CSHC Visiting Student - January-March 2011

Christian Spiess, University of Goettingen, Germany

Statement of research interests:

Historical Learning and the Use of Evidence in the History Classroom

For at least 35 years, prominent exponents of history education in Germany have stressed how crucial it is for students to deal with sources and to use them as historical evidence – just like historians would. Following their claim, students are able to reach a higher level of historical understanding by working with the remains of the past. In recent years, this claim has been renewed and substantiated as the educational discourse in Germany was marked by a shift towards students’ competencies and a focus on what students should be able to practice in a competent way at certain stages during their course of education. History education reacted by drafting different and more or less complex structural models of historical competencies (Sauer, 2006; Körber/Schreiber/Schöner, 2007).Within the logic of these models, reconstructing the past from sources once again emerged as a key concept. It was argued, for instance, that using historical evidence would foster competent historical perspective taking and allow an insight into the constructive nature of history. In other words, students examining sources would understand that history is not just a set of dates and events. Ultimately they would, as the British National Curriculum puts it, “learn the facts” as well as “learn the discipline” (Lee, 1991, p. 40).

However, whether the use of evidence in the history classroom lives up to these expectations is doubtful. Previous studies focussing on German 9th graders describe profound difficulties in reading comprehension and conclude that a majority of students in 10th grade are unable to define the term “source” (the German Quelle) correctly (Beilner, 2002; Langer-Plän, 2003). These empirical findings allow us to assess what students do or do not know, however, in order to enhance historical learning, we also need to understand how these test results came into being, e.g. where typical misconceptions originate from. Therefore, it seems indispensable to examine how sources are being dealt with in class. As a consequence, my study focuses on the question of how students and teachers deal with historical evidence during everyday history lessons. Which ideas and epistemological concepts apply, which competencies are being activated or acquired and what difficulties arise in the process?

In order to examine these questions, I chose a design that is both simple and non-invasive. Per learning group, I audio- and videotape a total of four history lessons. For each of these lessons, I ask the teachers a) to work with at least one source per lesson and b) to let the class do this in small groups at least once during the four lessons. All other aspects (incl. topics and types of instruction) are to be determined by the teacher or the context of the lesson within the curriculum. The idea behind this open and somewhat vague approach was to let the “field”, i.e. learners and teachers within the institutional framework, decide on their own priorities, rather than imposing preselected materials or learning arrangements on them. Due to the largely unknown nature of the field, this approach seemed necessary as well as in line with the documentary method(1), which is used to interpret the audio transcripts. By comparing various passages in which sources are used, the goal is to form ideal types which describe how sources are used in class. As a second step, these empirical findings shall be interpreted against the background of the normative aspects proposed by history didactics, in order to make empirically founded suggestions that might enhance the use of historical evidence at school.

I started out filming 10th graders and have now begun to include older, presumably more advanced students. In the future, I intend to expand my studies to younger students and, if the empirical data justifies it, to all three of the German school tracks, i.e. Gymnasium, Realschule and Hauptschule. As the documentary method relies on comparing different empirical cases in order to form ideal types, it is still too early to post actual results. However, it is worth mentioning some tendencies(2): Teachers seem to use sources primarily to provide information about the past. Consequently, the students deal with the sources accordingly, i.e. they skim them for information and are, in fact, able to do so quite effectively. However, the value of the information thus gathered remains, for the most part, unquestioned. Neither the teacher, nor the students reflect about the constructive nature of history in these settings. Instead, “source” and “source of information” become one. When perspective taking is an explict part of the task, students are usually able to do so. Interestingly though, the teachers often explained the “correct” perspective that was to be taken in advance, leaving very little room for the students to actually empathize with the historic figures and thus undermining the very concept of historical perspective taking.

The material has also proven to be quite rich in terms of the insights it allows into interaction processes between students. 10th graders working in groups show a remarkable ability to interact on various levels of discourse at once. They are able to negotiate factual knowledge (such as meanings and dates), while managing the group process (i.e. distributing tasks such as who is to write the bullet points on a transparency or present the results in front of the class) and cooperating on the actual task. In other words, they displayed highly competent behaviour with regards to working as a team. Whether this in any way relates to their historical competencies remains to be seen.

(1) The documentary method (Bohnsack, 2007) is an established qualitative method often used in the social and educational sciences. It structures both the data gathering process and its interpretation and serves a as tool to access unfamiliar contexts and the corresponding orientations, attitudes and actions by transcending the level of intuitive or deductive analysis. For an up-to-date overview of the methods currently used by empirically oriented history educators in Germany (and beyond), see Martens/Hartman/Sauer/Hasselhorn, 2009. As far as the using the documentary method in the context of historical understanding is concerned, cf. Martens, 2009

(2) The following is based on 16 history lessons in 4 classes at three different schools (all 10th grade, Gymnasium) between November 2009 and February 2010.


Beilner H. (2002), Empirische Zugänge zur Arbeit mit Textquellen in der Sekundarstufe I [Empirical Approaches to the Use of Written Evidence in Secondary Schools]. In: B. Schönemann/H. Voit (Eds.), Von der Einschulung bis zum Abitur. Prinzipien und Praxis des historischen Lernens in den Schulstufen, Idstein: Schulz- Kirchner Verlag, 84-96.

Bohnsack, R. (2007). Rekonstruktive Sozialforschung. Einführung in qualitative Methoden [Reconstructive Social Research. Introduction to Qualitative Methods] (6th ed.). Opladen: Budrich.

Körber, A., Schreiber, W., & Schöner, A. (Eds.). (2007). Kompetenzen historischen Denkens. Ein Strukturmodell als Beitrag zur Kompetenzorientierung in der Geschichtsdidaktik [Competencies of historical thinking. A structural framework]. Neuried: Ars Una.

Langer-Plän, M. (2003), Problem Quellenarbeit. Werkstattbericht aus einem empirischen Projekt [The Issue of Historical Evidence. Report from an Empirical Research Project]. In: GWU 54 (5/6), 319-336.

Lee, P. (1991). Historical knowledge and the national curriculum. In R. Aldrich. (Ed.), History in the national curriculum (pp. 39-65). London: Kogan Page.

Martens, M., Hartmann, U. Sauer, M., & Hasselhorn, M. (2009). Interpersonal Understanding in Historical Context. Rotterdam et al.: Sense Publishers.

Martens, M. (2009). Reconstructing historical understanding. How students deal with historical accounts. In: Martens, M., Hartmann, U. Sauer, M., & Hasselhorn, M. (Eds.): Interpersonal Understanding in Historical Context. Rotterdam et al.: Sense Publishers, 115-136.

Sauer, M. (2006). Kompetenzen für den Geschichtsunterricht. [Competencies for the history classroom] Ein pragmatisches Modell als Basis für die Bildungsstandards des Verbandes der Geschichtslehrer. Informationen für den Geschichts- und Gemeinschaftskundelehrer, 72(2), 7-20.