Carla Peck, Department of Curriculum Studies
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?
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).
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