2002-2004 Centre Student Associate

Kent den Heyer, Department of Curriculum Studies

Statement of research interests:

Research Background:

As a study of changing political and social conditions through time, history and social studies offer students a crucial form of inquiry into their capacities as citizens. Contemporary scholars have aided this inquiry by making available multiple perspectives through which to read the past, challenging the predominance of narratives organized around nation-states populated with iconic, male, white individuals as its major protagonists. Yet, my review of the history education research (as part of my completed doctoral comprehensive essays) found that Canadian students, along with students in the US and Western Europe, reason about social change largely as their counterparts might have at the turn of the 20th century (Willinsky, 1998). This has led me to investigate what interpretations of social change and historical agency experienced social studies teachers bring to their practice.

My review of research into historical understanding asked how students interpreted the human influence on changed social relations (e.g., between races and genders) and who they cited as historical agents. Using a cognitive psychological and a socio-cultural perspective, this work demonstrates that North American and Western European school children and adolescents explain historical change primarily with reference to the agency of traditionally celebrated historical figures. It suggests that students? citizenship knowledge is concerned almost exclusively with formal political structures. This research also noted a tendency amongst students to interpret these political structures as extensions of desires and acts of powerful individuals. Further, in explaining changes in social relations, students reason that people simply came to realize the incorrectness of certain beliefs which they then altered. Alternatively, students reason that such changes resulted from power struggles between individuals. As studied in social psychology, these findings reflect a prevailing ?Western? cultural disposition to accentuate individuality over social relations and to locate the logic of an individual?s actions in his or her idiosyncracies, desires, or, intentions (Morris et al., 2001).

What is not found in the research are students knowledgeable of the collective nature of conflicts over social relations and cultural beliefs. The role of social movements (Touraine, 1981, 1996) and the place of personal psychological resistances to changing social relations (Ellsworth, 1997; Kumashiro, 2002) are also absent. My review also found an absence of research into how teachers interpret and teach about historical agency and social change.

This research suggests that much room exists to broaden students' considerations of how people as historical agents create, distribute, and re-distribute social and material wealth. Two conceptual resources, ?historical agency? and ?social change,? potentially assist teachers to do so. These conceptual resources, building on recent work in sociology and historiography (reviewed in the second of my doctoral comprehensive essays), aid the consideration of human capacities to influence emerging social life; that is, how, in shifting circumstances through time, both the powerful and the anonymous struggle to (re)define the terms by which they live.

National narrative as social change:

Social change is commonly addressed through narratives of nation-state development. These narratives fail contemporary needs on at least two counts. First, there is insufficient emphasis on the historical role of informal forms of political participation increasingly recognized as vital forms of civic life. Second, the collective nature of social change or the role of coercive power in culture become footnotes to ?significant? actors and dominant culture. This narrative tends to ?beg questions about what social arrangements normalized exclusions at different times, and about the struggles that resulted in change? (Werner, 2000, p. 205).


Historical agency is a crucial conceptual resource for historical study: ?Without this tool, students cannot see themselves as operating in the same realm as the historical figures whom they are studying, and thus cannot make meaning out of history (Seixas, 1993, p. 303). Agency concerns who and what types of social configurations (e.g. ethnic, religious, or economic groups, reform and social movements) are recognized as protagonists in history and, by extension, the present. As noted above, students of all ages read well contemporary and culturally specific beliefs in this regard.

Research Questions:

How does my sample of experienced teachers interpret agency and social change? How do these interpretations compare to those conveyed by a) curriculum and, b) scholarly resources? What factors impinge on the study of multiple explanations for agency and social change in participants' classrooms? I locate this inquiry in three complementary areas: A) The examples depicting historical agency and social change in curriculum resources, B) the interpretations of agency and social change employed by experienced teachers, and C) the interpretations of historical agency and social change extant in sociological and historiographical literatures.

Research Methods:

Working from socio-cultural perspective (Barton, 2001; Seixas, 1994; Wertsch, 1998), this qualitative study will utilize observations, interview methods, and document analysis. Four experienced teachers will be research participants. All four teachers will be ?collaborative theorizers? (Kumashiro, 2002) in an analysis of possible historical interpretations of agency in social change. Specific units (e.g., Industrial revolution, WWII/The Holocaust) will be analyzed for what types of social configurations (i.e., individuals acting in what capacities, religious, economic, or racialized interest groups, reform and social movements) are recognized as agents and what questions about historical agency are explicitly addressed. This will be determined through interviews with teachers and students, observations, and analysis of participants? unit outlines and curriculum materials. A second stage of this study will contrast narratives teachers convey with alternative accounts of social changes discussed. These alternative narratives will be based on recent scholarship in history (Cabrera, 2001; Smith, 2001), history education (Seixas, 2001) and sociology (Giddens, 1979, 1984; Sztompka, 1994; Touraine, 1977, 1981, 1996). These will then be analyzed by participants to further determine their interpretive positions. In doing so, the challenges they identify for studying alternative narratives of change will be explored (i.e., time, school expectations, availability of resources). This study will not only contribute to the history education research. By examining a range of possible narratives and conceptions of agency, I hope to exemplify how research and teaching might better serve citizens of contemporary Canada in which multiple readings of the past co-exist, as they must, in a multicultural democracy.


Barton, K.C. (2001). A Sociocultural Perspective On Children's Understanding Of Historical Change: Comparative Findings from Northern Ireland and the United States. American Educational Research Journal.

Ellsworth, E. (1997). Teaching positions: Difference, pedagogy, and the power of address. New York: Teachers College Press

Giddens, A. (1979). Central Problems in Social Theory, Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis. London: Macmillan.

Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkley: University of California Press.

Kumashiro, K. (2002). Troubling Education. London: RouteledgeFalmer

Morris, M.W., Menon, T., Ames, D.R. (2001). Culturally Conferred Conceptions of Agency: A Key to Social Perception of Persons, Groups, and Other Actors. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 5(2): 169-182.

Seixas, P. (1993). Historical Understanding among Adolescents in a Multicultural Setting. Curriculum Inquiry 23:3 301-327

Seixas, P. (1994). Confronting the Moral Frames of Popular Film: Young People Respond to Historical Revisionism. American Journal of Education 102(3): 261-285.

Seixas, P. (2001). History Agency as a Problem for Researchers in History Education. Paper presented to the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, April 11.

Smith, J. M. (2001). Between Discourse and Experience: Agency and Ideas in the French Pre-Revolution. History and Theory 40(4):116-142.

Sztompka, P. (1994). Evolving Focus on Human Agency in Contemporary Social Theory. Agency and Structure: Reorienting Social Theory. P. Sztompka (Ed.) Langhorne, Penn: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

Touraine, A. (1977). The Self-Production of Society. Translated by Derek Coltman. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Touraine, A. (1981). The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Translated by Alan Duff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Touraine, A. (1996). A Sociology of the Subject. Alain Touraine. J. Clark & M. Diani (Eds.). London: Falmer Press.

Werner, W. (2000). Reading Authorship into Texts. Theory and Research in Social Education 28(2)

Wertsch, J.V. (1998). Mind as Action. New York: Oxford University Press.

Willinsky, J. (1998). Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire?s End Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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