Towards Developing a Historical Consciousness: Part One of a Two-Part Series

Stan Hallman-Chong

For years, as an anti-racist educator, I have been teaching my students alternative views of historical events. I read aloud Jane Yolan's "Encounter," to complement the assigned textbooks about the explorers. My class read The History of Treaties in Southern Ontario (ETFO 2002) to supplement the lack of real Native history presented in depictions of teepees and toboggans. They studied Tamarack's song "Pawpine," to learn about African Canadian pioneers and their contributions to the creation of British North America. I found a website ( www.edunetconnect xom/cat/soccult/pioneer.html) with an incredible lesson plan about Pawpine, one of Ontario's most important black pioneers. Yet I wondered, "What are the students really getting out of these stories? Will they see the world in a more inclusive way? Will they even remember any of these stories, or will my stories become buried beneath the more massive weight of the official stories?"

Then I discovered the study of "historical consciousness." This school of thought threw a refreshing light on ways and purposes of teaching history. Peter Sexias, the leading Canadian proponent of this school, teaches at the Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia. Sexias, who is renowned in faculties of education the world over, sums up historical consciousness this way:

"When we study historical consciousness, we are studying how people look at the past... But historical consciousness is not just interested in historians' views of the past. We are interested in what Carl Becker called Everyman's' history. Even, for example, how the six-year-old looks at her family's past. And there is another dimension: historical consciousness examines not only how all of us look at the past, but also, how we use it in the present, and how it helps us imagine the future" (Sexias, 2002).

So there are identity issues (Who am I? What groups am I part of? What are their origins?); social policy issues (How should we judge each other's past actions, and therefore what debts does my group or nation owe to others and others to mine?); as well as core issues of truth (Which story about the past should I believe, and what is its significance today?). All of these are about uses of the past in the present for the future (Clark, 2001).

Historical consciousness prepares students to become vibrant members of a democratic and pluralistic society. It involves critical thinking skills, assessing information, and making ethical judgments regarding the actions of others. At the same time, students develop tolerance and empathy for differing viewpoints. They learn to engage in dialogue and disagree on a civil level, while supporting opinions with evidence and challenging the evidence of others. Finally, there is self-reflection and, in recognition of the limitations of knowledge, a readiness to suspend final judgment. In other words, rationality is the common ground on which dialogue takes place. History is the medium in which to practice such skills.

To illustrate this approach, Sexias uses Sir John A. Macdonald's 1885 speech about why the Chinese, whom he referred to as the "Chinaman", should not have Canadian citizenship and voting rights (Sexias, 2002). Students are encouraged to understand the historical milieu and the fact that most Chinese had no intention of staying in Canada. The point of this study is not to pass final judgment on Macdonald, but to debate both sides of the question: Was he or was he not a racist? The aim is to avoid dismissing historical agents, as this can lead to cynicism and the possibility that students might reject studying history altogether. So often we hear teenagers asking, "Why should we learn about the stupid actions of stupid people?"

Cultivating tolerance towards Macdonald also encourages students to understand the rationale for actions taken by other governments. This understanding prepares them to assess their leaders rationally and to talk with both the proponents and the opponents of their actions.

However, historical consciousness does not stop at teaching students to debate. The ultimate aim is to establish a connection between past, present and future. Learning about history includes assessing our links to the past by asking questions such as, "Have we become a better society, or are we bound by the blunders of the past?" We must also keep an eye to the future by asking, "What is it that we want to preserve and what is it that we want to change?"

Since the 1980s, research into multicultural education suggests that too many "bad-news stories" of Canada's past, such as the Komagata Maru Incident , (Samuda, 1986) create resentment toward the victims of racism. Presenting certain groups as passive victims creates negative stereotypes. Historical consciousness recognizes that, to understand history, students must understand and empathize with people's actions. Empathy means seeing people as whole beings, not only as victims, but also as agents.

Furthermore, as Clark (2001) says, "Children do not need us to immobilize them with despair... Knowledge, while useful, cannot on its own, produce positive, caring relationships with the animate and inanimate world. While there are many important elements in a global perspective, including knowledge, I see three as key. These are hope, an ethic of caring, and an orientation toward the future."

In other words, while it is important to develop critical thinking , it is also necessary to develop critical feeling.

As educators, it is not ethical for us to tell students what political choices and actions they should take. However, we have a moral obligation to point out certain issues that are vital to a sustainable, democratic and pluralistic society. Teaching children to care about such issues prepares them to become full citizens. And showing children role models in the guise of historical personalities helps them understand that the most oppressed members of society, and their allies (who may themselves be members of the privileged classes) can resist the mistakes of governments. Finally, studying triumphant events shows children that caring leads to action, and that action creates hope.

Using Discussions and Role Playing to Develop Historical Consciousness

Some educators may believe that it is too difficult for young children to gain a historical consciousness; young children may find the task confusing, daunting and practically impossible. Holding and remembering multiple facts is difficult, but entertaining conflicting facts may be overwhelming. Furthermore, expecting children to judge the validity of facts may be ridiculous, given that children have neither the research skills nor the resources to verify the information presented.

The following classroom activities show how young children can develop historical consciousness.

I have found that practicing historical consciousness can best be done by carrying out discussions and by asking children to role-play. To illustrate children's natural capacity to consider multiple and ambiguous historical truths, I taught the following activity with my grade 6 class and noted the results.

Which story is correct?

To test students' readiness to develop and use historical consciousness through familiar experiences.

Discuss this Scenario
A boy in the school yard claims that a girl took his ball and threw it over the fence. The girl claims that the boy threw the ball at her and that when she covered her face to protect herself, the ball bounced off her hands and went over the fence.

Ask Students
How do we find out the truth?

Students Suggested the Following

  • Interview the witnesses;
  • Interview the boy and the girl to see which one is more nervous;
  • Try to investigate the history of their relationship to see who may have instigated conflicts in the past.

The class suggested the following problems with these methods of verification. These may be categorized as the recognition that different historical perspectives may be subjective because of personal bias:

  • The witnesses could be lying because they are either friends of the boy or the girl.

Other Problems of Verification
The following suggestions show the students understand the limits of inferences and interpretations. They understood that the cause of what happened may involve variables, none of which may be the prime cause.

  • The witnesses may not have seen clearly and they may make false assumptions.
  • A record of past culpability may not be valid for the present case because either side could be retaliating.
  • The boy may have assumed that the girl threw the ball intentionally and his perspective of what happened may not be a lie, but may still be untrue.
  • The girl may have assumed that the boy intended to kick the ball at her face and threw the ball over the fence to protect herself.
  • Perhaps both sides lied because both felt guilty about the consequences of an impulsive act.

The students' participation in these discussions demonstrated the criteria for advancing historical consciousness. The class showed that they could, in the words of Sexias (2002):

  • "Comprehend the interpretive choices and constraints involved in using traces from the past to construct historical accounts.
  • Understand the pastness of the past, the distance between the present and the past, and the difficulty in representing the past in the present.
  • Acknowledge complexity and uncertainty; deal with multiplecauses, conflicting belief systems, and historical actors' differing perspectives."

Stan Hallman-Chong is a social, Canadian, world and Native studies instructional leader with the Toronto District School Board. Part II of "Towards Developing a Historical Consciousness" will be published in the Spring 2004 issue of Voice.


Clark, Penney. 2001. The Study of Historical Consciousness. Canadian Social Studies. Vol. 35. No. 4.

Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO). 2002. Learning Circles - Grades 3-6 - Curriculum Links For Teachers. Grade 6 - Unit 4 - "What Are Treaties?" www.etfo.ca. Click on Professional Development. Click on Curriculum Connections.

Levesque, Stephane. 2001. "Historical Consciousness of Citizenship Education." Canadian Social Studies . Vol. 35. No. 4.

Sexias, Peter. 2002. "The Purposes of Teaching Canadian History." Canadian Social Studies . Vol. 36. No. 2.

Samuda, Ronald. 1986. Multicultural Education: Programs and Methods . Intercultural Social Science Publication.

Tamarack Folk Singers. 1996 "Pawpine" from Tamarack's CD On the Grand .