His story. While we often look at history as the exploration of the past, we need to acknowledge that the stories of our past are also the stories of our students’ experiences, values and beliefs that they may be living even today through their interactions with their family, culture and community. As important as it is to consider the need to impart knowledge and experiences of the past we must also be aware of how the students will react and interact with this knowledge.
In teaching the facts and concepts that lie behind the holocaust, the wars, colonial times or the place of indigenous communities, it is easy enough for syllabus designers and even teachers to recognise the key message they want to impart. It is infinitely more difficult to dictate the message students absorb.
Long before many of our students enter the classroom to experience the lessons of history, they may have been exposed to strong viewpoints within their cultural and home environment. Whether it is through the stories of grandparents, beliefs of parents or cultural experiences, these often instil deeply ingrained beliefs and attitudes that cannot be shifted by one-size-fits-all history lessons in the classroom. Success in teaching the controversies of history depend on looking beyond textbook answers, exploring students own knowledge and perceptions, and training students to be open and tolerant of divergent views. Yes, there is what we all consider to be the correct viewpoint: the holocaust is wrong, indigenous people have a right to respect. But simply imparting this message will not convert the non-believers.
Recognising differing values and attitudes is important and students’ prior knowledge must be explored before moving into the thick of the history lesson. When the initial lessons incorporate such explorations, teachers must be prepared for the opinions that students will divulge. When signs of prejudice and anger arise, teachers must be prepared to not condemn but explore the reasons for such feelings so that students can rationalise the way they feel. It is most important at this stage that students’ own feelings are legitimised because this leaves them more open to new ways of looking at issues. A climate of acceptance and tolerance must be established within the classroom environment if students are to feel confident of leaving their comfort zones.
We teach history not to impart facts, but to develop the empathy and awareness in students of their role in the world they are inheriting and must preserve. It is teachers, not textbooks that develop empathy. Teachers must ensure that students have opportunities to explore the reality of history. The use of media is invaluable in exposing students to the realistic visual representations of events and the intimate sharing of personal experiences. Opportunities must be taken to develop empathy as students look at issues from more than one viewpoint, and learn to critically explore the world represented around them.
We often forget that history is not so much about our past as it is about our future. If our children are to develop the values and sensitivity that history can lend itself to, we can be assured that they will make informed decisions about how they interact within society in years to come.