The Scando Review
The Scando Review
History and Historical Literacy

History and Historical Literacy

‘Forget the past and live in the present’ – this is something we hear almost on a daily basis, as a cheer-up quote. However, we could not possibly live in the present without knowing the past.

The past and present, in many ways, influence our future. Paulo Freire, in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, says: “Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who you are. So, you can build the future more wisely.

History is narratives; it may be seen as a way of bringing some order to the seemingly chaotic human condition. It is about power, weakness, corruption, tragedy, and triumph. It is also about identities; about who we are and how we came to be.

As compelling and wide-ranging as history is as a subject, it has often been referred to as ‘boring’ – a subject that is only seen as one dealing with dates and lists of incidents and personalities. In popular culture, history lessons are places where teachers lecture about topics (topics that are perceived to be irrelevant) in front of a dozing group of students. Teachers do most of the talking and students are assessed on their ability to remember and regurgitate facts. Lessons typically focus on questions like what, where, and when as opposed to questions relating to evidences, sources, and perspectives.

History is narratives; it may be seen as a way of bringing some order to the seemingly chaotic human condition.

In science, students do get at least a little hands-on in labs; in English lessons, students do experience the process of writing; in computer lessons, students do practise coding in programming languages. However, as noted above, for most students, history lessons tend to be about lectures and memorising information – activities that are far removed from the realities of historical inquiry.

Let us take an imaginary visit to two different history lessons. In the first class, the history teacher is animatedly lecturing about World War II. Students seem to be equally animated, especially by the exaggerated German accent the teacher was trying to put on. In another classroom, students seem to be busying themselves with a lot of discussions, debates, and analyses of different artefacts, including images, videos, and excerpts from literature. The topic seems to be about segregation and the civil rights movement in the United States. Here, students seem to be actively investigating, asking questions, and trying to make sense of the topic. You can hear students using terms like ‘reliability’, ‘accuracy’, ‘evidence’, ‘research’ and ‘corroboration’.

While, at first sight, both lessons seem to be history lessons, the difference between them is the purpose of the lesson – in the first class, the purpose was to convey knowledge, while in the second it was about actively constructing it.

No matter how entertaining a lecture is and no matter how many reading assignments are administered, at the end of the day these ‘traditional routines’ are designed to transmit historical narratives produced by others. For example, in the first imaginary class described above, the students’ role was to simply receive, manage, remember, and repeat the information from the lecturer. In the second class, the students seemed to create their own understanding of history using some of the processes used by professional historians. Students in the second class may be said to be applying historical literacies.

To be historically literate means that we know how to verify information authenticity, and then to decide whether we should believe it or not.

Therefore, according to Jeffery Nokes, a professor in the History Department at Brigham Young University, historical literacy is the ability to appropriately negotiate and create the texts and resources that are valued within the discipline of history, using methods that historians typically use to comprehend and evaluate a variety of artefacts and records that are useful in making inferences about the past. In other words, it is the ability to engage in historical processes, to know how to build knowledge.

To be historically literate means that we know how to verify information authenticity, and then to decide whether we should believe it or not. This ability could not be more important in today’s world where information is at our fingertips (thanks to Google and Wikipedia). It is not only the reading and understanding of primary sources of historical knowledge but also a practice through which we can understand the lives, aspirations, and concerns of those people who created primary sources. In other words, historical literacy also involves a deeper engagement with the contexts of history writers.

One of the goals of historical literacy is the development of empathy for the creators of primary sources. Empathy allows us to understand contexts of histories more deeply. Historical literacy, therefore, involves the ability to analyse historical knowledge and its context from modern-day perspectives.

Around the world, history educators are beginning to redefine the purpose of teaching history. Traditional methods that simply focus on information dissemination are being questioned. Instead, there is a growing consensus that history lessons should focus on building historical literacies through which students become better at gathering and weighing evidence from multiple sources, making informed decisions, solving problems using historical accounts, and persuasively defending their interpretations of the past. Here, the goal of teaching history moves from the students knowing about the past to preparing them to thrive in a world where they will be required to constantly evaluate texts, make sense of conflicting accounts, and to question the source and authenticity of information they are presented with. Historical literacies, therefore, underpin the students’ participation in a democratic and increasingly global world. There is research evidence to support the nurturing of historical literacies.

Jeffrey Nokes’ research highlights at least three reasons why educators should focus on building the students’ historical literacies. Firstly, actively working with artefacts, texts, and documents engages students more than listening to lectures or reading textbooks. Secondly, actively building their own historical understanding helps students learn better. Thirdly, when students are taught to read and reason like historians they develop better critical thinking skills. Moreover, historically literate students become better life-long learners of history, they are better at finding reliable sources of information, they are less likely to depend on any single source of evidence and are more likely to become informed citizens.

Through this column, we hope to bring you historical narratives as also principles and practices based on current research around history pedagogy and historical literacies.

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Happy teaching!