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“History, memory cultures and meaning in the classroom”

May 7, 2012

Kate Hawkey and Jayne Prior are the authors of an article titled “History, memory cultures and meaning in the classroom”, which I thoroughly enjoyed. In it, they look at the influence of memory cultures (brought from home/communities outside school) on students’ acquisition of the national stories being taught in History classes. It’s truly interesting.

Hawkey and Prior explain: “Since 9/11 there has been an increased focus on ethnic identity within media and political discourses. Concurrent with this is a concern with the nature of British citizenship, at a time when increased globalization puts strain on notions of national identity and its relevance. Research suggesting that only 35% of English children feel proud of their nationality (Broadfoot et al. 2000) and a sense of panic that followed the 7/7 London bombings has contributed to a growing anxiety. Within this context, debates over the purpose of school history have been hotly contested. At one end, the continued transmission of the traditional canon, with its presumed ability to ‘social cement’ (Aldrich and Dean 1991 ) community cohesion, is called for, ‘when it comes to history, surely the focus ought to be the national story, and the national story hasn’t changed in the last decade or so’ (Woodhead 2005: 9). At the other end, there are calls for greater visibility being given to the achievements and contributions of minority ethnic groups (QCA 2005) and for ‘a more diffuse historical culture that reflects the changed, more complex society’ (Ribbens 2005: 9). Still others have argued for the development of critical history at school which ‘should confine itself primarily to developing pupils’ intellectual autonomy and “information literacy”, rather than [-p.232] attempting to inculcate particular values and attitudes’ (Grever et al. 2008: 78).

Several educationalists have argued that learning can only be effective if it is informed by children’s incoming conceptions (Lee 1992, Elliott 1998). Children from different economic, ethnic, or geographic backgrounds bring different perspectives to school; these ideas, myths, and knowledge, shaped by families and communities, have an impact on what and how children learn. This paper explores the extent to which the prevailing political and media discourses are reflected in children’s conceptions and perspectives of history, cognisant that students’ perspectives on the past need to be situated within the changing social and cultural contexts in which they arise (Lave and Wenger 1991, Wertsch 1998).” (231-232)

Hawkey and Prior go on to discuss some of the research done in this field in recent years. They write that “Epstein (2000, 2007) has conducted research in the US into adolescent perspectives on the national narrative and racial diversity in US history. She found that with African-American students, family discourses had a greater effect on students’ historical interpretations than what their teachers had taught them at school. Furthermore, children of different ethnic backgrounds tended to position themselves differently in relation to the American national narrative: White students tended to regard national history as a tale of progressive inclusion and extension of freedoms and rights, while black students tended to regard national history as a tale of perennial exclusion and continued white privilege. […] in Canada, recent research suggests children consider history teachers less trustworthy than family stories, ‘family stories were rated “very trustworthy” by 33% of those surveyed, higher than the ranking for teachers at 29%’ (Seixas 2009: 1). Rosenzweig and Thelen’s (1998) extensive study asking 1500 Americans about their connection to the past and how it influences their daily lives report that history as taught in school does not inspire a strong connection to the past.” (232)

“Recent comparative survey research conducted in England and the Netherlands (Grever et al. 2008),” Hawkey and Prior continue, “has added to our understanding of what students think should be studied in history; ‘there was a strong interest in [-p.233] exploring family histories’ so that, the authors [i.e., Grever et al.] conclude, ‘the possibility of allowing some time for pupils to explore their family histories in the context of their international past as a component of school history would appear to be a missed opportunity for rendering school history relevant and meaningful to young people’ (Grever et al. 2008: 90).” (232-233)

Interestingly to me (since I hadn’t really considered this), Hawkey and Prior also observe that: “The aims and priorities of history teaching vary in different countries; the tradition in the US, for example, has been to stress a national narrative whereas in England the tradition has been to place more emphasis on the procedural skills of the subject. The research, therefore, aimed to add to the existing knowledge in this complex field.” (233) What are the aims and priorities in New Zealand schools? On a national scale and on a local one…

Relevance to Young Adult literature

I imagine many connections are apparent, but a couple of points Hawkey and Prior made elsewhere in their article also struck me as interesting. They noted, for example, a “tendency to see history in binary terms of heroes and victims or villains [which ] resonates with Egan’s (1997) ideas about how adolescents’ thinking develops as well as popular teachers’ pedagogical ‘heroes and villains’ approaches when teaching interpretation in history.

The particular heroes who were identified do reflect an implicit understanding of history as the study of injustice and the development of and struggle for civil rights.” (238) This notion of villains and heroes is one which obviously connects with a lot of fiction. How it connects more specifically would be an interesting thread to pursue. I also found this suggestion that popular teachers had taken a  pedagogical ‘heroes and villains’ approach interesting… do we do that?

Later on, Hawkey and Prior note that: “It is salutary to remember that history and heritage is only one of many sources of identification for the students, for some even a rather limited one with other influences, such as teenage identity, being seen as equally, or perhaps more, important.” (242) Here, I could see how work done more specifically in the field of ‘English’ in New Zealand might inform work done in history. It is certainly interesting that the authors posit the possibility that, for these students, ‘teenage identity’ might be more influential than any ethnic or other identity (which seems such a likely focus of adult interest…)

Conclusions / usable historical frameworks

In explaining the purpose of their research, Hawkey and Prior describe two hypotheses they wished to explore: “we wanted to establish how far family discourse has a greater effect on the historical interpretations of minority ethnic students than the history learned at school. Second, in light of Epstein’s finding that students of different ethnic groups position themselves differently in relation to the national narrative, we aimed to test the hypothesis that minority ethnic students tend to regard national history as a tale of perennial exclusion and the continuation of white privilege. Our analysis, therefore, looked for confirmation and disconfirmation of these two hypotheses.” (235)

In their discussion, Hawkey and Prior conclude: “Returning to the two hypotheses, this research does suggest that family and community influence can have a great impact on the response that students have to their experience of history at school. Knowledge acquired from home, or from a religious community, can be accepted unquestioningly, and in some instances can lead to a mistrust of a teacher’s approach. On the other hand, other students in our sample suggested that family history or history learned from home and community was of no great interest to them, or indeed that history in any shape or form was not an area of discussion at all at home. The picture, therefore, is one of complexity. For some individuals, from different ethnic minority groups, knowledge from family and community is key in terms of the meaning that these students attribute from history, while for others it is of little relevance.

As far as the second hypothesis is concerned, our research does suggest that individuals do position themselves differently in relation to the national narrative, but that this was not linked to any particular ethnic group. […/] Current discourses, media and political, include a focus on ‘cultural, ethnic and religious diversity’, and this has also become an educational and curricular specification (QCA 2007). There is a danger that such specification might conjure a perhaps fixed, monolithic, or stereotyped image of what this diversity amounts to. This research, however, suggests a fluid, changing, and ever evolving picture. While we have found different perceptions [-p.243] between individuals, these have also included differences within same ethnic minority groups (see also, Grever et al. 2008: 90).” (242-243)

In terms of curricular challenges,” Hawkey and Prior add, “a greater focus on ‘usable historical frameworks’ (Rüsen 2005, Howson 2007) looks helpful, synoptic overviews into which more detailed studies can be accommodated. The framework of the movement and migrations of peoples, for example, is one which can structure a great deal of the history curriculum, as well as drawing together perspectives from home as well as from school. Through such frameworks, what children bring from home can be examined, valued, and accommodated. The subject shifts from a traditional position of the acquisition of distant and objective facts to a subject with ‘practical function’ (Rusen in Duvenage 1993: 67), ‘a field of experience rather than as an object of study’ (Phillips 2004: 93). A curriculum based on these principles offers the prospect of developing a more encouraging outlook amongst students about the relevance of history and further research into the effectiveness of such curriculum development would be helpful. At the same time, however, whilst a greater incorporation of history from home and community is desirable, teachers must remain alert to the dangers that some incoming perspectives can be very entrenched, potentially operating as a ‘therapeutic alternative to historical discourse’ (Klein 2000: 45).” (243)

Ref: Hawkey, Kate and Prior, Jayne (2011) ‘History, memory cultures and meaning in the classroom’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 43: 2, 231 — 247

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