education with the values of connection, complexity, and care can help students develop an understanding of themselves as readers and writers (and artists and architects and influencers) of the world they live in. The space to grow and explore the world is especially important in the (post)pandemic landscape where many of our fears and inequities have been laid bare. So many teachers want to teach history meaningfully; this triad can be a guide to help make that so.
To learn more about connection, complexity, and care in history education, check out Samantha’s new book. A book club reading guide is available on her website. Learn more at www.SamanthaCutrara.com.