Exploring the Pedagogical Nature of Historical Texts: Implications for Classroom Teaching

Reading pedagogy into historical texts

Such a focus in history education is important because, as we also know, history and the past are not one and the same. Rather, history, as Seixas (1993) explains "is only a discourse about the past, a story constructed to make meaning for us in the present" (p. 307; see also Berkhofer, 1995; Jenkins, 1991). Writing the past inevitably involves a deliberate process of "selection, ordering, and evaluation of past events, experiences, and processes" (Kaye, 1991, p. 71). Meanings given to the past are never objective or neutral; they are always interpretations that advance some assumptions, perspectives, and worldviews rather than others. Consequently, scholars exploring such issues invite historians, as well as those who teach and study history, “to consider history as a literary form, on a par with, or at any rate exhibiting affinities to, other kinds of imaginative writing - narrative or descriptive, comic or realist, as the case may be” (Samuel, 1992, pp. 220–21. cf. Jenkins, 1995, p. 36. See also White, 1978).

While the idea that history and the past are not identical may not come as news to some (hopefully, to most), such understandings carry with them a variety of implications, both for how we encourage students to read history and also, and importantly, for the kind of readings teachers ought to conduct in preparation for their pedagogical encounters with students. For what such understandings imply is that historical texts are not only sources of content upon which to base a teacher’s pedagogy. Rather, this understanding signals that historical texts already embody assumptions, perspectives, and worldviews folded into the very process of narrating the past. As such, history textbooks and primary/secondary sources should not be seen simply as teaching students pure content about a topic but as pedagogical invitations for learning - positioning the students to explore that topic, and the world more broadly, in particular ways. In other words, content doesn’t only teach us something, it also, and unavoidably, teaches us how to think and what to think about and value when we engage that content. Some of this “teaching,” as we will see, is implicit and, at times, can run contrary to or subvert the very ideas the text might intend to convey.

Let me elaborate on the idea that historical (any) texts already embody pedagogical invitations for learning. In doing so, I will explore both the notions of content and pedagogy and then move to provide some questions that might help guide your own exploration of the pedagogical nature of curricular content. To foreground this discussion, let’s use an example from Todd & Curti’s textbook, The American Nation (Boyer, 1995), a commonly-used U.S. social studies textbook, that provides this boxed-in paragraph titled “Multicultural perspectives” on the left margin of a page in its chapter, “American Expansionism”:

Native American women who worked in the fur trade often married non-Indian fur traders and played important roles in their societies as a result. For example, Huntkah-itawin, a Sioux woman, married trader James Bordeaux. She helped Bordeaux cement his trading ties with the Sioux, and her access to trade goods helped her brother rise to the position of chief. (p. 318)


An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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