How to bring heritage to the classroom: A teaching practice from Belgium

By Joris Van Doorsselaere

Joris Van Doorsselaere has been a history teacher since 2011 and he is doing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Ghent investigating how cultural heritage relates to history education in Flanders, developing a didactical framework and good practices. Last April, he tried the following teaching practice as a first attempt to bring the concept of heritage, and as it surrounds students in their everyday life, more explicitly into his classroom.

As heritage is conceptualised rather implicitly in the curriculum framework, this activity seeks to introduce the concept to students and make them understand the difference between heritage and history. With it, not only history is addressed, but also the value of the past and the emotions that different monuments or figures provoke.

“Heritage is not an important part of the curriculum explicitly, but there are certainly opportunities for it. I think it can make the curriculum more relevant for students. That is the reason why I wanted to find a way to introduce the concept of heritage to children.”

To exemplify this teaching practice, he introduced us to the case of Gravensteen Castle, in Ghent.

Joris used this example in his class in the wake of a controversy over the Council's intention to adapt the castle. The aim was to add a tourist office and an elevator to make the entrance more accessible. Given this proposal, an important social debate was instigated about whether ancient monuments should be adapted to modern needs.

Although the castle is located about 25km from where most of the students live, they indicated in advance they had no strong connection with it. However, debates about heritage in the present can help students understand why other people attribute meaning to certain aspects of the past. Therefore, the students were introduced to comments on social media that citizens of Ghent made regarding the plans to adapt the castle. These remarks were quite fierce, thus making the students aware that, for other people, the building is more than just a meaningless remnant of the past.

 

The method used is as follows: First, the case was introduced to the students and acted as a concluding part of a lesson series about the middle ages, where the students ought to reflect on the relationship between past, present and future. It began by investigating the context of the monument and some historical questions were raised, while the students were provided with clear instructions, and an online database wherein pictures could be found that prove that the monument was previously used for different purposes, and in fact, is not exactly a medieval building as it underwent different adaptations after the middle ages. Then, the students made a timeline - from the construction and the adaptations it has gone through - to the current situation.

Besides the assignment considering this historical dimension, the situation in the present was investigated. The students were provided with recent news articles from which different perspectives on the renovation could be filtered. The Articles were read - with arguments for and against - and the different opposing voices, such as architects, civil movements, the City Council or historians, are placed on a continuum. Subsequently, they made a one minute video (pitch)  explaining their opinion individually. Finally, the students also placed themselves in these debates to see the different opinions that they and their classmates have.

APPLYING THIS TEACHING PRACTICE:

The students in whom this practice has been tried are between 14 and 15 years old, and have practically no prior notion of the concept of heritage, as the pre-test indicated. For this activity, they are divided in groups – in this case, in a class of 10 students, they were divided into 3 groups.

The duration of this practice is 2 or 3 lessons.  If you consider it necessary, you can also do a previous class to explain the concept of heritage. Otherwise, you can start with a short introduction asking students about “what is heritage”, and then move on to the historical context and use a second class for the present and multiperspective part. Since the case still has some limitations to serve as a good practice, Joris plans to repeat this practice in the coming schoolyears in order to finetune the assignment, because in the Flanders’ curriculum, the concept of multiperspectivity is quite fundamental.

These lessons can be done both online and offline. He has tried it online, and the only necessary equipment would be a computer per group – so the students can enter the database to see the information and images. However, it is also possible to do this activity outside the classroom, taking the students to the monument itself.

ADVANTAGES:

This teaching practice is:

  • Easy to transfer to other cases and cities. It can be a castle, a new purpose for a church,  a reconversion of a  factory site, or monuments that can be found in any European city.
  • Easy to transfer to other teachers. This could be done through a shared database with other teachers on a national level or even a wider scope. 
  • Low cost, as it does not require investment, and it can be done without leaving the classroom itself  (avoiding transport costs).
  • It does not require advanced technological equipment.
  • It can be done both online and offline.

LIMITATIONS:

  • It can be a complex activity in classes with many students.
  • It requires having one computer per group so that students can access the database.
  • In some cases, it is difficult for students to know how to use a database or find the information / images they need. 
  • Make the search for information interesting and attractive: The collection of newspaper articles on social debate may seem difficult to understand or unattractive to students. A solution could be to adapt the articles so that the vocabulary is simpler and more appealing.

“Most of the time, heritage is approached as contested but I also want to approach it as something that unites, using local or small-scale  traces of the past that students feel connected with.”

Ultimately, this activity aims for the student to understand what “heritage” means and how it differs from the concept of history, as well as to be aware of the transformations that these remnants have undergone over time.

* The information presented in this blog post is extracted from an interview between Joris Van Doorsselaere, Andreas Holtberget, and Adriana Fuertes Palomares as part of the Critical History project and the collection of best teaching practices on heritage education, and which took place on July 1, 2021 in an online format.

Source image: Gravensteen Castle (Ghent). Image by Marc Ryckaert (MJJR) - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29026605

 

Black-Lives-Matter and the importance of history education: 
a conversation with Professor Maria Grever on how to deal with the past

Looking back at her illustrious career, recently retired Professor Maria Grever can not only be proud of her achievements, but also rest assured that her work is especially relevant today. Emeritus Professor of Historical Culture at Erasmus University Rotterdam, Professor Grever and her team have relentlessly investigated how people deal with the past, including what and why they remember and celebrate. Therefore, she has a lot to say about the current destruction of statues related to the Black-Lives-Matter movement taking place around the world. Interviewed by Erasmus Magazine shortly after the launch of her latest book, Onontkoombaar verleden (Inescapable Past), she warns against the total eradication of monuments and statues that constitute testimonies of past injustice: destroying statues is no medicine against racism! Moreover, without such evidence, modern societies would forget, instead of facing, their mistakes. But, she stresses, we cannot expect monuments alone to tell the whole story. While on-site explanations can help contextualisation, it is crucial to improve history education in schools so that the young generations are equipped to critically approach this material heritage, and to understand the controversies surrounding it.

History education is a topic dear to Professor Grever. Once a high school teacher herself (1980-1984), as an academic she has relentlessly advocated increased co-operation between the two sectors, and also the domain of heritage institutes. In order to further research on this relationship, she founded in 2006 the Center for Historical Culture, and conducted extensive investigation into processes of canonization in the historical discipline and history education. Another research project focused on how history education can benefit from a critical and dynamic approach to heritage related to the Transatlantic slave trade and WWII /Holocaust. Recently, she co-investigated the opportunities and risks of popular representations of modern war heritage as informal ways of history learning. In August, the bilingual Journal for the Study of Education and Development (Infancia & Aprendizaje) will publish a Special Issue edited by Maria Grever and Karel van Nieuwenhuyse on Popular uses of violent pasts in educational settings ( Los usos popularos de pasados violentos en entornos educativos): https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/riya20/current.

Over the years, Maria Grever has been critical of a top-down canon for history education. In her view, such a canon fails to stay up to date with the latest research findings, particularly regarding multiple perspectives on the past. For example, while in the past few decades historiography has grown more and more interested in the history of women and slavery, it has been challenging to incorporate these topics in school curricula. Nevertheless, Professor Grever is quite satisfied with the current situation in the Netherlands, where there is growing interest among academic historians into history instruction and historical culture in general. Young generations of professional historians are now keen to engage with their subject in new ways, confident that their research will have a positive impact on society. But the drafting of the Dutch canon has not only benefited from the contribution of academia: the involvement of local museums and heritage associations has produced a variety of (counter-)canons built on regional particularities, including the history of migrants and colonialism.

While enthusiastic about the co-operation of teachers, historians and museums, Professor Grever rejects the interference of governments and politicians into the contents of history education. These actors tend to promote a single and frozen narrative of past events focusing on the formation of the nation, thus often overlooking world history and excluding the perspectives of minority groups. They fail to grasp the complexity of the subject, overlooking the importance of critical discussion, and expecting students to simply acquire knowledge of facts without engaging in their interpretation. In order to guarantee a high quality of history education practices, it is necessary not only to resist this kind of interference, but also to allow teachers the freedom to deviate from the prescribed canon to organise activities fostering discussion. For example, Professor Grever recalls that once when she was still a teacher, she organised a debate about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It took her a lot of effort and planning as she had to prepare the students in advance, find appropriate material and effectively chair the debate. In the end, it was a very positive experience for her and the students. Hence, she encourages teachers to organise this kind of activities. However, she is well aware of the difficulties that teachers face, such as the constraints of curricula and the inadequacy of textbooks. And it is this awareness that makes Professor Grever a firm supporter of EuroClio.

Otranto 1480 – Deconstructing Myths

In the radical position taken by the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) we don’t get a real notion of the “self”. When I say “I” it means that I allow to a bundle of perceptions and a history of passed perceptions (our memories) to become my identity’s core idea. I.e. I am always my own on-going representation. Apparently the same process happens collectively. What is a community? A community seems to be a collection of memories. It does not depend on territory, language, ethnicity or religion. There are plenty of examples of communities without a precise territory, bi- or multi-lingual, multi-ethnic or multi-religious (though in the last case there is often a dominant religion), but all of them share somehow a pool of memory tales.

Historically speaking this has been surely the case of the community of Otranto, a small Italian town on the Adriatic Sea shore, only few miles from the Albanian cost. During the Roman and the Byzantine period its role and importance were inversely proportional to the Albanian coast distance. The oriental schism put it on the border between western and eastern Christianity. Once the Ottoman conquered Constantinople (1453), Otranto, at the time part of the Kingdom of Naples, became a defensive outpost against Turkish expansion. At least this is what one could believe according to a simplistic vision of history as clash of civilizations. Actually the king, Ferrante of Aragon (Ferdinand I) was much more involved in the Italian politics than in other geopolitical issues. Many of his military efforts were aimed to gain the greatest possible influence in Italy, leaving Otranto region quite undefended. The Ottomans, instead, after the victorious end of the first Ottoman-Venetian war (1463-1479) and conquest of Constantinople (1453) felt free to rebuild the unity of Byzantine Empire under their rule.

This is the background to the Ottoman expedition that took Otranto in 1480 and to Vito Bianchi's book "Otranto 1480 – Il sultano, la strage, la conquista" (Otranto 1480 – The sultan, the massacre, the conquest). Mehmet II the Conqueror (1432-1481), calling himself also Qayser-i Rûm (Roman Emperor), planned to be the new Justinian. He was a multi-layered, multifaceted and very complex figure to whom religion was not as important as it was to future generations who shaped the narrative of what happened in Otranto in 1480. Vito Bianchi describes vividly in this book the scenario of the Ottoman attempt to conquer the former Byzantine territories, Ottoman tactics as well as Otranto's defenders' strategies.

The invaders came prepared with huge amount of soldiers and warfare material, weapons, siege machines and logistics. Led by Gedik Ahmed “Toothless” Pasha (?-1482) they tried to impress the besieged in order to offer them an honourable capitulation instead of a bloody fight. The defenders, after a brief consulting, decide to resist at any cost, waiting for promised reinforcements that never appeared. After couple of weeks Otranto had to surrender, which led to plundering, pillaging and killings. As is usual after a fierce siege, the Ottoman killed in cold blood, with a solemn ceremony, those inhabitants of the city that were unfit for slavery and useless as prisoners to be ransomed. This theatrical enactment was surely aimed to terrorize the population of possible future targets.

More or less eight hundred people were implacably beheaded on a hill just outside the city.  After a long-lasting canonization process, Pope Francis proclaimed them saints on 12th of May 2013. The Catholic Church stated that they were killed because they refused to abjure. However, Vito Bianchi shows that according to evidence, “there wasn’t any conversion request at all, no faith blackmail or Christian martyrdom: at that point events were beyond the no return”.

But there was the memory. Firstly, the beheading accounts, handed out by the witnesses: a tale full of various prodigies concerning the victims' bodies. Secondly, the story of the remains, venerated openly, at least from the moment the Ottoman were forced to withdraw (mainly because of the plague): a narrative taken as a proof of sanctity of the dead people and somehow of the Otranto community as well. And finally the political account of the crusade against the infidels who invaded the Italian peninsula.

“The bulk of the massacred bones rest in Otranto Cathedral, where the local familiarity with the slaughter victims of the Turks and the sincere piety toward the fate of many known and remembered people, will keep alive feelings of deference, mingling martyrdom and simple emotion for the loved ones. Spontaneous, popular and firm, this intensely religious communal bound is engineered by the Roman Church to mean what it did not really mean, i.e. a symbol of the fight between the Cross and the Crescent”.

Why should you not read this book?

I quoted this passage because anyone could see that nowadays such a statement is, or could be highly controversial. It seems that the Otranto popular sentiment is not very keen to dismiss the actual sanctity of their martyrs.

Why should you read this book?

Even the Church had some doubts about this martyrdom. The canonization process was opened in 1539. The massacre victims were proclaimed “servants of God” only in 1771, very likely under the pressure of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, King of Naples. But the full consecration happened only later, after the 500th massacre anniversary. During this half a millennium the town and its community venerated those dead people and, by means of this veneration, nurtured its own identity.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

This book is very fine example of multi-perspective history and source interpretation. In the end the historian can ask about this historical episode: was it a clash of civilizations? Was it a symbol of the eternal fight between “us” and “them”? The answer seems to be negative. After all, it was firstly and mainly a question of secular politics on both sides.

Unfortunately the book is available only Italian, but perhaps this review could encourage translations in some EuroClio languages.

Otranto 1480 – The sultan, the massacre, the conquest

 

Author Vito Bianchi
Original title Otranto 1480 – Il sultano, la strage, la conquista
Original language Italian
Available in Italian
Language read Italian
No. of pages 310
Genre History

 

Educators Across Europe Bridge Histories in Bazaleti

From 28-29 November 2014 DVV International, GAHE, the Georgian Association of History Educators and EuroClio,  jointly organized a regional conference on “Responsible History – Different Ways of Dealing with the Past” in Bazaleti, Georgia. This conference was a part of ‘Sharing History, Cultural Dialogues’ project. The conference was attended by more than 70 education experts and stakeholders from 12 different countries. The conference aimed to encourage the creation of a platform for dialogue and cooperation among educators, policy makers, and stakeholders from different sectors. The programme featured presentations and discussions on various related topics, facilitated opportunities to network and form new partnerships, thematic workshops on teaching methodologies and innovative learning materials, and on-site learning.
One of the main messages of the conference was that the non-formal and formal history educations sectors need to work in collaboration which would stimulate an intensified dialogue. The participants stressed the importance of further developing and strengthening this platform, and maintain long term influence and cooperation on different levels. The conference will lead to the declaration reflecting the thoughts of the participants which will be available on the partner organisation’s websites. This declaration aims at increasing the awareness of different actors related to responsible history on significance of working together with different relevant actors and invite them to join the synergy.