Not just the facts

A reddish-brown stone plaque set in a brick wall reads “Canada 1916.”

Not just the facts

The University of British Columbia’s Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness has helped revise how history is taught in classrooms across the country
August 25, 2015

Is it more important for a student to remember the dates of major battles of the First World War or to be able to debate the origins and consequences of the war? Is it more essential to know that the Battle of Vimy Ridge took place in April 1917 or to be able to discuss its importance to Canada’s national identity and our country’s emergence from Britain’s shadow?

Until recently, provincial curricula emphasized the facts and dates that students should know at each grade level. The curricular revisions that have put an emphasis on critical thinking and analysis in teaching English, math and science over the past 30 years have been slower to take hold in history classrooms.

That needs to change, according to Peter Seixas, a professor with The University of British Columbia’s faculty of education.

“It used to be that giving information was the core of the history curriculum, but now that information is all there in an instant — you can go to Wikipedia and Google,” says Seixas. “As long as we were teaching and testing little bits of information, it made some sense. It just doesn’t make sense now.”

Peter Seixas, director of the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness at The University of British Columbia, explains the role of historical thinking concepts in the classroom. (This video is only available in English.)

At the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness, Peter Seixas and his colleagues examine the competencies and knowledge that go beyond historical facts and form the foundation of historical literacy. In one initiative called the Historical Thinking Project, which ran from 2006 to March 2014, they identified six concepts, including establishing historical significance and analyzing cause and consequence, that help students gain a deeper understanding of history. This framework for teaching historical literacy has since been used to reshape provincial curricula in Ontario and British Columbia and has informed new history courses introduced in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. The new approach encourages students to examine our individual and collective understandings of the past, to explore the meanings of historical events and to debate their significance.

“It’s about opening up problems for students to follow as opposed to presenting the answers,” says Seixas. “The goal is to enable students to participate in public debate. It’s setting a higher bar.”

This article was originally published in August 2014.