By Trilby Kent
More surprising is the silence around another subject in which our elementary students are falling behind. The stakes in this case — namely, producing culturally literate critical thinkers and engaged citizens — are just as great.
I recently conducted a small-scale survey of Grade 6 and 7 students to find out what they’ve been taught about history beyond Canada’s borders. The answer is not much.
My sample group consisted of kids attending generally well-resourced public, private, and Catholic schools. The questions asked included “When did the Second World War begin and end?,” “Name one early explorer of any continent outside of North America,” and “What country was Nelson Mandela from?” They were also asked to put several historical personalities or events into chronological order.
A mother who answered my call for volunteers via a Facebook parents’ group replied within minutes of showing her Grade 6 son the questions. “He said he has not been taught any of this [and would] just be guessing! Some may ring a bell, but not because it was taught in school…He says they have covered First Nations and New France and have yet to start History this year.”
One Grade 7 student said she knew the names Anne Frank, Marie Curie, and Martin Luther King, but couldn’t place them in order. Another identified the Raj as “the guy who built the Taj Mahal.” A mother reported that her daughter in the same grade “knows none of it. She has a very rough idea of the WWII dates, but the rest is not there.” (She added wryly, “Ask her anything about Jacques Cartier and she’s rosy.”)
A student was asked to say when the Second World War began and ended, and what country was Nelson Mandela from, and he "said he has not been taught any of this" and would "just be guessing!"
One Grade 12 student was also keen to join the discussion. “I think the main issue with the way history is taught is that the dots aren’t really connected,” she told me. This student is currently taking World History at a progressive, selective downtown Toronto public high school, and was therefore able to put the French Revolution, Russian Revolution and Chinese Cultural Revolution in chronological order. But, she admitted, she wasn’t sure about the correct chronology for Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad.
Why does any of this matter? It’s STEM jobs that are hiring, after all. History is…well, history.
BUT IN AN AGE of fake news, Google and Wikipedia, a deeper knowledge of history gives us what those things can’t: a sense of context and empathy, educated imaginations, and the ability to interrogate evidence. Just as we expect a math curriculum that systematically builds on blocks of knowledge and developing skill sets, we should also be demanding a logical, contextualized history curriculum for our kids.
What are they getting instead?
Whatever it is, it’s not called History. History as a subject is only introduced in Grade 7. Before then, the Ontario elementary curriculum (like most provincial curricula across the country) offers “Social Studies” grounded in a student-centred approach to learning. According to the official curriculum document:
That’s good as far as it goes. But by planting students firmly at the centre of the subject, we exclude … well, pretty much everything else. After all, self-referential learning may not be the easiest way to introduce a 21st-century Toronto kid to the role Henry VIII’s second wife played in the Reformation, or the significance of the Indian independence movement or the Cold War.
The problem, then, is two-fold: a history curriculum that is short on both content and broader global context.
Citizenship has long been a major part of the social studies curriculum (although interestingly, not a single student I interviewed was able to identify Ancient Greece as the birthplace of democracy). Sound historical knowledge is fundamental to building an appreciation of diversity and understanding of power relations. But historical scholarship and good citizenship are different things; using one simply to serve the other hearkens to a time when history was taught primarily as part of the nation-building project, and most today would agree that history should not function purely as a means to resolving the Canadian obsession with discovering our shared national identity.
Admittedly, that identity crisis is perhaps the reason that the current curriculum is almost exclusively Canadian in focus. In Grade 1, children learn about “The Local Community”; in Grade 2, it’s “Changing Family and Community Traditions.” Grade 3 introduces “Communities in Canada” as well as “Living and Working in Ontario.” In Grade 4, students are at last introduced to “Early Societies, 3000 BCE-1500 CE.” But then in Grade 5, they return to Canada with “New France and Early Canada.” And Grade 6 wraps up with “Communities in Canada” (does this sound familiar?) and “Canada’s Interactions with the Global Community.”
It goes on like this. Grades 7, 8 and 10 also focus exclusively on Canadian history, leaving just Grade 9, and optional courses in Grades 11 and 12, for the rest of the world to get a look in.
Rose Fine-Meyer, a Lecturer in the Master of Teaching programme at OISE and recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History, agrees that it’s a problem. “I tell my students, Grade 4 is when you’ve got to travel the world: it’s your only time to leave Canada!” Starting with a local lens has its benefits, of course, but “it should be used as a springboard to global issues,” she says. “And yes, I worry that not all teachers are using it that way.”
A solid understanding of our nation’s past is of course vital to its future. And we’re getting much better at incorporating previously overlooked aspects of our history, including Indigenous history (which the current overhaul will make compulsory), ancient and social history. But the curriculum as it stands doesn’t only threaten to kill off student enthusiasm for history as a subject; it sends them into the world with huge knowledge gaps.
If it was commonplace to hear people claim that they’d never learnt to divide, or that they’d read only Canadian authors in English classes, there would be outcry. So there should be here.
History used to be king of the social sciences; but as renowned teacher activist Bob Davis delineated in his 1995 book, Whatever Happened to High School History? (and later, in Skills Mania: Snake Oil in Our Schools) the subject has undergone decades of erosion in favour of the new emphasis on teaching skills and not content. This shift, Davis argued, was designed to cultivate “compliant and adaptable workers for today’s economic market” rather than “humane student citizens.” Like E.D. Hirsch, who argued a similar point a decade ago in The Knowledge Deficit, Davis knew that we’re selling our kids short if we focus on developing skills at the expense of broad knowledge. Scarce consistency of content across the grades means we’ve ended up with a scattershot approach that confuses, bores, and restricts. This system encourages students to question everything, but know nothing.
Ken Osborne, Faculty of Education Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, has written extensively on the heavily-contested ground that is school history in Canada. He’s also convinced that our concentration on important historical thinking skills has meant a lack of attention to content, writing that, “What made the citizens of Nineteen Eighty-Four so vulnerable to the lies of Big Brother was not lack of skills but lack of knowledge. Highly skilled technically, their ignorance of the past made it impossible for them to resist Big Brother’s manipulation of history. And it is not enough to say that these days all we need to know is how to access some database. We need knowledge in our heads, not simply at our finger-tips.”
I asked him how we strike a balance between Canadian and world history. “It’s not that we are placing too much emphasis on Canada,” he told me. “It’s more a matter of declining interest in the position of world history in the curriculum (and it was never all that strong in the first place). For some reason, and despite all the talk of “one world,” internationalization, etc., the wave of concern has never stretched to include the teaching of world history.”
I attended elementary schools in England and the U.S. as well as Canada. By the time I was 11, I’d sat in a reconstructed bomb shelter to “experience” the Blitz; built a medieval castle out of sugar cubes; hammered my own version of an Aztec sun stone; written and illustrated a booklet on the Black Death; learned the history of the guillotine; and completed projects on Alexander Hamilton and the modern economy of Oman.
This may sound like a series of disconnected “projects” but somehow the process imparted some sense of the ebb and flow of history. I’d like the same richness for my 5 year-old daughter — so this year, we started reading the first volume of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World: a simple, read-aloud global history that charts a comprehensive course from classical civilizations to the present day. We’ve debated the virtues of several of Hammurabi’s more brutal laws, learnt how one tiny silk worm changed the course of Chinese history, and weighed up the relative achievements of Hatshepsut and Cleopatra.
These reading sessions take less time than private tutoring and are infinitely more rewarding. They’ve sparked lively dinner table conversations about gladiatorial combat and the treatment of women through history (asking why Spartan women enjoyed more rights than women elsewhere in Greece is apparently a great way to postpone bedtime by just a few more minutes). It gladdens me to see her so animated about these things, but I worry that her enthusiasm will be tempered by the repetitive, fiercely local and myopic tenor of social studies classes to come.
A lack of resources, as always, is part of the problem. A teacher at one of the province’s publicly-funded boards tells me that since the last curriculum change in 2013, no money has been put in to purchasing new textbooks at her school — which means that what history she manages to teach is based entirely on what she finds on “Teachers Pay Teachers” and internet surfing.
Inconsistency is a related concern, says Fine-Meyer: the result of politically capricious curriculum changes. “The curriculum is always changing because it’s government controlled, and right now we’re at a point where there’s been a lot of pushback from Canada 150. In response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and criticisms about a whitewashed anniversary celebration — one which, for some, didn’t do enough to acknowledge abuses suffered by Canada’s indigenous populations — the government has stepped up its commitment to teaching Indigenous history. It’s hard for teachers to keep up. The Ministry needs to be putting in funding to back up the changes they make and provide proper resources and support materials for teachers.”
JUST WHOSE HISTORY are we talking about? Gone are the days of only learning about dead white men, and of course the new emphasis on Indigenous history is long overdue. We need to offer our children a history curriculum that is diverse, inclusive, nuanced and complex, while currently we merely pay lip service to underrepresented and marginalized histories. Black History Month is presented as somehow disconnected from the “rest” of history and risks implying that African American history begins and ends with slavery and the Civil Rights movement. But using history simply as a place to acknowledge the wrongs of the past represents a piecemeal approach to curriculum reform; a feel-good band-aid in place of a much-needed heart transplant. To fully appreciate the vast arc of human interaction, engagement, conflict, cruelty, retribution and reconciliation, we need to improve our game.
It may be too late for a substance-driven, global history to be included in the current provincial “refresh” but perhaps, with enough pressure from parents, teachers, and students, schools can be encouraged to incorporate more history to supplement official content. Our future, as well as our past, could well depend on it.
Trilby Kent has a BA in History from Oxford University. Winner of the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for her book Stones for my Father, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Once, in a Town Called Moth, she works in Toronto as an author, teacher, and critic.