Parallel Histories: An interview with Michael Davies and Theo Cohen on how to handle teaching controversial history in the classroom

Across Europe, history teachers are grappling with the subject of how to handle controversial history in the classroom, and of course, it is the theme of this year’s conference in November 2020. At EuroClio we like to keep an eye on educational innovations, and we are delighted to e-meet with Michael Davies (UK) and Theo Cohen (France) to talk about Parallel Histories, a UK educational charity which aims to change the way we study the history of conflict.

Alice: What’s the purpose of Parallel Histories?

Michael: I set up Parallel Histories as an educational charity in 2017 in order to change the way we study history, and in particular, the history of conflict.

I was frustrated that controversial historical subjects were gradually disappearing from the UK school curriculum when I knew from personal experience that these were exactly the historical subjects which students loved to study. For example, many British schools in 2014-2018 gave close attention to the history of the First World War, but no attention at all to the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the consequences of which have shaped the Middle East and underpin the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine and still cause controversy in Britain today.

Research showed us that the main reason teachers avoided controversial subjects such as Israel and Palestine was that they felt ill-equipped to teach it without exposing themselves to the potential accusations of bias, and in some cases they worried that bringing the study of conflict into the classroom would stir up trouble within the school or in the wider community.

So, with those obstacles in mind, we set out to create a teaching methodology which would:

  1. change the teacher’s role from teaching history to students, to teaching students how to think like historians,
  2. protect the teacher from accusations of bias,
  3. emphasise the critical evaluation of source evidence, and
  4. encourage debate and discussion in the classroom.

The core idea in the methodology is that we retell the standard history of a conflict as two parallel but competing histories. We then place them side by side for students to compare, contrast, analyse, debate, and ultimately form their own historical judgment. We believe that the very best place for controversial subjects to be discussed is in the classroom and that this gives teachers an opportunity to show students how to critically evaluate competing evidence and how to debate with each other robustly, but respectfully. We believe that all of these skills are increasingly important for young citizens in pluralistic democracies.

We understand that history teachers have always shown their students a range of alternative viewpoints and interpretations about particular historical events or people, and we want to build on that tradition by making the learning process more immersive so that students will understand the complete and cohesive historical narratives of both sides.

Alice: Where did the idea come from?

Michael: As a teacher, I was struck by the powerful impact on my students which came from visiting areas of conflict like Belfast, or Israel and the West Bank and talking to opposing sides about their history. It really brought alive the importance of history and its uses – both good and bad.

I guess I have always been interested in identity and conflict - I spent formative years as a child in Northern Ireland as the Troubles began. I have a very clear memory of my father taking me aged nine to see the aftermath of the previous night’s rioting on Bombay Street in Belfast. The sight of a Catholic family carrying their furniture out of their terraced house with its smashed windows and loading their possessions onto a lorry to make the move to a safer area made a profound impression on me.

Alice: What has been the impact so far?

Michael: Parallel Histories is used in over fifty schools in the UK, up from twenty last year, and we think it will be over eighty by the end of this year – we have begun to feel that we are now pushing on an open door. We organised some online training – it filled up in two hours and we have had to run seven further sessions to cope with demand. I believe that this interest must be the same in the rest of Europe given that the central theme of this year’s EuroClio conference is ‘Controversy and Disagreement in the Classroom’. We have also used it in an Israeli and Palestinian university and as teacher training for an international school in Israel, but at this point it’s not possible to use it in Israeli and Palestinian schools.

Alice: How have you responded to Covid19?

Michael: We have been running inter-school debates on zoom involving schools mainly in the UK, but also France, Ireland and Turkey. Teachers have found this a good strategy for keeping their older students involved, especially the ones for whom exams have been cancelled and there is no planned return to school.

We have also had the chance to work on some new controversial topics like the Parallel Histories of the Union between Scotland and England told from Unionist and Nationalist perspectives, and we have started to work with HTANI (History Teachers Association of Northern Ireland), another member of EuroClio, to create a Parallel Histories of Northern Ireland told from Catholic and Protestant perspectives.

Alice: What are we trying to do now?

Michael: We would like to work with EuroClio and find partners in other countries who would like to develop this model and methodology in their own language and designed for their own school systems. Our work with Theo Cohen in Lyon is a very good model for this. We all share the same philosophy and belief in the key elements of the methodology, and Theo has been able to take our English language resources and reformulate them as part of a teaching programme designed to meet the very specific requirements of the French educational authorities and the French school system.

 

 

Theo Cohen French case study

Alice: Why did you choose to get involved with Parallel Histories?

Theo: I thought, here’s a programme which is very relevant to solving a challenge we face in French schools right now – we have to teach about Israel and Palestine (unlike in the UK where it can be avoided because it is too difficult), and I don’t think in general we do it as well as we could – at least I am sure I don’t!

As a high school teacher, I am regularly challenged by my students' views, passion and sensitivities whilst teaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, this conflict is extensively covered by mass media in France while being regularly on the top of most discussed topics on social media. This is partly due to France’s demographic specificity with the largest Muslim community in Europe and the 2nd largest Jewish community in the world outside Israel. Often students come into the classroom with a strong sense of identification with one side or the other and can view any challenge to their received understanding coming from a position of hostility.

Nor are the textbooks any help. It’s the same problem in France as Britain - traditional history textbooks by aiming at a so-called "balanced view" leave out the historically-rooted perceptions underlying the protagonists' actions on each side, and so leave students with an inadequate explanation for the intensity and intractability of the conflict.

So a couple of years ago I was feeling, here is a really important historical topic with profound impact on French society today and yet we are in a position where many teachers feel poorly prepared to teach it, the official textbooks are no help, and we run the danger of making our students feel we are hostile to the historical narrative of their own community and that we are not listening.

So, I started to research and I came across Michael and Parallel Histories – we talked about all of this one evening and immediately hit it off – I found the Parallel Histories approach to teaching very refreshing personally, and absolutely appropriate for teaching a highly controversial subject like Israel and Palestine.  Unlike a top-down pedagogical approach which revolves around an impossible objectified vision, learners are presented with competing historical narratives, leading them to engage with the available historical materials in order to formulate their own opinion. This helps them to develop their ability to critically analyse the arguments, assess the evidence made up of the documents provided to them and synthesize different stories. Parallel Histories is not about teaching students what to think, but how to think. We give them the tools to deconstruct their own and other historical narratives to better understand how the historical interpretations which underpin conflict are constructed

Alice: Do you provide ready-to-use in materials in French?

Theo: Yes. I felt it was important to make ready-to-use materials dedicated to French-speaking students and teachers. They all have been designed to be in line with the new French curriculum of History and Geography and the new subject “Histoire-Géographie, Géopolitique, Sciences Politiques”.

As of now, three chapters in French are available on a dedicated page: https://www.parallelhistories.org.uk/le-conflit-israelo-palestinien

  • an introduction delivering a complete overview of both narratives. This helps learners get an overall understanding of the chronological arc and begin to see points of comparison and contrast between the two narratives.
  • Lesson 1 deals with the pivotal year of 1948 and asks the question of who can be held responsible for the Palestinian exodus. Of course, Israeli and Palestinian narratives disagree on this.
  • Lesson 2 is designed around another simple but controversial question: who can be held responsible for the failure of the peace process since 1993, Israelis or Palestinians?

The use of our videos is really flexible but we know from our practical experience that these videos can be used in a 4 to 6 hour timeframe of work. There are more details and ideas for lessons on the French page of our website, and we are available to answer any questions or provide further materials, if needed.

Alice: What is your teaching experience so far with Parallel Histories in France?

Theo: I’m very happy so far. Of course, the first place any teacher tries out new material is his own school and my students have been very supportive. They enjoy this approach and push me to get on with creating more programmes. We have also been taking part in an online debating programme with schools in the UK, Ireland and even Turkey, and I have been very proud of the way my students have risen to the challenge of not only debating these difficult topics but doing it in English, too. We were fortunate to get some Erasmus + funding for a project with British and Irish schools, and we are planning (Covid permitting) for an international conference next year.

We put our materials online earlier this year on a dedicated French resources page and this has generated many new enquiries. Teachers from Brittany, the Lille urban area and French schools abroad (Lycée Français de Rome, de Bruxelles, d’Irlande…) expressed strong interest in using Parallel Histories in class. We also have some official recognition – we are proud to be part of the official teacher’s trainings catalogue in the Académie of Lyon, which is the country’s 2nd largest urban area. Our materials are also used by numerous schools in Brussels, as Parallel Histories tools and approach are now fully integrated into Belgian NGO’s training programmes dedicated to school learners and teachers.

Alice: What are we trying to do now?

Theo: The core idea of Parallel Histories is the same in every country – to change the way controversial topics are taught and learned in classrooms. To achieve this in France we set up three goals:

  • Delivering virtual or in-person training to French-speaking teachers and educators interested in using Parallel Histories;
  • Welcoming teachers and educators willing to adapt our materials to their local educational requirements and context as we know that what may be true or expected in France, or in the UK, is surely different elsewhere;
  • Broadening our studies spectrum to other controversial topics. Here, too, collaboration is key – if you have an idea for other historical conflicts which are still causing controversy today, we’d be happy to hear from you. This could take the form of new ERASMUS + projects in the near future.

 

Parallel Histories focusses on creating groundbreaking learning resources to aid students in examining controversial historical topics. Their inaugural syllabus covers the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Micheal Davis is the founder and editor of Parallel Histories. Theo Cohen operates as the French editor at Parallel Histories. 

“A society where I should be quiet is not a society for me.” Interview with Hrvoje Klasić

Jonathan Even-Zohar Articles , , ,

This summer, historian and EuroClio Ambassador Hrvoje Klasic received various death threats in response to his public speaking on television and in newspapers, in which he sought to provide nuance and ask critical questions on Croatian history. Jonathan Even-Zohar reached out to find out more.

In the interview, Prof. Klasic talks about his involvement with EuroClio and the circumstances surrounding the recent death threats, as well as the situation of history educators in Balkan countries more generally.

Since 2003, Hrvoje Klasic works as a university professor at Zagreb University department of History where his main focus area is Cold War history of Yugoslavia between east and west. He is dealing with sensitive pasts, more specifically, World War II, the Communist period, the Croatian War of Independence (Homeland war), and the situation in the 1990s.

Jonathan Even-Zohar: What is your relation with EuroClio?

Hrvoje Klasic: In 2003, right after I started my new job at university, my colleague asked me if I wanted to go to Sarajevo where EuroClio was starting a project on designing a common textbook[1]. At that time, I had no idea what EuroClio was or what are they were doing but I agreed. Back in February 2003, we met for the first time in Sarajevo and from that moment I've been connected with the network, with EuroClio programs, and some of those colleagues have become very good friends.

For the last 15 years, I have been involved in a couple of projects as a resource person developing a common textbook about Yugoslav history of the 20th century. The other position at EuroClio is connected with my job as a university professor when I was able to help the teachers in elementary and high schools with my knowledge and skills (see list of projects). I am very proud about this connection with my career and I am very grateful for are opportunities that EuroClio gave me. I was able to travel so much from Latvia to Lampedusa, from the Black Sea coast to Cardiff. I would have never expected that I would have been able to go to so many places and meet so many colleagues if it wasn't for EuroClio.

JEZ: Over the last couple of years you have done more of public speaking and have been more present on the international level in dialogue and reconciliation projects. What happened recently and how do you see that in a context of the death threats you have received? Has the situation changed for the worse?

HK: In terms of EuroClio engagement, I thought that we were moving forward. I was in touch with colleagues from the same field who have a similar approach to history, from Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Kosovo. In the past, EuroClio was seen as a center for many history teachers and historians. We could improve our work and widen our connections with other teaches - all thanks to EuroClio. The last few years, however, this process has become more problematic and sometimes - when I listen to radio, watch TV, look at the media, internet, or social networks - I feel like we are back in the 1990s again. You can see that the nationalistic “patriotic” approach is dominant; we are again confined to our borders, our walls. The dialogue has disappeared. EuroClio educated many intellectuals and educators who are now coerced in their society. Even people like me – prominent educators in Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, or Slovenia who are willing to deal with the past – are forced to fit into the dominant narrative. The political and economic situation is not going well, especially in the countries which are outside of the EU. Nationalism and populism are dominant approaches in these countries.

JEZ: What happened recently? What is the background of the last death threat? You have been in the public sphere for the last couple of years, so why now?

HK: Actually, nothing changed that much. I have received vulgar letters and people are approaching me on the street calling me a traitor, a fool, not a good Croatian, but this is the first time that I decided to speak openly about this and use my platform. The reason for my decision was triggered by a few incidents last summer, when Croatian nationalists beat up Serbian people in Croatia. At the same time, our Liberal Prime Minister was saying that the atmosphere was good and that there were just some small incidents.

I decided to illustrate that the atmosphere is good for those who don't ask difficult questions or give the wrong answers. People can be bystanders as long as they don't challenge the world they're living in. I wanted to show that even I – a 100-percent Croatian, a volunteer in the Croatian army since age of 18 - can receive death threats as a professor of History for talking about my own research. This shows that something is wrong. If I as a Christian and a veteran am receiving death threats, then how bad is it for minorities? This is the reason why I decided to share the experience of my life from the last few years with the public. Many people responded with surprise and shock when they found out that a university professor can receive so many death threats and can be attacked on the street. I want to make it more clear that this is not just incidental and that we have to do something.

JEZ: Are you able to continue with what you're doing?

HK: I decided not to be only a professor. I wanted to move into the public sphere as an intellectual. That is why I am on the TV and doing interviews, and writing columns on popular web portals. A few months ago, I wrote that it would be much easier for me to live with other people if I stop, but then I wouldn't be able to live with myself. Living in a society where I should be quiet is not a society for me. There are so many people who are supporting me and are approaching me in the street. I know that the radicals and extremists are a small, loud minority. I want to deal with the majority who is silent, to make them more sensitive – and not necessarily active as it's not for everybody to be active and brave, but at least for everyone to recognise that this is not normal. They don't have to write columns or go to the streets, but they can vote for “normal” politicians and parties and not rightists, not populist, and not extremists.

JEZ: You are still lecturing at university, so how does this topic of history being used for nationalistic and/or extremist purposes get discussed with your students? I can imagine there are still those who want to go to study history in order to celebrate their nationalism?

HK: You are right. The majority of the schoolchildren are learning through history to be patriotic and to be good Croatians. Certainly not all, but I think it's a majority. The faculty where I work can be seen as somewhat left-leaning with a majority of liberal professors. The students who choose to study at my faculty are therefore often close to my approach.

Sometimes students like to engage with me and I can see how they often get their information from fake news and false interpretations. On the other hand, when you start to talk with them and you present your case supported with arguments, then you can see that they only have opinions rather than arguments; they are always answering with, “I think…”. This is a challenge for me, because I don't want them to think like I do, I just want them to think. When everybody is wrong and we are good this is a very problematic position and with nationalists this is always the case.

JEZ: Many organizations tried to work with teachers to change the situation, so what do you think is the more difficult job: to be a historian or to be a teacher?

 HK: History teachers! Unlike professors, they have to follow the curriculum made by the government which means that they must present a certain narrative. Right now, we are looking into reforms of the school system but we do not have any political space to tackle complex questions. Why teach history? How to teach history? What should be the impact of history? Is it about making a loyal patriot and a good Croatian? For me, the aim of history teaching is to help young people to become critical thinkers and open-minded learners who could think and read and find themselves in such a complex world, but in the wider Balkan region nationalism and patriotism still dominates the curriculum.

For example, I recently met a teacher who works in a small community school. She was using new perspectives on the Wars of the 90s until one day a father of a student came with his uniform. He was a veteran of the war and he threatened the teacher to be careful with what she was saying.. It's easier for me to be brave than it is for teachers in local communities, because there is a direct connection with the families who may have lost people in those Wars.

JEZ: EuroClio has in the last 15-20 years worked with teachers to build connections, trust, and a larger network. On the other hand, there are groups, as you said, which are maybe more stuck in a “border mentality”. What would you recommend EuroClio and other international organizations to do?

HK: I do think the network building was very important, but unfortunately nothing in this region will go on if there is no top down approach as well. It would be great if some more powerful individuals and organizations are challenged and that not only schools but also universities apply more public pressure on the issue. Personally, I have started to speak more out but I was not trained on how to do this and certainly there are better and more professional ways to do it. What would I recommend? Well, to help teachers as well as academics become more visible in society, not only inside their field, encourage them to make new textbooks and materials, but also how to make public blogs, columns in portals, special posts and videos on social media, how to propose TV documentaries and raise funds or even, for example, to create a regional podcast. There is a gap! I listen to podcasts when I drive and when I run. The problem is that there is no podcast in our language! We must use these new possibilities to engage the public. We should use more historians and teachers in this region who can benefit immensely from this exposure, which is also something I would volunteer for!

 

List of projects

History in Action - Planning for the Future  https://www.euroclio.eu/project/history-action-planning-future/

Enhancing History Education and Civic Society https://www.euroclio.eu/project/enhancing-history-education-civic-society/

Football. A People’s History of Europe https://www.euroclio.eu/project/football-a-peoples-history-of-europe/

History that Connects https://www.euroclio.eu/project/history-that-connects/

Once Upon a Time…We Lived Together (Advisor and Trainer) https://www.euroclio.eu/resource/29666/

[1] Ordinary People in Extraordinary Country; Cooperation between historians from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia was established through joint project “Improvement of teaching history and civil society in the region” in 2004 and continued through 2007 in the project “History at work - preparation for the future of BiH, Croatia and Serbia”. The idea for the joint project originated from European Association of History Teachers - EuroClio, which initiated establishment of history teachers associations in Croatia and BiH and connected them to the Association in Serbia. The goal of the project is to support the development of teaching history and civil society in the said countries, as well as to promote the cooperation, development of critical thinking and mutual understanding, promotion of peace, stability and democracy in the region.

“Our Attitude towards the Past is Largely Subject to Modern Reality” – GAHE President on History Education

EuroClio Association , ,

Nana Tsikhistavi, President of EuroClio member association the Georgian Association of History Teachers, has explored prominent themes and questions that arise when teaching history in an interview published in the Kutaisi Post, the newspaper of Georgia’s “second city”.

The goal of history teaching

In the interview, Tsikhistavi explains the importance of teaching history in order to develop “critical thinking” that aids in the analysis of historical knowledge, and in turn allows students to “find the best ideas [for] the future”. She argues that, while it is important for students understand historical facts, they should also be able to:

Analyse different opinions, versions, and errors of past events and make their own independent conclusions. Also, the student should be convinced that his conclusions and opinions may be revised

She highlights that, from her own observations as well as those of her colleagues, schoolchildren seem more motivated when their lessons relate to “historical research methods, discussions, work on projects and independent exercises”, than when they are merely taught facts. For example, she explains how students can easily find out the dates of the Russian-Turkish War, but it is more difficult to find out the causes and to understand its consequences. In this regard, Tsikhistavi advocates for the adoption within Georgia of a student-oriented approach to teaching history, as well as the merging of teaching Georgian and world history, in order to help students develop their ability to synthesise and analyse seemingly disparate events. She argues that:

It is necessary to support the new standard of history initiated by the National Curriculum Division of the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia…where these classes will be studied in the form of the history of Georgia and its history of world history. This is done in order to help the pupil change the history of Georgia in the context of the development of world history.

Mythology, History, and Identity

When asked about the prevalence and function of myths in history education, Tsikhistavi appreciated the functionality of studying myths, but was sure to warn against the totality of their use in the history education:

Of course, the myths have meaning, because it is created by a human being and connected to the fact…of the matter and in this way [also to] the memory or the manuscript. It can be explained and even used in the manual, but it should not be a leading topic…total mythology is inadmissible

She also highlighted the subjectivity of history, pointing out that “the attitude of the historian to the past is determined by the society in which he is a member. The perception of the past is always due to the present, which means that it is constantly changing”, and that history is often used in this way to “make sense of our existence” and the present, while different generations of historians will have different concerns, and as a result ask “different questions about the past”. It is in this way, Tsikhistavi says, that history as a science continues to change and develop.

Similarly, on questions of the relationship between history and identity, Tsikhistavi emphasised how:

Our identity is established by our history and is closely related to [it]. That is why our attitude towards the past – choosing its preferred version, and determining what we want to remember and what we forget – is largely subject to modern reality. We refer to history because it can be of importance in the present. We use it in a variety of ways: to mobilize ourselves for achievement of a certain purpose, or for legitimizing our requirements.

It is in this sense, Tsikhistavi suggests, that “the study of the past may be a kind of therapy - when we learn something about the past of our society, which is hidden or ignored.” For example, she explains how “for those who do not possess power, history can be a form of protest…For all of us - both weak and strong - history is a means of securing [our] own importance.”

The Georgian educator is also quick to highlight the fact that what is forgotten is often as important as what is remembered, pointing to the fact that there is a choice involved when people reference “real history” – it is that history that they want to talk about. In reality, “school textbooks, films, books, memorials, exhibitions and museums are more telling about modernity and its interests than history”.

Learning Less-Prominent Histories

It is often the case that certain elements of history receive more attention than others. In this regard, Tsikhistavi argues that “it is noteworthy to reveal the "hidden" history, something that does not [appear] at first glance when studying the history of society”. In order to achieve quality history education on a variety of issues, she aregues that “the main method of research should be [a] multi-perspective, critical understanding of history and [its] interpretations”. In enacting this, she is enthusiastic about the potential for learning history in an informal setting such as through sporting events and other competitions that allow for a creative approach to teaching and learning.

The Truth about Finland

EuroClio Association , ,

Over the last two years, at various conferences and meetings, people have been pointing at Finland as the country which will "abolish" all school subjects. Posts about this have in fact gone viral a number of times. This lead us to talk with our Board Member from Finland, Riita Mikkola, to find out more. Will history disappear?

1. There are many articles online that explain that Finland has abolished school subjects. You are a history teacher. Will you stop teaching history?
"No, I won’t. History is and will be taught as a separate subject in primary and secondary schools in Finland."
2. How has the teaching of history changed recently in Finland?
"We have a new curricula in primary and secondary schools. The emphasis is more on skills of history than it used to be, but this process has been going on already earlier. We also try to involve pupils more in their own learning and concentrate on the skills of learning. Integrating school subjects is one of our aims, too."
3. What is your view on the idea of integrating school subjects more?
"It’s a good idea on a certain scale, but subjects need their own time, too, since their approach to the world is different. We do multidisciplinary projects in Finland and at their best they can really work well."
4. Why do you think many people in other countries find it so interesting that subjects might be abolished?
"Abolishing all school subjects and teaching everything integrated is something really new and revolutionary. I would be interested in it, too, if I heard it’s really happening somewhere."

To find out more about education reform in Finland in the last few years, see this article from 2015 explaining the changes, and a BBC News video from earlier this year which speaks to teachers and students in Finland.