‘Teaching Literature in Times of Crisis’, Turning Students into Historical Actors – an Interview with Sofia Ahlberg

Giulia Verdini Articles ,

“Whatever overwhelming change we might be going through needs to be part of the classroom. We used to think of the classroom as a space that was somehow removed from the world: I think that’s a losing game.

Teaching Literature in Times of Crisis looks at the range of different crises currently affecting students and at the way teachers can respond to new challenges which require immediate action and a renewed approach. Sofia Ahlberg shared with EuroClio her reflections on these unprecedented times, her tips on effective teaching practices and her personal take on history as something that is lived and shaped by people each and every day.  

Let’s make it clear, Sofia Ahlberg’s teaching practices were not disrupted by the pandemic. Before teaching at Uppsala University, she had worked for over twenty years in Australia, where online teaching is very common. 

As a result of this, she did not start writing this book because of the pandemic, on the contrary, she had already started a couple of months before the pandemic hit. “I noticed that my teacher training students were responding to their education in a different way from what I was used to and it might have been because of the activism of Greta in Sweden. Obviously, she had a huge impact on my students. But all of a sudden they started asking the kinds of questions that had less to do with literary studies as such and more to do with activism, relevance, societal problems, climate change, inequality. It became apparent to me that I had to change the way I was teaching and I took it upon myself to write this book in order to show other teachers how to make reading literature relevant in a world of change.”

The book is certainly intended for teachers: secondary school and university teachers as well as teacher training students. “The reason why my focus is so much on teacher training education is because they need to have the skills. Crisis is not something that's going to go away, and we need to equip our teacher trainees with these kinds of skills so that they can engage and inspire their students.

Learning how to engage with a world of change

Despite - but at the same time in line with -  the title of her work, Sofia speaks of a world of change and not of one undergoing a catastrophe by reclaiming the original meaning of the word ‘crisis’: “In ancient Greek the word has a different meaning to what we think of it now. Now, we think of crisis as synonymous with disaster, calamity, something that is totally beyond our control. But actually, if you look at the original ancient Greek word ‘κρίσις’, it means something different: it generally refers to “a decisive stage where change must occur”, and it could also mean a turning point. But either way, it seemed to me that it was something that our students and ourselves as human beings could engage with rather than just be passive.

Sofia goes on explaining her personal approach to crisis, and the perspective she embraces in her book: “Crisis is an ongoing process, crisis is not an interruption of normality. If we think about the pandemic now, I often hear amongst my colleagues and friends, “soon we will get back to normality” - but what if we could ask ourselves instead “what kind of new post-pandemic world do we want to make?

Sofia has noticed the negative connotations that not only the word ‘crisis’ has, but also the bad experience that is associated with it, especially in the way that people face it. This is transferable and applicable to the classroom environment. “I’ve noticed that the way we talk about crises or historical events that are tragic is often in a way that leaves our students with a sense of deep grief, actually, and anxiety, and anger and depression.” For this reason, she highlights the role and the responsibility that teachers have in this regard: “rather than making students passive, we need to give them the skills to become actors. Rather than be subject to crisis, we can engage with it.

Empowering students with local roles to play

When asked about the role of literature, she immediately explains that for her neither literature nor the act of reading represent an escape from reality. “The literature we engage with is always a response to crisis. Crisis affects us as individuals, in very minute detailed ways, but it also affects the historical events, the evolution of our societies, of ourselves as human beings. Crisis seems so difficult to comprehend, but literature has so much to teach us about the scale. It’s about that narrative rhythm, it’s about overcoming that problem, and having a resolution.” And that is exactly where the power of literature lies: “Literature is a safe space, a place where you can respond to very serious and often quite overwhelming events that most of the times are fictional - but the way you respond to them as a reader is something that you can then apply to real life events - the way you learn to how to respond to characters for instance, how to respond to plot, to narrative, is something you can apply to real life.

Sofia depicts literature as something that can empower students as global citizens with local roles to play, where reading practices correspond to transferable skills. Readers are not just readers of a book, but readers of the world: “the moment when we read and reflect, we respond, that’s when we’re turning our students into historical actors rather than just simply being subject to historical events: we are showing that even in a very small way they can be active participants. Seeing something happening on the street and being able to read and judge and evaluate in an ethical way, and knowing something about how to respond to it - how to think about it, how to evaluate it - that is where literature and global events are connected. Reading is translated into some sort of behavioral change.” Books and literature can also change the course of history. “‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ for instance, a book about slavery that completely changed the way people thought about slavery in America at the time.

Sofia insists on literature’s response to crisis and on the fact that teachers must engage with events and the challenges that those events may bring. “Whatever overwhelming change we might be going through needs to be part of the classroom. We used to think of the classroom as a space that was somehow removed from the world: I think that’s a losing game. For me, in the Swedish learning climate, that’s not possible. My students will get very frustrated if they can’t refer to real events, whatever they’re doing.”

Weathering the crisis together: fostering collaboration in the classroom

What are then the kinds of exercises that can help students face a world in constant change? “A lot of the exercises in the book are about participatory problem solving exercises. They include the ability to learn from others, to understand, to respect their needs, their perspectives, their actions - kind of empathetic leadership on the whole to overcome the fear of uncertainty and overcome the fear of looking stupid, of saying the wrong thing. The reading practices that I show have to do with ‘collaborative competence’. One of the first things we have to teach our students is that crisis is not something you can weather alone, you have to collaborate with others.

Sofia is trying to achieve this by using exercises that develop participatory problem solving skills. “This means that rather than asking your student to write one essay, written for one person, I’m asking my students to write together with others, to do collaborative writing. Students are randomly put together and [with the multi-ethnic and multi-racial student cohorts that are increasingly common] this fosters that kind of collaboration that is at the heart of fighting systemic racism as well.” Another technique is using imaginative exercises that are still very much connected with reality as students can confront and respond to what is happening in the world. The book contains reading practices that are about making an intervention, almost in an activist sense, in real-life events and thereby shaping the future. I have this exercise where we as a class discuss: ‘what do we actually want to preserve from the past? What do we need and what do we want to do differently?’ It gives the students the power to imagine themselves as being able to choose and therefore impact the future.”

When she is asked whether reading practices can help decolonize history, Sofia has no hesitation. She immediately recognizes that the attempt to decolonize history is specifically tied to language choice: “this is how it can change - through the way we refer to something. I speak of systemic racism in my book, but I’ll give you one environmental example: if we look at the various activist movements for environmentalism, we have “Greenpeace”, that was founded in 1971 - just the word “green peace” speaks volumes, it says something about people’s attitude at the time. If you compare it to “Extinction Rebellion”, which was founded in 2018, there’s an enormous difference. In the literature classroom, we are training our students to be able to detect this kind of nuance to language, to … cultural and linguistic coding. We need to be more alert to how we speak about others.”

She also provides another brilliant example, a very powerful exercise she has thought of, that she has used in the classroom with outstanding results. “I give the students a paragraph from literally anything - it could be from any text that any teacher is teaching: I ask them to use those words in the paragraph and repurpose them and turn them either into a love letter or a breakup letter. It’s really fascinating for students, they are not allowed to add other words, but they are allowed to shift them around and turn them into different messages. With this exercise, I’m showing that you can use words for a specific purpose, that you can bring another kind of intentionality to them.

How can historians benefit from this book? How can history teachers use literature in the classroom?

The book is specifically addressing reading practices that might be particularly helpful in a literature classroom, but nonetheless relevant for history teachers as well. Sofia admits: “I want so much for history teachers to be able to benefit from reading the book. I think we have everything to gain from an interdisciplinary approach to education. My book does offer a perspective on history, but it offers a perspective on history in the making, not history in a retrospective way, but as something which still hasn’t settled yet. And it’s possible that that’s how history is taught - but I have a feeling that this can be the specific contribution of literary studies."

I believe that history has always been punctuated by crisis and it is the role of historians to connect the dots leading up to crisis so as to understand how to prevent the crisis from happening again. By practicing your reading skills, you can be more selective about what you take with you into the future.Sofia Ahlberg

Sofia has also tips to share on how to use literature in the classroom. Her first recommendation is mixing genres - for example, putting in dialogue an older novel with new genres or something set in the future for history teachers to be able to bring in the perspective. “It’s not necessary to take a whole novel. For instance, bringing in just a page of sci-fi (speculative fiction). Imagine teaching the witch trials from a historical point of view, and putting that in dialogue with ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, which is another kind of witch hunt. Magic happens.” Her second tip would be taking a historical text, but playing around with narrative voices. “I can imagine, from a historical point of view, it would be incredibly fascinating to try to insert a narrative voice even where we think there is no narrative voice.

Sofia Ahlberg is smiling from the camera of her laptop: “What I hope and what I believe that I have shown in the book is something that’s transferable first of all. These are transferable skills that can be applied in the classroom, in any classroom - I would say.

Written by Giulia Verdini

About the author

Sofia Ahlberg is Vice Dean at the Faculty of Languages for education and collaboration and Associate Professor at Uppsala University’s Department of English:I grew up in African and the Middle East and lived in the Southern Hemisphere which helps me to bring a global perspective to my research interests in energy humanities, pedagogy and ecofiction. I'm convinced that literary studies has an urgent role to play in the design of alternative social frameworks. For this reason, I'm committed to classroom practices that can respond to a rapidly changing world.”

Purchase the book!

From June 14th, you can purchase the book Teaching Literature in Times of Crisis.

Decolonizing Cultural Institutions in the Netherlands

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord Articles , , , ,

Slavery addressed at the Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, well-known for its collection on Dutch 17th Century art, is also the national museum for Dutch History. For the first time in its history, it is now hosting a temporary exhibition on slavery. The exhibition focuses on the personal and real-life stories of enslaved people from different former colonial Dutch regions such as Suriname, the Caribbean, South Africa and Indonesia. The acknowledgment that slavery also existed in the Dutch East Indies is relatively recent; the Dutch colonial context has typically only addressed slavery in Suriname and the Caribbean, making this an important and innovative step.

The Dutch colonial era is spanning approximately 350 years, and slavery has been an integral part of this history. A time when indigenous peoples as well as people were reduced to property, to objects, to items in the accounts. An online Symposium addressing Sources on Slavery and Slave Trade was organised on 23 April and remains available for online viewing. The wide range of the speakers gave global insights into the opportunities and challenges for museum collections and historical archival resources when addressing a topic such as slavery. Traditional collections normally do not contain materials relating to this topic. Consequently, that means finding alternative solutions for creating permanent as well as temporary addressing slavery.

Online exhibition on personal stories

Unfortunately, the physical exhibition in the Rijksmuseum is still closed due to Covid-19, however the museum envisages reopening in early summer. However, the exhibition also offers interesting digital opportunities. Under the title Ten True Stories you can find ten personal stories from people who were involved in slavery in one way or the other. Issues such as different experiences of enslavement, resistance, as well as the role of slave owners are addressed.

Wider efforts at decolonizing the Museum

This exhibition showcases items from Dutch and foreign museums, from archives and from private collections. The curators used typical museum artefacts such as paintings and documents but also oral sources, poems and music. The Rijksmuseum is simultaneously in a process of decolonising its incredibly rich permanent collection. This process is supported by the publication An unfinished guide to Words Choices in the Cultural Sector written in cooperation by several cultural institutes in the Netherlands.

Related to the current exhibition, the museum has started to add extra information labels to objects in its permanent collection, which highlight and explore hidden links to the topic of the temporary exhibition. An English publication on slavery is also available featuring the unique exhibits.

Archives and education

Moreover, the Dutch National Archive in cooperation with Metamorfoze, the Netherlands' national programme for the preservation of paper heritage, has published a digitised collection of almost 2.000.000 documents, originating from important archives on slavery. The original archives are based in the Netherlands, England, Guyana and Suriname.

Education is also in focus. The educational publishing house Thiememeulenhoff and Rijksmuseum have published a magazine with active learning lessons about slavery under the title Slavernij en nu?. The magazine focuses on the age group 10-14 and aims to support teaching about slavery and racism in the classroom. The magazine is freely available for all Dutch and Dutch Caribbean students in this age group.

Let’s hope that the current interest in the topic will not end when the temporary exhibition in the Rijksmuseum closes. Slavery deserves a permanent place in the national Dutch narrative on its colonial history and visible through its public cultural heritage collections.

Written by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, EuroClio Founder and Special Advisor.

 

Image: Anoniem, Tot slaaf gemaakte mannen graven trenzen, ca. 1850 Rijksmuseum, aankoop met steun van het Johan Huizinga Fonds/Rijksmuseum Fonds, 2013

Guest Blog: What is Diversify Our Narrative?

Diversify Our Narrative Articles , ,

What is Diversify Our Narrative?

Diversify Our Narrative (DON) is a non-profit, student-run organization advoacting for anti-racist curriculum within K-12 schools across the United States. DON supports over 850 chapters led by student organizers working on the ground in their school districts to create culturally responsive curriculum and racial justice within their schools, primarily through the inclusion of anti-racist and diverse texts taught in high schools. We also utilize social media as a form of education, creating digestible infographics to explain complex social issues and raise awareness for the curriculum resources we create.

 

Curriculum Development

The National Curriculum and Allyship Council is a component within Diversify Our Narrative that focuses specifically on curriculum development and program development. Composed of a diverse group of students and educators, the council is committed to creating anti-racist and liberatory learning spaces throughout the country through our curriculum.

The largest resource we’ve created thus far is our anti-racist intensive workbook, a thirteen day intensive designed to teach teachers how to be active co-conspirators against the systems of oppression that exist inside and outside their  classrooms. The workbook covers seven chapters, ranging from identity and culturally responsive pedagogy to decentering whiteness in curriculum and celebrating the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community.

With regard to history specifically, we have created several resources that focus on the lived experiences of underrepresented voices in history, while remaining true to American education standards. Former council member Keoni Rodriguez (they/them)[1] has created lesson plans for 11-12th graders focused on the discrepancies between the realities that exist in primary sources and their depiction in secondary sources, such as history books. They sought to dismantle the common assumption that history - and the textbooks students read during their time in school - are always an objective truth of past events, rather, that it is often influenced by biases and generalizations established by genre. By learning about the differences between primary and secondary sources at an earlier age, educators can teach students to understand how microhistory fits within larger contexts of history.

Although this lesson plan only examines two specific sources, it can be adapted to show the prevalence of Eurocentrism among secondary sources and encourage discussions surrounding historiography in order to dismantle the systems of privilege that exist in pedagogy. The lesson plan includes discussion questions, and an accompanying interactive presentation that would simulate primary/secondary source development in a palatable format.

Our most recent history focused lesson plans serve a similar purpose. Human Impacts of World War II, created by council member Carlene Sanchez, recognizes the effects of the war on vulnerable and disadvantaged communities and how the roots of colonialism, racism, and white supremacy played a role in the war.

 

Our Goals as Changemakers

In 2019, the Uniform Crime Reporting program of the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that there were a total of 8,812 reported victims of hate crimes in the U.S. that year. Within this staggering statistic, over half of the victims were targeted solely for their race or perceived ethnicity. With modern, worldwide, institutions being built from the ghosts of the Transatlantic slave trade, displacement of Indigenous Peoples, and interests of white colonizers, it is no surprise that institutional racism remains a pervasive force today. The need for movements like Black Lives Matter to bring recognition to racial inequity reflects a world that has been poisoned by white supremacy and racism in all walks of life. This starts in the classroom, as prejudice is a learned behavior. Texts that are centered around whiteness as the norm or promote white saviorhood perpetuate a dangerous complacency in students who do not see diverse perspectives validated in their educations. As conceptualized in the Pyramid of White Supremacy, eurocentric curriculum plays an integral part of larger systems of oppression by denying the immense harm white supremacy has wrought on communities of color and the important stories of BIPOC resistance against this. Therefore, dismantling these false narratives is vital towards creating liberation for communities of color and other folks harmed by white supremacy. By introducing media about the experiences of BIPOC folks (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), having discussions about race in the classroom, and advocating for more equitable school structures that end the school to prison pipeline, DON aims to disrupt white supremacy and racism in schools. We hope that by experiencing diverse perspectives and questioning the norm, students will be enabled to act as agents of change in their communities and in adulthood.

 

Why our work is necessary

In order to build a world where individuals can coexist and care for each other regardless of race, gender, religion, sexuality, etc., we must first do the work to build understanding. Without holding empathy for those around us, we cannot achieve an equitable global community. Anti-racist education teaches individuals how to be intentional activists, how to unlearn ingrained biases, and how to recognize injustice when it occurs. This is different from simply telling students to not be racist because being an anti-racist is an active effort that recognizes that racism is penetrative and deeply rooted. Anti-racism focuses on identifying and undoing oppressive structures in our society, and it aims to build understanding between people of all backgrounds. Diverse educational resources, anti-racist curricula, and culturally-responsive pedagogy are essential to educating both students and teachers on how to be active anti-racists - tackling institutional injustice in the classroom itself. Through education, Diversify Our Narrative encourages students to be agents of change so that we can become a global community that is not only hyper-aware of discriminatory entities, but also actively works to fight against them.

 

Written by

Anusha Nadkarni (she/her/hers) - Anusha Nadkarni is a sophomore at Bloomington High School in Illinois and a strong advocate for social justice. Through Diversify Our Narrative, Anusha hopes to make communities everywhere more inclusive through equitable, anti-racist education.

 

 

 

Morgan Yen (she/her/hers) - Morgan Yen is a junior at UC San Diego majoring in Political Science: International Relations with a double minor in Business and Chinese Studies. As Co-Chair of Diversify Our Narrative’s National Curriculum and Allyship Council, she hopes to promote the placement of human rights at the core of teaching.

 

 

[1]In this post, we use the self–reported gender pronouns Keoni provided, including the gender–neutral pronouns “they/them.” For more information, see the UW–Madison LGBT Campus Center guide to pronouns (https://students.wisc.edu/lgbt/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2016/07/LGBTCC-Gender-pronoun-guide.pdf).

 

Sources:

  1. Workbook Link: https://www.diversifyournarrative.com/don-educator-resources/winter-intensive
  2. Lesson Plan #1: https://www.diversifyournarrative.com/lesson-plans/between-the-world-and-me
  3. Lesson Plan #2: https://www.diversifyournarrative.com/lesson-plans/human-impact-of-wwii
  4. https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2019/topic-pages/victims

Decolonising the History Curriculum: Considering National Narratives in History Textbooks from a Global Perspective

Written by Tina van der Vlies

Tina van der Vlies is an assistant professor of history at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In 2019, she successfully defended her PhD dissertation ‘Echoing Events. The Perpetuation of National Narratives in English and Dutch History Textbooks, 1920-2010’. Since her research provided a better understanding of the potential mobilizing power of national narratives in societies, it was awarded with several prizes.

 

Decolonising the history curriculum is a topical issue.[1] Decolonising in this context means a call for what Meera Sabaratnam describes as a "better historical awareness of the contexts in which scholarly knowledge has been produced".[2] Especially since the nineteenth century, knowledge about the English and Dutch nation has been built on colonial and racial structures. Sabaratnam asks us to look at our shared assumptions about how the world is.

One way to achieve this aim is to challenge traditional frames in which history is taught and understood. The most well-known frame in which history has been presented in history textbooks is the national one. This is understandable since history is a compulsory subject in many national curricula. National regulations and public discourses about school history are often connected to debates about citizenship and values, in attempts to attribute specific characteristics to the nation and its inhabitants. However, stories from different countries that emphasize national unique characteristics often share interesting similarities. For instance, various politicians stress ‘national features’ in their speeches, while perpetuating nostalgic and heroic images of the nation as well as implicit colonial world views. Hence, this article considers national narratives in history textbooks from a global perspective in order to shed light on some of these resemblances. Transnational narrative structures are easily overlooked when national contexts and their accompanying stories dominate the history curriculum.

National narratives can share the same underlying interpretation pattern. Memory scholar James Wertsch makes a distinction between specific narratives and schematic narrative templates. Specific narratives are uniquely situated in space and time and deal with specific events, persons and periods. These different stories about the past can – although they vary a lot in their details – look like replicas as they share the same underlying narrative structure. Wertsch describes this shared storyline as a schematic narrative template, as a basic building block of collective memory that connects various specific histories.[3] However, Wertsch warns that these schematic narrative templates are not universal archetypes; he explains that certain narrative templates are part of a specific cultural tradition. For example, the “triumph over alien forces” template dominates Russian collective memory and although this template is available to members of other cultural traditions as well, it is not as prevailing as in Russia. For example, it can also be found in the American tradition but will be outweighed by the dominant American “quest for freedom” template.[4]

During my PhD research, I discovered how national narratives in English and Dutch history textbooks overlapped and interfused, and how certain national frames of references were perpetuated over time. Textbook authors narrated different histories as ‘echoing events’ by interpreting them in the same way and by using the same combinations of historical analogies. They gave meaning to history with these recurring connections.[5] Next to the fact that this mechanism was visible in history textbooks from both countries, my research revealed some transnational narrative structures as well.

A first example is interpreting history as a fight between freedom and tyranny. This interpretation is visible in Dutch history textbooks, but also in English and American history textbooks. This interpretation can dominate sixteenth-century war narratives but also stories about the two world wars. Dichotomies often have a great effect on national narratives: the rhetoric is simple, recognizable, and appealing. Sometimes the dichotomy between freedom and tyranny is related to the contrasts between ‘light’ and ‘dark’, or ‘good’ and ‘evil’. However, in both countries the history textbooks hardly questioned the meaning of freedom and tyranny during the colonial period.

Another similarity is the David-Goliath narrative structure, referring to the Biblical story of the shepherd boy David who courageously fought against the giant warrior Goliath who was twice his size. Although the shepherd boy was armed with nothing more than a few stones and a sling, he defeated the heavily armoured and weaponed giant. It is a classical story about how the underdog can champion over a major power. This structure is present in several national narratives as well. For example, Dutch national narratives are often presented in line with the phrase ‘small but brave’. The Netherlands is a small country and its founding narrative is located in the sixteenth century: the low countries revolted against the mighty Philip II and this resulted in the independence of the Dutch Republic. It is interesting that the same narrative structure is present in the southern low countries, nowadays Belgium. In 1999, ‘the three Belgians’ released a modern musical version of the Belgium national anthem and the phrase ‘small but brave’ plays a key role in this song.[6] More recently, in 2014, the Belgian author Mark De Geest published his book Brave Little Belgium.

In England the same narrative structure is visible, although the exact phrase differs from Belgian and Dutch national narratives. English history textbooks emphasize how England had repeatedly ‘stood alone’ against a superpower, for example against Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars or against Hitler during World War II. The latter interpretation was reinforced by the British prime minister Winston Churchill’s wartime speech on 20 August 1940 in which he stressed: ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’. This myth of ‘standing alone’ has dominated in various English history textbook series. Although the myth is debunked and various new textbook series have been published without the myth, it still appeals to people and continues to play an important role in English collective memory. That is why the well-known expression also surfaced several times in the Brexit debate, which is based on nostalgic images of Britain as a colonial empire: "Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves”.

A third similarity between history textbooks from various countries is the “quest”, such as the quest for freedom, tolerance or progress. The idea of a quest is a well-known storyline of several novels and films, such as Lord of the Rings and Saving Private Ryan. A hero needs to overcome several problems during the journey to reach the ultimate goal in the end. It is certainly not my goal to downplay history textbooks – it is extremely hard to compose a textbook that suits a certain age-population and their interests. Next to contents, textbooks need to be pedagogically in line with the audience and – also important – the text and the assignments need to be read and accomplished in a limited time frame. Moreover, politics and society are demanding as well. What I would like to stress in this paragraph is that the story-form of national narratives can intertwine with ideas about history itself. (National) history can be defined as a process towards freedom, tolerance, or progress. This is also visible in academic historiography: in 1931, Herbert Butterfield published his well-known book The Whig Interpretation of History, in which he criticized historians’ retrospective creation of – especially national – progress.

This article discussed the decolonisation of the history curriculum by showing that ‘unique’ national histories in textbooks from former colonial empires often share remarkable similarities: the stories often include implicit colonial references and images, and contain the same underlying storyline or interpretative structure. It is important that pupils understand how national histories are framed by the selection of specific persons, topics, periods, and sources – while ignoring others – and by the underlying interpretative structure. Although this is a difficult skill, it is necessary to obtain insight in national narratives’ frames in order to genuinely decolonise the history curriculum.

 

References:

[1] I would like to thank the founder and special advisor of EuroClio Joke van der Leeuw-Roord for her valuable comments.

[2] https://www.historyextra.com/period/modern/decolonise-history-curriculum-education-how-meghan-markle-black-study/. May 10, 2021.

[3] James Wertsch, Voices of Collective Remembering, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; James Wertsch, ‘Specific Narratives and Schematic Narrative Templates,’ in P. Seixas (ed), Theorizing Historical Consciousness, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004, 49-63.

[4] James Wertsch, ‘The Narrative Organization of Collective Memory,’ Ethos, 36 (2008), 120–135, 124.

[5] Tina van der Vlies, ‘Multidirectional war narratives in history textbooks,’ Paedagogica Historica 52, no. 3 (2016), 300-314; Tina van der Vlies, 'Echoing national narratives in English history textbooks,' in M. Carretero. S. Berger & M. Grever (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 243-258.

[6] De III Belgen, Zwart geel rouge (1999): ‘O dierbaar België, klein maar dapper, van stad tot vlakke land’.

EuroClio features in a brand new Compendium on inclusive education

Joke Van der Leeuw-Roord EUROCLIO , ,

Are you interested in inspiring opportunities for inclusive education? The brand new European Compendium of Inspiring Practices on Inclusive and Citizenship Education contains a wealth of ideas how to approach this issue. The Compendium addresses almost 190 national and international examples in five themes: fostering social, civic and intercultural competences, enhancing critical thinking and media literacy, supporting disadvantaged learners and promoting intercultural dialogue and last but not least European history education. Several practices are crosscutting and therefore you can for example find the work of the Cypriot Home for Cooperation, ran the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research, a EuroClio Member organisation, under the theme fostering social, civic and intercultural competences.

This easy to navigate tool is brought together by the members of the European Training 2020 Working Group on Common Values and Inclusive Education over the period 2016-2020. It aims to support practitioners and policymakers to improve the inclusiveness of education and training systems across the EU. The inspiring practices come from Member States and Candidate countries, as well as from relevant EU agencies, stakeholder associations, social partners and international organisations. The ideas were presented during Working Group meetings in Brussels and Peer Learning Activities hosted by different Working Group members in the participating countries.

European history education is the fifth theme in the Compendium and it contains 11 examples of good work carried out by international and national civil society organisations. You can find work by the EuroClio Community such as In Europe Schools, Historiana and the Training Programme for History Teachers in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The House of European History presents its programme Learn about the EU in 12 steps and the Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe is present with the Joint History project.

All material is presented in small abstracts as well as a full description of the practice, the latter rich with links and references. An international editors group was responsible for collecting and portraying these practical examples, among them Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, EuroClio Founder and special Advisor. She was also asked to compose the thematic fiche responsible Building Bridges through Inclusive and Cross-border History Education by the same ET 2020 working group.

 

An Introduction to Decolonising the History Curriculum

Rebecca Jackson Articles ,

Decolonisation, while not a new concept, has increasingly been given light in public and academic discussion in recent years. Maybe you have seen calls to “decolonise your classroom” or “decolonise the curriculum”, but are not sure what this really means, or how to go about it. In April and May, EuroClio is focusing on decolonisation - most notably with a dedicated webinar series on the topic. This blog post we hope serves as a first introduction to the concept decolonisation in the history classroom and the history curriculum more broadly, with background information and resources for how to put these ideas into practice in classrooms across Europe. 

What is decolonisation?

Decolonisation can refer to the historical events in which many former colonies became independent countries. Decolonisation as we discuss here refers to a wider movement to address and decentre hegemony established by colonisation. 

In history teaching this results in two main aims:

  • Increasing content pertaining to colonised and marginalised peoples. 
  • Challenging how Western and European history is traditionally constructed and taught 

Scholars emphasise that one cannot be done without the other. For example Canadian scholar Sarah Nickel criticises an “add-and-stir” approach, in which indigenous peoples may be acknowledged in Canadian history, but the conventional narrative of the country which privileges a primarily White and British story is not seriously challenged. Methods are as important as content when it comes to decolonising the history classroom. 

Why decolonise the curriculum? 

The aims and methods of decolonising history dovetail with EuroClio’s wider mission for responsible and innovative history, citizenship, and heritage education by promoting critical thinking, multiperspectivity, mutual respect, and the inclusion of controversial issues. Here are some key points for why decolonising the curriculum is important for European history education.  

Breaking down the ‘natural order’ of current (historical) hegemony. 

History has and continues to be a powerful force in European society. Traditional national narratives may ignore or not fully address the history and lived experiences of colonised people. Critically questioning what stories are left out and why helps to dismantle systems that can privilege some groups over others.

Allow for greater critical thinking.

A decolonised history curriculum, beginning from younger ages, can improve discourse at higher levels. Often ‘challenging’ or ‘sensitive’ topics relating to colonial history are left out of the curriculum for younger students. However without a baseline knowledge, such important topics cannot be properly interrogated at secondary or post-secondary levels. 

History skills building

A key component of a decolonised history curriculum is questioning how history is formed and taught in the first place. This offers an excellent setting for students to critically engage with history as a discipline, and gain skills in history methodology and practice.   

How to decolonise history?

It is key to point out that decolonisation does not necessarily mean an outright rejection or erasure of European history and disciplinary methods.

Lawrence Meda describes two main approaches to decolonisation: “The first is a radical approach where Western knowledge is fully rejected. The second is an integrative approach which seeks to accommodate both Indigenous and Western knowledge.” 

Many countries in Europe have national-focused history curriculums. An integrative approach in European history education would see these integrated with new content and methods. This decentres the primary place of a Eurocentric perspective and works towards decolonising the curriculum.

What might this look like in practice? Here are some examples under our two key headings.

Increasing content pertaining to colonised and marginalised peoples. 

  • Examining sensitive subjects such as slavery, colonisation, persecution.
  • Highlighting people of non-European descent in European history.
  • Bringing in primary sources and testimony of non-Europeans

Challenging how history is conventionally taught. 

  • Bringing in multiple perspectives and primary sources on one historical event
  • Question how narrative history has privileged one story or group over others
  • Examining resources not conventionally used in the European historical tradition. For example: oral history, legends, modern art and media.

Contact us!

  • Would you like more information on the upcoming webinar series?
  • Do you have a great lesson or practice that you would like to share with the EuroClio Community?
  • Have you read a beautiful book that can be used to teach about colonial history, or to make our way of teaching the past more representative of minorities?
  • Have you listened to a great podcast?
  • Do you know where we can find sources to make our lessons more representative?

If your answer to any of there questions is yes, we would like to know more! Please, reach out at secretariat@euroclio.eu with the subject line “decolonising history”. We will be in touch as soon as possible. You can also find more information on the webinar series on the event page.

Online Classroom Teaching Resources

Below you can find a selection of online resources and lesson plans that you can integrate into your classroom relating to decolonising the curriculum.

Resources in English

  • Zinned Project 
    • The Zinn Education Project promotes and supports the teaching of people’s history. They offer a wide variety of teaching materials, and have a good search function to filter by time period, theme, or keyword. Registration is free but required to access the teaching materials.
  • Facing History's Educator Resources
    • Facing History’s resources address racism, antisemitism, and prejudice at pivotal moments in history. Their online resource collection includes primary sources, videos, teaching strategies, lesson plans, and full units. Good search function which clearly labels the type of resource it is.
  • Teach Native Histories - Lesson Plans
    • The primary focus of this website is on developing curriculum resources for the United States, but its extensive lesson plan list offers inspiration for new methods as well as content for history education.
  • Teaching Black British History: A Teacher Training Guide
    • Discover how to best teach and embed Black British history into the national school curriculum with this informative course. From pedagogy in the classroom to the history of ethnocratic and eurocentric narratives, this comprehensive, three-week course equips you with all the tools you need in order to best teach and embed Black British history into your school curriculum.
  • The 1619 Project Curriculum 
    • The 1619 Project is a challenge to reframe United States’ history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as the USA’s foundational date. It offers eleven free full lesson plans relating to this topic.
  • Learning Resources — The Black Curriculum 
    • A social enterprise that aims to deliver black British history all across the UK. Offer short lesson plans based on eight topics, supported by a video. Lesson plans are geared towards England’s groups of Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11) and Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14). Also can be booked for virtual and in-person lessons, teacher training, and assemblies.
  • Critical Analysis: Apesh*t Music Video
    • Full lesson plan centred on a critical analysis of the music video “Apesh**t”, The Carters (Beyonce and Jay-Z) and the underrepresentation or misrepresentation of black people in museums. 
  • The Decolonization Group: Practices & Techniques In Decolonizing Teaching, A Short Guide
    • Eight-page PDF that summarizes the discussion at an October 2020 seminar. Offers classroom level examples and perspectives, and lists sources of further reading. Available in English and Dutch.
  • Historiana webinar - Colonies' Contributions to WW1
    • EuroClio webinar conducted in February 2021. Highlights reasons for teaching colonies’ contributions to WW1 and how to teach Historical Perspective-Taking (HPT). It also presents an e-learning activity using Historiana resources. You can read the article about the webinar here
  • Decolonising the curriculum one step at a time: lessons on race in the early British Empire
    • In this blogpost, Jen Thornton, Head of History at Loreto Grammar School, shares her recent work to improve the history curriculum. Jen started by listening to students, she has gone back to the scholarship to gain the knowledge she needs, she has consulted and worked with colleagues, and she is clear that this is work in progress. Her description of this work and her generous sharing of resources will be encouraging and helpful to colleagues planning to make changes too.
  • Richard Kennett's YouTube channel
    • Richard Kennett is a specialist leader of education in History and head of History at Redland Green School in Bristol. In his YouTube channel, he offers various video resources on topics such as slavery and the Holocaust.
  • Native Land
    • Interactive map of indigenous groups. It predominantly focuses on the Americas, but it also lists some groups in Northern Europe.
  • #PastFwd: "Do Students know what race is? Do we? Does it matter?"
    • Alistair Dickins makes a very compelling argument on the importance of people's understanding of the concept of "race" and its actual meaning before engaging with racism, slavery and discrimination in history.
  • Decolonising Europe: Decolonising the curriculum
    • Online lecture of the ACES (Amsterdam Centre for European Studies) on Decolonising Europe in International Politics. The focus of the discussion is on the practical applications of decolonial theories: how to decolonize the curriculum in practice, and how to apply a decolonial approach to our teaching and researching.

Resources in Dutch

Resources in French

Resources in Italian

Resources in other languages

  • House of European History
    • The museum is based at the EU parliament in Brussels, and four lesson plans relate to their permanent exhibitions. The lesson plans are made to connect the teaching of European history to the contemporary world. Available in all 24 EU languages.
  • Samer.se/skola
    • Lesson plans on Sápmi and the Sami people (in Swedish)
  • Reaidu
    • A website for teacher students on the history, language and culture of Sápmi and the Sami people and how to use it in the Norwegian curriculum by the The University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway (in Norwegian)

Additional reading and relevant initiatives

History Extra: What Does 'Decolonise History' Mean? 

Independence, Decolonization, Violence and War in Indonesia, 1945-1950 

The Black Archives 

Facing History Organization 

Indigenizing the Teaching of North American History: A Panel Discussion 

EuroClio: Teaching the Ends of Empires

EuroClio: The 1619 Project: a very European history

 

Teaching history through the lens of football

International Day of Education: Celebrating with football history

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed January 24th as International Day of Education, in celebration of the role of education for peace and development and highlighting how inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong opportunities should be available for all.

EuroClio’s own Football Makes History project keeps inclusive education at the forefront, aiming to help young people explore European history and heritage through the lens of football to tackle social exclusion. We look at issues of racism, gender & sexism, homophobia, migration, poverty & inequality, nationalism, war & peace – all through the lens of the world’s most popular game!

Our project – financed through the Erasmus+ scheme of the European Union –  is now entering its final stages and we are publishing educational resources on a weekly basis. We’d like to seize the opportunity of the International Day of Education to showcase some of the ways our project can benefit you as an educator to teach an inclusive history.

The ready-made and transferable learning activities on European football history are designed to help tackle rising intolerance and engage students in critical thinking. Among others you’ll find lesson plans exploring nationalism and the links to armed conflicts, borders and national identities,  football and identity markers, and economic inequalities – with many more to come!

In addition to these full-fledged lessons plans, we have also added another feature useful to the educator: The Football Lives. These profiles are not your usual hall of fame. While some football lives are heroic and have paved the way for inclusion, democracy and human rights, others have done just the opposite. Take for instance the journey of Alex Villaplane who went from sporting hero, captaining France at the 1930 World Cup, to being executed by firing squad as a war criminal and collaborator with the Nazi occupier in 1994! A traitor to some can of course also be a hero to others. One such figure is Jörg Berger whose footballing career stalled after he refused to sign up as an informer for the East German secret police, Stasi, before later escaping to the West. While celebrating great footballers with interesting backgrounds (hello Zlatan, Maradona, Rapinoe and Özil!), our life stories also point to some of the darker sides of football and football history. Robert Enke committed suicide after years of suffering from depression. Was football partly at fault?

A common feature of all these Football Lives is that they tell a wider story that could feature as part of a history lesson. To help you as an educator, we have included a few “thinking points” to each story.

Have you already used (or plan to use!) some of our lesson plans or life stories in your teaching practice? If so, we’d love to hear from you! (please get in touch with Andreas Holtberget at andreas@euroclio.eu!)

We finally invite you to follow our Football Makes History accounts on social media to get the latest of both news and educational material. Stay tuned also for a number of professional development opportunities that will take place online or on site in the Netherlands, Germany, Romania and the UK this coming Spring. EuroClio’s own webinar series on football history will kick off 28th May!

Historical controversy in disputed regions. The case of South Tyrol

Cecilia Biaggi Articles ,

The beautiful mountains of South Tyrol, an autonomous northern Italian province bordering Austria, are inhabited by three different ethno-linguistic communities: the most numerous German-speaking, the Italians and the Ladins, a tiny minority speaking a Rhaeto-Romance language. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, South Tyrol was transferred to the Kingdom of Italy at the end of World War 1 and since then, like in many other multinational regions in Europe, the relation between the two main communities has been tense, at times even violent. Consequently, one would expect the teaching of history and especially local history, often intertwined with family history, to be challenging and controversial. However, as Giorgio Mezzalira explains, the situation has greatly improved in the last decades, and South Tyrol can now be considered an example for other regions divided by rising nationalisms and ethnic tensions.

Until his retirement last July, Giorgio Mezzalira taught Italian language, literature and history in a German-language secondary school in Bozen / Bolzano, the capital city of South Tyrol. Traditionally, pupils who spoke German as a first language attended German-language schools and vice versa, with the result that young people had few opportunities to meet their peers from the other community. The history curricula reflected the segregation of the education system: German-language schools taught the history of the German people and local history, while Italian-language schools focused on Italian history. The stress on the local dimension in the German history curriculum, which persists today, was due to the community’s attachment to their Heimat (a term that has no exact equivalent in English, and in this case would be a sort of rural provincial homeland). But history was important for everybody in South Tyrol and thus it was often exploited and manipulated for political aims. For example, those in the German community who wished to have South Tyrol reunited with Austria promoted a historical narrative according to which the cultural persecution of the non-Italians, started with Fascism, continued for decades after the end of the regime, thus implying that Germans could expect no fair treatment from the Italian authorities.

In the last decades, things began to change gradually but steadily thanks to the concerted effort of state and local authorities who worked to leave behind old divisions and create an inclusive society. Today, the school system in the province still envisages monolingual instruction delivered in German- and Italian-language schools, while in Ladin schools all the three languages are taught, but both German and Italian pupils are expected to acquire some competence in the respective second language. The public debate on the history of South Tyrol is finally depoliticised and left in the hands of professional historians from both communities who work together to create new narratives of the past free from partisan interpretations. Public investment in projects of dialogue and co-operation between the two communities has increased significantly, especially in the field of education. For example, a recently implemented scheme offers secondary school students the opportunity to attend one year in a school of the other community. The scheme has been very successful so far because, as Mezzalira says, “young people today are not only more curious about the other community, but also less keen to remain within the boundaries of their own”. According to him, segregation in education is slowly decreasing: in the last years, although most of his students spoke German as a first language, some of them were from multilingual families, and even from Italian families.

The political and socio-cultural evolution of South Tyrol have posed, and is still posing, various challenges to educators. For example, students spending one year in the other community’ schools must be adequately guided and supported to ensure their cultural and linguistic inclusion. In terms of curriculum, it is probably history the subject that has undergone the most radical transformation. All three kinds of school have seen a shift in history instruction from the national to the international dimension, with European and World history featuring prominently in textbooks. Local history too has gained more space in the curriculum, creating opportunities to increase students’ involvement and participation by including family memories into prescribed narratives. In fact, although students’ interest in the subject is not very high generally, they are keen to listen to the stories of their parents and grandparents at home, thus coming in contact with personal narratives of controversial events and periods before they learn about them in school. “Then when they are in the classroom, they either defend the version of the past they learnt at home, or they want to verify it”, says Mezzalira. Thus, it is up to teachers not only to present multiple narratives, but also to contextualise them and explain what purpose they may serve. In other words, teachers should encourage a critical approach to history in order to equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills to ask questions and to find answers independently. Although this can be challenging, history educators in South Tyrol are lucky enough to enjoy the support of local authorities and of the three offices (German, Italian and Ladin) in charge of the administration of education.

Since the province of South Tyrol is one of the richest in Italy, local administrators have taken advantage of their devolved powers to fund education generously. In particular, history education is seen as fundamental to the creation of future citizens thanks to its potential to foster dialogue. In order to equip history teachers with the necessary skills and knowledge to encourage debate and critical thinking in the classroom, the Faculty of Education of the local Free University of Bozen-Bolzano pays particular attention to multiperspectivity and to local history. The latter is generally given more space in German and Ladin schools where history instruction focuses on the relationship between centre and periphery, allowing educators to develop their teaching on the idea that the local dimension is functional to the understanding of national history. In support of this approach to teaching, Mezzalira and a few colleagues, in conjunction with the three offices supervising education in South Tyrol, compiled a multiperspective history textbook: Paesaggi e prospettive: lineamenti di storia locale: L'età contemporanea in Alto Adige/Übergänge und Perspektiven - Grundzüge der Landesgeschichte: Südtirol seit 1919. The textbook narrates the main events of the last 100 years of history of South Tyrol from the points of view of the two communities. Although not many didactic activities have been developed so far to help teachers use the textbook, it remains a major achievement and it has been chosen by several schools.

In conclusion, South Tyrol can be considered an example of good practice in dealing with an ethnically and linguistically divided society. As social scientists highlight in their studies of the devolution of power to South Tyrol, local authorities have made the most of their autonomy from the central government by investing substantial resources not only in the economic but also in the social development of the province. This has gradually limited political interference into the public debate about history and given more space to historians from different backgrounds to collaborate and create the above mentioned textbook. However, as Mezzalira warns, this tool is not an antidote to social divisions: “There are not shortcuts. South Tyrol became ready for such a textbook thanks to the many years in which the two communities slowly started to come together. Then the authorities stepped in to identify and use those experiences of dialogue that were already growing. Feeding such projects created the basis on which new opportunities of encounter and collaboration between the communities could be built, eventually spreading the change”.

Quality education for all: Interview with Triantafillia Tatsiopoulou on teaching children with special needs

According to UNICEF, about 50 percent of children with special needs do not participate in education, compared to only 13 percent of their peers without disabilities. At EuroClio, we believe that all children are entitled to quality education, irrespective of their needs or backgrounds. Anna Ivanova, EuroClio trainee and student at The Hague University of Applied Schiences, reached out to Triantafillia Tatsiopoulou, a teacher at the Special High School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Thessaloniki, Greece, to learn about her experience of working in a school for children with special needs. 

Anna: Tell us about yourself and the school you teach in.

Triantafillia: I teach Ancient and Modern Greek, History and Latin at the Special High School for the Deaf of Thessaloniki. Our school is one of the three schools in Greece for students with hearing impairments, and the only one in the north of the country. It is very small: we only have about 30 students, aged between 13 and 20 years old. All of the students have some form of hearing loss, some are profoundly deaf. One or two students have a low form of autism. Apart from that, our students are happy and clever, like all children in all other schools.

Anna: Is your school so small in size because you cannot admit more students or because there are no students that want to join?

Triantafillia: Unfortunately, not that many students want to join our school. There are approximately 200 children with hearing loss in Thessaloniki, ranging from average to profound. Yet, our school only has about 30 pupils.

There are multiple reasons for that. In Greece, when a child has some kind of disability, they are required to undergo a medical examination, where a doctor advises the parents on how to approach the child’s condition. Usually, they are advised to start with speech therapy as soon as possible, which is very basic for everyone with hearing loss. Some doctors recommend them to choose a general school instead of a special one, so the child can stay in a familiar environment. Most parents follow this advice and send their children to a general school, where they are surrounded by other children from the neighbourhood and are not excluded from living a ‘normal’ life. In some general schools, pupils get assistance from school integration departments or special needs support teachers, who help them understand the material better. However, this kind of support is not offered everywhere, so hearing impaired students without it tend to be left behind and struggle with learning. 

Another reason is the stigma surrounding special schools. Some parents find it challenging to accept that their child has a disability, hence they prefer their children to attend a general school. A disability like hearing loss is invisible, so it can be hidden. That is why some parents choose to hide it instead of having to deal with the shame and stigma of a special school. Moreover, many parents are prejudiced against sign language. They forbid their children to use it and meet other deaf pupils who do so, hence they tend to prevent their children from attending a school that supports sign language. 

Furthermore, our school is located in a small village near Thessaloniki, and it is the only one in the north of Greece. For some students, it may be inconvenient to commute far to school, so they choose a general one that is closer to their home. 

Lastly, sometimes, parents of hearing-impaired children simply don’t even know that our school exists. Since doctors generally advise them to attend a general school, there is no way for parents to find out about us, unless they do the research themselves. We try to inform the parents through Deaf Communities, but we find it difficult to reach the parents of such children because we cannot know who they are.

Anna: What is it like to work with these pupils, do you generally have a good relationship with them?

Triantafillia: If you were able to visit us, you would see that our school is not different from the rest. We follow the general curriculum, meaning that the material is the same. Our school has strict rules that all students must follow. This is due to the fact that some of the pupils, despite being very clever, have not developed the language well enough. Because of that, they struggle to express their thoughts or feelings, so in a way, the teacher has to guess what the student actually means. At the same time, some students are less proficient in sign language than others: they lack the full development of a first language, so developing a second language, the Greek language, poses some complications. This, in turn, makes it difficult for them to communicate with others. 

Generally, we have a great relationship with the students, and they enjoy coming to classes and participating in other activities. Our school is very ‘hugging’ - deaf people enjoy physical contact, like hugging and touching. As well as jokes that they have in sign language, it is part of their culture. Our pupils love coming to school. We also have a boarding school which operates with many problems. Normally, we barely have absences. Although it is very different, I really like working with our students. It is a different, more sensitive form of communication, and it brings me joy.

Anna: Are there particular teaching techniques employed at your school?

Triantafillia: Teaching in sign language is part of the school’s tradition, as it is part of the deaf culture. Deaf and hard of hearing pupils have very different backgrounds and are very diverse in their ways of communication and learning. For this reason, our school supports both Greek sign language and Greek oral and written language. We always try to do the best for every child, hence we never force students to use Greek sign language if they are not comfortable with it or don’t know it well enough. If a child wants to learn Greek sign  language, other students help to teach them in everyday life, through informal conversations. 

We always talk to our students when teaching. Some of them are hard of hearing, which means that they are still able to use the language and partly hear. Moreover, all students, including those that are profoundly deaf, automatically read the lips of the teachers. That is why with the current Covid-19 measures in place, teachers use a face shield instead of a mouth mask: students have to see the mouth and the lips. 

As for history teaching, I prefer to take the pupils to the library. Students learn much better when they are able to see the material, so we strive to make the education highly visual. We make great use of smart boards to show visual aid content and videos. When working in class, students are divided into groups, where they can interact and work together on worksheets. The challenge for the teacher is to keep the students’ attention and keep them engaged, either through asking questions or writing something on the board. It is important to motivate them to get them involved in learning about the past.

Anna: What teachers work in your school? What kind of teacher training is required?

Triantafillia: In Greece, all teachers start from a general class in a general school. I had been teaching for about 7 years before I was transferred to work in this school. I liked it a lot, so I decided to stay.

In order to work in a special school, educators are required to have a postgraduate degree in special education. Other than that, knowledge of sign language is obligatory in our school, and most of us know Braille. A lot of people want to work in special education, so all of our teachers have chosen to work here. 

Anna: Do you think that you get more work than teachers in general schools?

Triantafillia: Teachers in general education get more pressure from the Ministry of Education, as they have to stick to the curriculum and follow certain rules. Even though our school follows the general curriculum, we have flexibility due to their special needs. Therefore, our teachers have to be creative, come up with their own lesson plans or develop worksheets. We have to work hard to come up with ideas that will help students understand the material and expand their knowledge. So, I would not say that we have more work, but we definitely have a different kind of work.

Anna: What kind of extracurricular activities does take place in your school?

Triantafillia: Every year, we run multiple programs and projects in our school. One of our best projects is the Sign Choir, which made its first appearance in 2014, introducing a new kind of singing through signs. Collaborating with other choirs or music bands, the Sign Choir is interpreting the lyrics in signs, offering a new perspective and showing that music is a global way of communication. Students really like this project and always enjoy being involved in it.

The year 2013 was dedicated to the 150-year anniversary of Greek poet Konstantinos Kavafis. Two of our students composed poems in sign language, inspired by his poems “An old man” and “Candles”. The students transferred all these ideas in sign language, making the poems visible.

One of the most innovative school activities was the making of a short film, inspired by the silent movies. “The Mess” was the result of collaboration between our school and the local Lyceum of Panorama Thessaloniki, with the help of students of the School of film of the University of Thessaloniki. A reunion of a class gives the chance to one of the classmates to make amends in life, yet an unexpected incident takes place that leads to a big mess.

Lastly, the school has had the chance to work with Signdance Collective, a touring performance company with a culturally diverse team of experienced deaf and disabled artists at the helm. The company directors pioneered the “sign dance theatre”, a fusion of sign theatre, dance, and live original music. In 2009, the Signdance Collective designed a third performance, with the children dancing and singing at the same time, accompanied by live music. Called “Dancing with ….sign”, the theme was a neighborhood, groups of children getting together and the relationships between them. 

The school also has a dance team, The Dream Dancers. Our students have done multiple dance performances, like hip-hop or traditional Greek dances. Last year, they appeared in Reflection of Disability on Art, a festival about people with special needs and their abilities in art.

Students love being involved in these kinds of projects and initiatives. For us, it is important to show that they are in no way different from other children: they are able to do the same things as others. It is important for them to feel that they have the same advantages and even disadvantages as everyone else. We try to achieve that through these programs and activities. Even though there are many obstacles, we try our best.

An Interpretation of Powerful Knowledge for History Education

Maayke De Vries Articles

At the moment, I combine teaching with pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Education at University College London which, according to its slogans, encourages innovative and disruptive thinking. One of the ideas that has created quite some attention is the formulation of Powerful Knowledge (PK) by Professor Michael Young. Since the beginning of this century, Professor Young promotes the idea of a re-focus on knowledge in the curriculum and moving away from a curriculum based on 21st century skills or other competencies. Initially, this sounded like a reactionary attitude to me: while there is some recognition for multiple ways of knowing, there are also the conservative voices calling to bring ‘real’ knowledge back into the curriculum. However, the more I started to read about PK and its essential complementary ideas, the more I realized that theoretical knowledge can also be empowering. Encouraging ways of thinking that are specific for a certain community of inquirers will allow for a deeper understanding of reality. For now, this idea is mostly put into practice by geography educators at UCL, however the principles of PK are also very much applicable to history. In this blog post, I would like to explain the essential characteristics of the idea, along with important criticism focussing on social justice. Lastly, I would like to suggest an implementation in history education. 

A curriculum on the basis of PK perceives subjects as specific disciplines with their own procedures and protocols to understand and examine the world. In an article in 2010, Young and Muller elaborated on three possible futures of education: 1) the continuation of the elite system as it exists today; 2) the end of disciplinary knowledge which is replaced with generic outcomes hereby - unintentionally - educating students solely for employability, while also deprofessionalizing teachers and de-specializing research; 3) emphasizing the role of specific knowledge communities in acquiring and producing knowledge, whereby the aim is to supplement the everyday experience with theoretical knowledge. Young and Muller predicted that future 2 will remain most popular because of the (hidden) neoliberal tendencies of this educational system, while future 3 has, according to Young and Muller, more potential to confront contemporary challenges such as the growing inequality, polarization, and misinformation. 

PK is not about dominating, but rather empowering the learner. According to Young, there are two types of power: the kind that wants to dominate, thus exercising power over something or someone; and the emancipatory kind, namely the power to do something or to think something. What makes PK emancipatory, according to Young, is that it provides students with the ability to critique society as it exists. 

Biesta is another proponent of bringing knowledge back into the curriculum, as a way of indicating to students what might be worthwhile paying attention to. Biesta suggested that emancipatory teaching would let students “figure out what they do with what they may encounter there. The judgement, and the burden of the judgement is, in other words, on them [the students]”. Young claims that all students should have access to emancipatory knowledge as it allows for generalizations, imaging the yet unthinkable, conceptual understanding, and embedment within specialized inquiring communities. In contrast, future 2 education will place the focus on everyday experience without complementing it with theoretical knowledge that allows for a more complex understanding. Hence, Young claims, future 2 will only make the achievement gap wider between students, as the theoretical knowledge can act as an equalizer. Young exemplified the difference between everyday knowledge and PK on the basis of geography: everyday knowledge is your knowledge about how the public transport works or where the stores are located, whereas PK is an understanding of how cities are organized and how they might change. 

The idea of PK is based on a social realist perception of knowledge, which can be dismissive of ways of knowing outside western perceptions of ‘knowledge’. A social realist perception of knowledge means that the acquisition and production of information involves systematic concepts and methods within communities of enquirers who search for truth within their distinctive disciplines. Hence, it can be said that a critical attitude towards PK is necessary to understand that knowledge is never neutral and always highly political. 

Therefore constructive criticism of PK has complemented the theory and encouraged the integration of social justice. In 2018, Wrigely expressed his worry that social structures influence knowledge formation and distribution, inevitably creating silences due to dominance of certain voices. Hence, Wrigely argued for the incorporation of a theory of knowledge called critical realism, which would acknowledge that the curriculum is political and never neutral. Students should therefore have the ability to evaluate any knowledge claims because they understand that social structures and conventions play a role in the formation and distribution of this knowledge. Thus, Wrigely suggested that PK should incorporate a critical element by supplementing the everyday experience with a focus on “underlying forces which are at work, that these forces might not always be active or visible, that everyday experience is not always the best guide to understanding the structures that impact on our lives..” (p.12). Therefore, Wrigely suggested “Productive Pedagogies” to complement conceptual thinking with students’ everyday life experience. So PK in a critical realist interpretation would still mean a focus on key concepts and challenging ideas, but would account for the social structures in society that allow for some knowledge to emerge and be distributed more widely. 

Another useful addition to the idea of PK is the concept of Powerful Pedagogies, which encourages enquiry as a way of learning. Roberts wrote in her response to PK that everyday experience is a necessary element in teaching in order for students to make a connection between the theoretical concepts and their own lives. According to Roberts, the everyday experience of students is not just their location but also the media in which they interact or the circles in which students find themselves.  As a result, Roberts argues that subjects, like geography, have powerful ways of understanding this world: ”through the kinds of questions it asks and the ways in which it investigates them” (p.201). Roberts furthermore stresses the political element of knowledge, hence there should always be a reckoning of its origin and context in which it was created. Roberts emphasizes the importance of how the teaching takes place, thus the method of instruction which truly allows for knowledge to become powerful or not. According to Roberts, PK can in other words only become emancipatory when Powerful Pedagogies are used. Roberts summarises Powerful Pedagogies with three characteristics: 1) Enquiry-based; 2) Dialectical Teaching; 3) Critical. Thus, PK alone will not provide students with a complex understanding of the world it needs to co-exist with powerful ways of teaching. 

The powerful element of knowledge is not only in the hands of the teacher. The students themselves need to feel agency in order to act upon the newly acquired insights. Alderson enlists in her response to PK four necessary conditions for knowledge to become truly powerful: 1) The Known; 2) The Knowers; 3) The Social and Cultural Context; 4) The Application. The Known in the case of PK refers to knowledge that is constantly changing and emerging through research and creativity, aiming to move towards reliable truth. According to Alderson, this knowledge can never be powerful if there is no human agency involved (the knowers), thus for knowledge to be powerful there should be an active and creative dialogue between the knowers and the known. This power of this dialogue depends on social and cultural contexts, as this learning is not happening in a vacuum but influenced by real life challenges, which needs to be considered for PK to truly be emancipatory. Lastly, the application of the known by the knowers in particular social and cultural context will determine whether it can influence society. Thus knowledge might claim to promote social justice but this will only be the case if the application of the knowledge is done in such a way. 

To summarize, PK as originally suggested by Young could have indeed promoted a reactionary response to the increasing liberation of marginalized voices, however when PK is informed by a critical realist perception of knowledge this can be averted. Thus, PK has the potential to act emancipatory when it accounts for the political nature of knowledge and thus reveals structures and conventions in society that allow for dominant voices to be (over)heard while marginalized communities are silenced. Furthermore, knowledge can only become powerful when teaching is emancipatory through a focus on enquiry, dialectical teaching, and a critical understanding of the subject. And lastly, knowledge is only powerful when its application indeed promotes social justice. 

Powerful Knowledge in history education

As of now, most of the debate and application of PK took place in the discipline of geography. The critical application of PK can however also suit a subject such as history. In early 2021 a book will be released (and edited by Arthur Chapman) that applies the idea of PK to the subject of history. In another contribution from 2018, Counsell mentioned the potential of PK for the subject history in a blog post. For this sake, Counsell uses substantive knowledge –  content as facts, e.g. Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Fall of the Berlin Wall – and disciplinary knowledge – evidence, causality –, as both a part of historical knowledge. Counsell suggests that this division is a helpful tool when engaging with PK in history education: it is impossible to teach students all the substantive knowledge, therefore discipline knowledge is required. 

To make this a bit more clear, I will try to give an example of PK in history on the basis of the topic women’s suffrage movement in the Netherlands. In 1919, active women’s suffrage was achieved when a bill was approved by the House of Representatives, after more than fifty years of protest. However, it was only in 1937 that women older than 25 years in the Dutch colonies received passive suffrage, which became active suffrage in 1948 after more than a decade of protest movements.

Example substantive knowledge: cult of domesticity;  cult of domesticity; Aletta Jacobs; Rosa Manus; Vrije Vrouwen Vereeniging (Free Women Association); National Exhibition of Women’s Labor 1898; Demonstration 18 June 1916; active suffrage 1919; passive suffrage 1917;  Damanan di Djarason 1937; Clarita da Costa Gomez; Altagracia de Lannoy-Willems 1949 

Example disciplinary knowledge: using evidence from sources to make a claim; indicate change and continuity.

In this case, the PK might be that students are able to assess to what extent the women suffrage bill of 1919 was a change or continuation for women in public life. For this, students use their substantive knowledge about the historical context of the 19th century and the ways in which women were protesting. Students need disciplinary knowledge to be able to critically analyze sources and ‘read against the grain’ when analyzing primary sources to indicate whether women’s role in the public indeed changed or how certain systems continued, especially for women in the colonies. The emancipatory element of this knowledge could be that students understand the historical relationship between gender inequality now and then, while being able to actively search for marginalized voices in public debates. This knowledge can then be used in a very practical way by having students write a commentary on current representations of women in politics, or set up a campaign to encourage political participation of everyone. 

As we currently live in a pandemic during which universities, again, make most cuts on their social science and humanities departments, it would be good if we as educators can be vocal advocates for the importance of our subjects. The idea of PK shows the importance of having different knowledge disciplines, as each discipline brings with it their own ways of knowing and viewing the world. Hence, the subject history can emancipate students by allowing them to understand the present through knowledge of the past, utilizing the historical method for research, and having a healthy sense of suspicion towards any source. It would be great if history educators can be more vocal and explicit about the power that historical knowledge provides to students, to avert authoritarian tendencies in our multicultural democractic nations in Europe. This blog post is merely intended to start a conversation among history educators about the powerful knowledge in our subject and how we can better advocate for our subject and discipline.

 

Written by Maayke de Vries
History teacher at an international school in The Netherlands & PhD Student UCL Institute of Education
www.mizsdafreeze.com


Sources:

Forthcoming: Arthur Chapman (ed.) Knowing History in Schools. Powerful Knowledge and the Powers of Knowledge UCL Press. Open Access. https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/130698#

Information about Women Suffrage in the Netherlands: 

“Vrouwen Kiesrecht in Nederland”- Atria https://atria.nl/nieuws-publicaties/vrouwen-in-de-politiek/vrouwenkiesrecht-in-nederland/

“Vrouwenkiesrecht op de voormalige Nederlandse Antillen” - Atria https://atria.nl/nieuws-publicaties/vrouwen-in-de-politiek/vrouwenkiesrecht-op-voormalige-nederlandse-antillen/