Educating for Critical Historical Consciousness

Does teaching for social justice mean we have to leave content knowledge behind?

This project is a three-year SSHRC-funded study entitled “Educating for Critical Historical Consciousness: Beyond the Social Justice/Content Knowledge Debate in Teacher Education.”

Principal Investigator: Dr. Ann Chinnery
Co-Investigator: Dr. Peter Grimmett, University of British Columbia

How This Project is Carried Out

Faced with the challenge of increasingly diverse K-12 classrooms, many teacher education programs across Canada have focused on teaching for social justice as a way to better prepare teachers to meet the needs of students whose cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds are different from their own.

In the process, teacher education has largely shifted away from content mastery (e.g., expertise in history or mathematics) to an emphasis on teacher identity and on fostering the moral emotions, attitudes and dispositions considered most important to working with students from diverse backgrounds. While we support the current social justice emphasis in pre-service teacher education, we believe that the apparent social justice/content knowledge dichotomy is a false dichotomy, and that content knowledge must be at the core of educating for social justice.

In our view, teachers who enter the field without an understanding, for example, of the ways in which historical educational policies have shaped the educational experiences of the families and communities they will serve will not be adequately prepared to meet the needs of their students. Therefore, we are exploring how firsthand encounters with historical educational policy documents (content knowledge) might inform beginning teachers’ understanding of their work with students from marginalized groups (with the aim of promoting social justice).

Phase 1

The first phase of the research draws on relevant philosophical and educational literature in order to develop a working conception of critical historical consciousness appropriate to the aim of preparing teachers to work with students from diverse racial, cultural, religious and economic backgrounds.

Phase 2

The second phase is a case study with a group of teachers from a large urban school district in BC characterized by significant diversity on all of the axes noted above. In this phase we will facilitate "encounters" with historical educational policy documents (e.g., The Gradual Civilization Act, which underpinned Aboriginal Residential Schooling, and the Secret Order-in-Council P.C. 1486, which legislated the removal of all Japanese Canadians to internment camps in BC during the Second World War; etc.) for practising teachers in a local public school district.

Phase 3

In the third phase of the study, we will analyze whether, and if so, how, such encounters inform the teachers' sense of moral agency and pedagogical responsibility, and their approach to working with students from diverse backgrounds.

Why This Project Matters

The importance of this work lies in its contribution to both the teacher education literature and the practical work of preparing teachers for work in diverse classrooms.

In addition to equipping teachers with relevant historical knowledge, we believe that developing a critical historical consciousness might facilitate a dispositional shift which, in turn, will enable teachers to work more effectively with students from diverse and historically marginalized backgrounds. This shift may or may not be evidenced by observable behaviours, but more importantly, by a shift in teachers’ conceptions of their own moral agency and responsibility.

Where to Learn More:

Chinnery, A. (2014). On Timothy Findley’s The Wars and classrooms as communities of remembrance. Studies in Philosophy and Education. DOI: 10.1007/s11217-014-9406-7

Chinnery, A. (2013). Caring for the past: On relationality and historical consciousness. Ethics and Education 8(3), 253-262.

Chinnery, A. (2012). Temple or forum? On new museology and education for social change. In C. Ruitenberg (Ed.), Philosophy of Education 2012 (pp. 269-276). Urbana-Champaign, IL: Philosophy of Education Society.

In this paper I explore the educational implications of the trend away from museums that focus on collecting, preserving, and displaying objects, to the new “museums of ideas,” which function primarily as forums for public debate and dialogue. I first give an overview of the changes in museology that gave rise to the current trend toward museums without objects. I then explore the differences between object-centered and dialogue-centered museum education. Finally, I argue for a revival of the kind of museum education that characterized the late 19th- and early 20th-century museum experience, in which visitors had direct experiences with rooms full of objects with little or no explanatory documentation to mediate their encounters.

Chinnery, A. (2012). On history education and the moral demands of remembrance. In R. Kunzman (Ed.), Philosophy of Education 2011 (pp. 127-135). Urbana-Champaign, IL: Philosophy of Education Society.

Children’s participation in Remembrance Day and other rituals of remembrance has long been considered an important part of citizenship and history education. However, the pedagogical purpose of these events has shifted over time in keeping with changing conceptions of our relationship with the past and what it can teach us about our responsibilities now and in the future. In this paper I sketch three approaches to history education and the “historically educated person,” suggesting that in order to respond to the moral demand cited by Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster—to know and remember that which we can never really know—we will need to rethink not only the aims of history education but what it means to be a knowing subject in the first place.

Chinnery, A. (2011, May). Caring for the past: Toward an ethical framework for living historically. Canadian Philosophy of Education Society Early Career Invited Lecture, Fredericton, NB. (unpublished manuscript)

Within history education, the move toward an emphasis on memory is most evident in the increasing use of first person narratives and testimony as legitimate sources of knowledge alongside the official record—often characterized as a shift from historiography to historical consciousness. Historical consciousness emphasizes the moral demands the past makes on us here and now, and in this paper I bring together the discourses of historical consciousness and Nel Noddings’ ethics of care in order to think through how we might take up the challenge of living historically, and how we might encourage children and young people to do so as well.

Chinnery, A. (2011). “What good does all this remembering do, anyway?” On historical consciousness and the responsibility of memory. In G. Biesta (Ed.), Philosophy of Education 2010 (pp. 397-405). Urbana-Champaign, IL: Philosophy of Education Society.

Since the early 1990s, with the publication of Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s seminal work, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, there has been increasing attention to the moral significance of memory in cultural studies, history, psychology, philosophy, and education. But it’s not immediately obvious why we should focus on the past—especially past traumas and violent events. Might we not be better to put the past behind us and focus on the future? In this paper, I take up that question and attempt to show that remembering does constitute a good insofar as it facilitates the development of a particular kind of subjectivity and responsibility—more specifically, a Levinasian conception of ethical responsibility even for that which lies outside my own actions and intentions.

To learn more about critical historical consciousness, see:

Simon, R.I., Rosenberg, S., & Eppert, C. (Eds.). (2000). Between hope & despair: Pedagogy and the remembrance of historical trauma. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Simon, R.I. (2005). The touch of the past: Remembrance, learning, and ethics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

To learn more about other approaches to historical consciousness, see:

UBC’s Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness.