2003-2009 Centre Student Associate

Carla Peck, Department of Curriculum Studies

Statement of research interests:

Multi-ethnic high school students’ understanding of historical significance: Implications for Canadian history education

Description of Study

I will undertake a qualitative study analyzing multi-ethnic high school students’ conceptions of historical significance, one of the six aspects of historical understanding delineated by Seixas (1997). According to Seixas, historical significance “is not only about relationships among events and people of the past, but also about the relationship of those events and people to us, in the present, who are doing the historical thinking” (p. 120). An understanding of historical significance helps us “organize events into a narrative that will show us something important about our position in the world” (Seixas, 1997, p. 120).

However, some research suggests that ethnic minority students experience difficulty organizing the history they encounter in school because it contradicts their own prior historical knowledge and understanding of what counts as historically significant (Almarza, 2001; Barton & Levstik, 1998; Epstein, 2000; Levstik, 1999; Seixas, 1993). Consequently, they are unable to find that “something important about [their] position in the world” that Seixas writes about. Therefore, I will address the following research questions in an effort to discover the extent that this is true among Canadian students:

(1) How does a student’s prior knowledge contribute to their understanding of historical significance within the context of Canadian history? (2) In what ways do students reconcile the contradictions between their families’ histories and the Canadian history they learn in school? (3) What is the relationship between a student’s ethnic identity and their ascription of significance to phenomena in Canada ’s past?

Theoretical Framework

This research is located at the intersection of two complementary theoretical frameworks. The first draws on constructivist learning theory which holds that all students come to every learning situation with a store of prior knowledge. Some of this prior knowledge might be accurate but, it is equally true that students may have (and tenaciously hold onto) naïve conceptions or misunderstandings about various concepts as well (Driver & Easley, 1978). Constructivist research aims to discover and understand the nature of students’ prior conceptions in an effort to better shape curricula and refine teaching approaches, and ultimately, increase a student’s ability to incorporate new and more complex knowledge into that which they already know (Hughes & Sears, 2004).

The second theoretical framework informing this study draws on the tradition of socio-cultural studies in education. The emphasis here is on the need to understand the social, cultural and political positions from which students approach learning (Barton, 2001a; Epstein, 1997; Nieto, 1999). Knowing what frameworks students use to make sense of the past is important, particularly for teachers working in schools within a multicultural society: “By understanding how young people from different racial or ethnic groups interpret history and contemporary society…teachers and policymakers can make more informed decisions about what and how to teach social studies subjects to diverse groups of students” (Epstein, 2001, p. 42). Research using a combination of these two frameworks will result in a richer understanding of the variety of prior conceptions influencing students’ understanding of historical significance as it pertains to Canadian history.


Given that this study will focus on students’ conceptions of a particular phenomenon, the research methodology most suited for this type of work is phenomenography. Phenomenographic research “aims to identify the qualitatively different ways in which different people experience, conceptualize, perceive and understand various kind of phenomena” (Marton, c.f. Richardson, 1999, p. 53). Data will be collected in two phases and will include document analysis, questionnaires, and interviews with students. In order to provide thick description, classroom observations and interviews with the participants' history teacher will also be a part of the data collection.

As my participants represent a range of socio-cultural backgrounds, my methodology will be continually informed by critical multiculturalism discourse (May, 1999; McLaren & Torres, 1999; Nieto, 2004). In particular, special attention will be given to the interview groups in which students are placed in an effort to avoid or limit the “silencing” of minority group voices that occurred in Barton & Levstik's (1998) study.

Significance of Study

This study contributes to the field of history education by offering a unique perspective on an aspect of students’ prior knowledge that has yet to be fully investigated in Canada . It creates an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between a student’s ethnic identity and his or her conception of historical significance within the Canadian context. Historical significance is the cornerstone of all historical inquiry; without it, stories from the past become jumbled assortments of facts and are rendered meaningless. Understanding the values, frameworks and knowledge students bring to their understanding of historical significance will help us better understand how they construct their understandings of the past. This, in turn, has implications for how students locate themselves in our nation’s stories both now and, in the future. In addition, this study contributes to international research on students’ historical understanding and adds to an emerging body of research that has started to examine the links between identity and conceptions of historical significance (Almarza, 2001; Barton, 2001b; Barton & Levstik, 1998; Barton & McCully, 2001; Epstein, 1997, 1998, 2000; Levstik, 1999).



Almarza, D. J. (2001). Contexts shaping minority language students' perceptions of American history. Journal of Social Studies Research, 25(2), 4-22.

Barton, K. (2001a). A sociocultural perspective on children's understanding of historical change: Comparative findings from Northern Ireland and the United States . American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 881-913.

Barton, K. (2001b). "You'd be wanting to know about the past": Social contexts of children's historical understanding in Northern Ireland and the USA . Comparative Education, 37(1), 89-106.

Barton, K., & Levstik, L. (1998). "It wasn't a good part of history": National identity and students' explanations of historical significance. Teachers College Record, 99(3), 478-513.

Barton, K., & McCully, A. (2001, April 10-14). National identity and the history curriculum in Northern Ireland : An empirical study of students' ideas and beliefs. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle , WA .

Driver, R., & Easley, J. (1978). Pupils and paradigms: A review of literature related to concept development in adolescent science students. Studies in Science Education, 5, 61-84.

Epstein, T. (1997). Sociocultural approaches to young people's historical understanding. Social education, 61(January), 28-31.

Epstein, T. (1998). Deconstructing differences in African-American and European-American adolescents' perspectives of U.S. History. Curriculum Inquiry, 28(4), 397-423.

Epstein, T. (2000). Adolescents' perspectives on racial diversity in US history: Case studies from an urban classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 37(1), 185-214.

Epstein, T. (2001). Racial identity and young people's perspectives on social education. Theory into Practice, 40(1), 42-47.

Hughes, A. S., & Sears, A. (2004). Situated learning and anchored instruction as vehicles for social education. In A. Sears & I. Wright (Eds.), Challenges & Prospects for Canadian Social Studies (pp. 259-273). Vancouver : Pacific Educational Press.

Lee, P., & Ashby, R. (2000). Progression in historical understanding ages 7-14. In P. Stearns, P. Seixas & S. S. Wineburg (Eds.), Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (pp. 199-222). New York : New York University Press.

Levstik, L. (1999, April). The well at the bottom of the world: Positionality and New Zealand [Aotearoa] adolescents' conceptions of historical significance. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal , Quebec .

May, S. (1999). Critical multiculturalism and cultural difference: Avoiding essentialism. In S. May (Ed.), Critical Multiculturalism: Rethinking Multicultural and Antiracist Education (pp. 11-41). London : Falmer Press.

McLaren, P., & Torres, R. (1999). Racism and multicultural education: Rethinking 'race' and 'whiteness' in late Capitalism. In S. May (Ed.), Critical Multiculturalism: Rethinking Multicultural and Antiracist Education (pp. 42-76). London : Falmer Press.

Nieto, S. (1999). Critical multicultural education and students' perspectives. In S. May (Ed.), Critical multiculturalism: Rethinking multicultural and antiracist education (pp. 191-215). London : Falmer Press.

Nieto, S. (2004). Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (4th ed.). Boston : Pearson Education, Inc.

Richardson, J. T. E. (1999). The concepts and methods of phenomenographic research. Review of Educational Research, 69(1), 53-82.

Seixas, P. (1993). Historical understanding among adolescents in a multicultural setting. Curriculum Inquiry, 23(3), 301-325.

Seixas, P. (1997). The place of history within Social Studies. In I. Wright & A. Sears (Eds.), Trends & Issues in Canadian Social Studies (pp. 116-129). Vancouver : Pacific Educational Press.

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