Teaching history in today’s world
By Gery de Pierpont
Interview with didactic historian Jean-Louis Jadoulle
The historian Jean-Louis Jadoulle is devoted to the transmission of history—an impassioned devotee. After eighteen years of secondary-school teaching, he immersed himself in the study of learning methodologies in historic sciences and was appointed lecturer of Didactics in History at Liège University, Belgium. An infectiously enthusiastic researcher, the historian has recently published a remarkable reference manual for educators. It is also a work that must appeal to historical explorers and enthusiasts of cultural heritage, because the investigation into relics from the past and the examination of documents of other epochs is a meaning maker for all those who wish to have a better understanding of the present . . .
View Jean-Louis Jadoulle’s original interview in French.
The teaching of history in schools has recently seen significant changes. In what way do courses in humanities today differ from the way lectures were given before?
We can identify two turning points in the teaching of history. The first corner was negotiated between the end of the 1960s and early 1970s when the ‘active teaching methods’ were implemented. This was to have far-reaching consequences, as educators partially set aside their ‘story-telling’ and instead, brought documentation to the classroom. From then on, the idea was not merely to transmit historical facts, but to discover history by analyzing historic material.
The second was reached in the first years of the 21st century. The active role played by the student in documentary research was intensified by a more complex investigatory approach. The purpose is to encourage the student to construct meaning, to interpret situations, and to resolve wider historical problems. The famous, much-discussed ‘competences’ belong to this group, as it concerns developing a student’s capacity for problem-solving and interpreting historical circumstances.
However, there is little actual documentation on the teaching practices of educators in the classroom. The few empirical studies available indicate that although these teachers have clearly adopted the methodologies recommended in the 1970s, they are only preparing to turn the second corner.
Does teaching history still have a place in the school curriculum?
Happily, the teaching of history is not in question. Classically, history has three major purposes. The first, which is given precedence in syllabuses and curriculum guidelines, is civic humanism. History does indeed have the virtue of giving students keys to understand the contemporary world. Keys that will empower them to become active, responsible citizens in a world whose complexities are not always clearly perceived. The geographer, the sociologist, and the economist also contribute to this, but the historian’s particular focus on evolution casts valuable light on our society of today.
Its second purpose, which in my view is extremely important, has a more intellectual and critical objective. There is no question that in a history class one is there to learn history, but one can also learn the historical method— one can teach a student various ways of thinking and of seeing the world. The history class is also an opportunity to develop intellectual abilities, particularly those of the historian, such as a critical assessment of documents, for example.
Finally, there is history’s third purpose and that is patrimony, which in these days of multiculturalism, as well as being strongly upheld by migratory movements, is well to the fore. The cultural purpose is twofold: it will not only teach students how to discover their own roots and their own culture, but also the roots and cultures of others. Thus, there are two simultaneous dimensions—cultural identity and cultural diversity.
Discovering the otherness of those who live in different cultures, but also the otherness of self—the person I would have been in another era
To know one’s history, one must first know oneself. And then it is to understand other identities, other cultures. But it also means discovering one’s self; if I had lived in another era, I would have thought and lived differently. I would have behaved in another way.
The teaching of history is an excellent opportunity to train students in otherness. The otherness of those who live in the same era as me, but in a different context, in a different culture, and who therefore, must—perforce—think and see things in a different way from me. But there is also the otherness of the person I would have been if I had lived at another time rather than today. This is a major challenge that historians face in their work: I must understand the otherness of the past without colouring it with my perceptions of today. I must comprehend its way of life and its thinking patterns within a period’s frame of reference.
Does one still teach following ‘timelines’ with famous battles and important reigns as reference points?
Timelines are not taught as a matter of course as they used to be. Thanks to the way written documents and other testimonies of the past are managed, they have become more a construction element for students.
The drift of this type of pedagogy is towards fragmentation and never to build a strictly articulated timeline. The didactic of investigation places students in complex situations, which entail dealing with raw, unorganized material. However, afterwards, these teachings must lead to a more structured framework, which is absolutely indispensable.
History can be told outside the classroom: plastic arts, monuments, cinema, literature, music, TV series, comics, video games, publicity . . .
Away from school, students are increasingly exposed to different types of history. Sometimes it is even referred to as informal history education—to give a name to this type of learning outside the classroom—via media, publicity, television series, cinema, and so forth.
We can congratulate ourselves for this evolution. I see two advantages here for the history teacher. In the first place it provides him or her with fresh material to work with. Heritage, museums, and exhibitions, for example, are much more accessible than they were fifty years ago. There are so many elements to hand that will help the educator to illustrate the life of humankind in other eras.
It is also an excellent opportunity, because all this material holds representations of the past, which sometimes are very close to what historiography puts forward, but which can also be very far from it. In fact, the further away from what is presented as a scientific fact, the more it is incumbent upon the teacher to understand this and to “unravel the stitches”. If the teacher does not grasp this, recent studies have shown that students will construct new meanings consistent with what they have been taught, but will rapidly forget them in favour of representations conveyed in a non-scholastic environment.
How to make cultural heritage (built or movable) and relics of the past ‘talk’?
Having access to patrimonial sources is extremely rewarding in its rich diversity and promise, but it calls for a specific teaching method. The main thing in my opinion is, from the start, to allow students to immerse themselves without imposing an extra commentary. It is very important because they have little chance to develop this ability. It allows them to study material witnesses to the past. And if it is a building, there is a three dimensional heritage space in which they can roam. I think that patrimony must be appreciated in this way—by the senses, and that also goes for works of art; one starts off by looking. It is a pity that teaching students how to ‘see’ critically is not a school subject in itself.
It is also very important when making heritage elements ‘talk’, to combine what they say (or what they seem to say) with other testimonies such as historic texts, and iconographic documentation, to get closer to what we no longer see, and to imagine how people lived at a given time.
How can we build bridges to connect past events to the realities of the present?
We teach history at school to help students to understand the present. But what has always struck me is that the tools suggested to teachers—and by extension, to the pupils themselves—that allow them to connect yesterday with today, never provide information on the present. Happily, this does not stop creative and imaginative teachers from furnishing these links themselves. However, I think that it is desirable to devise school textbooks that are better suited to meet this criterion—manuals that will provide material to enable students to understand that what is in the present, is still coloured by the past.
To this end, I have produced a new type of school textbook, which in the first part, contains documentation from which the student will learn of today’s problems, and which will then be clarified by studying the past. Then there will be those files that will show how history can be treated subjectively by the media. Students should be wary of these representations as they might not always conform to documented sources. These tools are intended to give both teacher and pupils concrete elements so that the past/present connection is no longer an ephemeral wish but is embodied in the classroom.
History with a capital ‘H’ or lower-case ‘h’ ?
History with a capital ‘H’ is how life was lived in the past; it is the events, and the doings of other eras. But this type of history has evaporated and has been lost forever. It is dead—inaccessible. The history we teach in the classroom is history with a small ‘h’. It is the historian’s approach adapted for his or her students to construct meanings, to develop representations, and to try to reconstruct the past, in the knowledge that one can never exactly reincarnate history—that it can never be brought back.
Jean-Louis JADOULLE, Faire apprendre l’histoire. Pratiques et fondements d’une didactique de l’enquête en classe du secondaire, éditions Erasme, Namur, 2015
Contact : jljadoulle [ad] ulg.ac.be