It was inspiring to hear Dr Lindsay Gibson lead a seminar on how history educators can support their students in constructing big picture narrative of the past. It was interesting to hear how Canadian teachers have experienced similar difficulties to their British colleagues in getting students to consider what their individual topic based studies amount to. As many commentators in Britain seem to desire, Canada seems to struggle to get its students to string together narratives of Canadian history, deploying narratives which accurately sequence events and explain the developments in succession.
Gibson spoke at length about the existing literature, and he had numerous interesting insights. His seminar was built upon a summary of a pilot-study he has conducted with his colleagues in Canada. In short, Gibson had provided students with a ‘pre-test’ inviting students to list significant events in Canadian history in chronological order, and to then write a narrative of Canadian history. This was followed up with a teaching intervention and a repetition of the earlier test. I shall present some of the highlights of the seminar below:
- Narratives lay at the heart of students’ big pictures of the past. Gibson presented “narrative frameworks”, in a Shemiltian sense, as sitting above students’ historical knowledge using the second-order concepts and as a useful “instrument” for providing some organisation to students’ historical knowledge. Gibson very clearly buys into idea that students should be given a framework first, prior to teaching, across approximately five extended lessons. This is in direct contrast to other schools of thought which have suggested it might be better to develop a narrative out of a wealth of historical thinking, providing order to existing knowledge, rather than providing an outline to be revisited later. Such a belief was curious, given Gibson’s attempt to teach the overviews to tenth grade students: those with the most fixed and developed historical knowledge. It will be very interesting to hear how Gibson’s attempts to teach a framework to fifth grade students before developing their subject knowledge progress.
- A real strength of Gibson’s work, with his Canadian colleagues, was a resource he had created with a number of cards, akin to playing cards, which summarised key events in Canadian history. These cards encompassed a range of different themes, and ensured they covered a broad chronological range, including contact with the First Peoples, a history which is taking on increased prominence in Canadian discourse. These cards were used to test and support students in sequencing and have the potential to be used as a resource in developing students’ narratives. What was particularly impressive about these cards, were how they had been constructed with such close contact with academic historians. Gibson had created an exhaustive list of approximately 350 events and then submitted these to a range of historians, inviting them to highlight the seventy most significant on the list. One of the challenges involved in dealing with big picture narratives is the risk of ‘whose narrative?’ is being provided to students. Part of the aim of teaching students’ such narratives is to allow students to understand how narratives are constructed. To challenge narratives, they will need a broad base of knowledge, and this disciplinary authenticity should allow students to scrutinise and interrogate narratives they encounter in ‘everyday history’. This is the sort of powerful knowledge which we should be striving to impart as educators.
- Gibson suggested that one of the key features of a narrative are that they are “purposeful”. What he meant by this, I think, is that students’ narratives should have a clear beginning and end. There should be a clear ‘thread’ which links together the events that students have selected to include in a narrative. His task, for students, was to write a narrative of Canadian history and to give it a title, reflecting upon their work. Gibson hopes that this will help students to provide effective summary overviews of their narratives, and to see what past events have amounted to. This is extremely challenging, and is worth unpacking on its own, far beyond any discussions of how we might best support students in providing a narrative in the first place.
- When/if Gibson publishes the research he has conducted as part of this pilot study, the numerous findings he has made are essential reading. Gibson provided us with a wealth of interesting observations and conclusions, such as the number of errors students made before and after his teaching intervention. Gibson had tallies of the number of events students incorporated in the pre-test and post-test, the chronological breadth of events selected etc. etc. This provided fascinating insight into the students’ views on history, and how easily they were skewed towards the events they had studied most recently. It is exactly the sort of iterative analysis teachers should be conducting of their students’ work to target future interventions. For me, the most interesting observation that Gibson made was that, after the teaching intervention, students used fewer collective pronouns such as “we” and “our”. This suggests that students might have been coming to see narratives as historical constructs, and treating them in a more dispassionate fashion. It would be fascinating to unpack the reasons behind this, and consider how students understanding of their own history was being altered by the development of historical narratives of Canadian history.
Throughout the discussion the question of what prior knowledge (substantive and second-order) that students would need to be able to construct effective overviews constantly lurked in the background. I continue to disagree with Gibson, and other practitioners such as Shemilt, that overviews should be taught before more in-depth historical knowledge. Alison Kitson suggested that history educators have become increasingly effective at teaching historical interpretations. Perhaps it is time to encourage students to critically engage with historian’s narratives as interpretations. What might that look like?
Thanks must go to Dr Lindsay Gibson for generously giving his time, while visiting Europe, to lead this seminar. Further thanks must go to Arthur Chapman, and his colleagues, for the regular and lively discussions that take part at the IoE History Education Special Interest Group.