Knowing Teaching & Learning History – STEARNS et al (CSS)

STEARNS, Peter N.; SEIXAS, Peter; WINEBURG, Sam. Editors. Knowing Teaching & Learning History. New York: New York University Press, 2000. 482p. Resenha de: BRADLEY, Jon G. Canadian Social Studies, v.37, n.2, 2003.

So much a comma can imply. The front cover of this marvelous compilation boldly proclaims a title written as: Knowing Teaching Learning History. The inside fore pieces, on the other hand, perhaps more conventionally, dictate the title as: Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History. How do these little commas challenge the first impressions of what might be contained within the pages?

Often linguistically defined as separating inseparables, the comma is a powerful stop within the English language. Connoting a definite pause, commas draw attention to the separated and un-separated words/phrases and, consequently, focus attention and make clear inferences. Therefore, is the title actually Knowing Teaching as the cover proclaims or Knowing, Teaching as the fore pieces maintain? To some, this may seem akin to debating how many angels dance on the head of a pin; to others, thankfully, this is a major linguistic issue that grounds the main thrust and orientation of the volume.

Mindful of English academic Francis Macdonald Cornford’s (1874-1943) protestations, one has to be extremely careful when engaging in what he playfully terms the comma hunt. While commenting on the place and power of academic meetings, he sarcastically notes that another sport which wastes unlimited time is comma-hunting. Once start a comma and the whole pack will be off, full cry, especially if they have had a literary training (Cornford, 1922, p. 21).

Published in conjunction with the American Historical Association, this book emanates in large measure from what the authors categorize as the American congressional History Wars of the mid-1990’s (for but one example, consult History on Trial, 1997). As so often happens in matters related to curriculum, politicians – and those ever so plentiful outside experts – debated the kind and degree of history that should be taught in the schools of the United States. Knowing Teaching and Learning History seeks to establish a sort of contemporary pedagogical playing field on which this continuing educational and philosophical struggle may take place.

Canada, like many other countries caught up in the immediacy of the current technological revolution, is not immune from similar gigantic contests. The public reaction to various cross-Canada and widely reported surveys that generally show Canadian youngsters to be quite ignorant of their Country’s history often leads to short bursts of parliamentary indignation and tabloid media sentiments of the need to revitalize low-key Canadian nationalism(s).

More recently, Granatstein’s small polemic, Who Killed Canadian History? (1998), has likewise produced a less strident but equally rough ground-swell in Canadian academic and educational circles regarding the manner and way that history, as a separate and distinct discipline, is taught at various levels of the Canadian educational system. Political debate has followed and various foundations and other organizations espousing various points-of-view have established themselves in the interest of finding the true route to historical comprehension.

Cries have been raised across North America, for example, regarding the kind of history that is taught, the orientation of history and its purported goals, the place of history within the overall curriculum package and even that most dreadful of all terms, standards, for the teaching – and evaluating – of history. Some alarmists have even suggested that the teachers (of course, classroom teachers are usually blamed for all of society’s ills at one time or another) are the main culprits and it is their general lack of training that contributes to poor student showing on various tests and skills dealing with historical knowledge.

For academics and educators who reside north of that geographically invisible but intellectually physical forty-ninth parallel, the book’s subtitle of National and International Perspectives is immediately appealing. Notwithstanding the commonalties amongst children and adolescents as well as the difficulties inherent in the teaching and learning of history in this day and age of immediate gratification and ten second sound bites, the joy of seeing a touch of Canadian content in this essentially American tome is most pleasurable.

Ever mindful of English dramatist Alan Bennett’s (1985) pithy remark that Standards always are out of date. That is what makes them standards (Act II), one can view the almost five hundred pages of Knowing as a most compelling, eclectic, and wide ranging view of the teaching and learning of history in elementary and secondary classrooms. The chapters are arranged into four clumps aptly noted as: (1) Current Issues in History Education; (2) Changes Needed to Advance Good History Teaching; (3) Research on Teaching and Learning in History; and, (4) Models for Teaching. The twenty-two chapters in Knowing touch upon just about every facet connected to the teaching and the knowing of history. Far from being an exercise in American navel gazing, the editors have done a fine job in bringing a variety of other world and professional views to the issues at hand. As well as cogent pieces by Peter Seixas of UBC and Desmond Morton of McGill, there are a number of relevant articles by authors from England as well as Europe.

While this geographic sprinkling does indeed provide for differing views, the editors have not shied away from internal professional debates either. Although unpopular in some academic circles, Diane Ravitch does raise concerns about the training of classroom teachers. Furthermore, the place and role of elementary education in laying the foundation to future scholastic endeavors is clearly evident as there are a number of articles which address the need for historical themes as well as a sense of history to be honoured and strengthened with younger learners. Finally, there is a wonderful collection of articles concluding the volume that deal with research implications and the most effective mediums for the teaching of history.

Knowing Teaching and Learning History is definitely required reading by anyone who is interested in the manner in which history (at whatever level) is taught. True, there are some particular geographic situations and specific examples that may or may not be directly or immediately applicable to the broad Canadian scene but, on the whole, each and every article in Knowing explores a unique dimension on the wide landscape that is history. In my view, there was not a single chapter that did not resonate with a conviction and a desire to see the teaching and the knowing of history rejuvenated.

Unfortunately, many people (and that may well include elementary and secondary teachers) contend that history is somehow settled. Too many classroom practitioners believe that it is an old story that cannot be added to and needs no new interpretations. Notwithstanding the forceful assurances of conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, the teaching and learning of history at all levels of the educational system is complex and layered. Wouldn’t it be nice if

History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened. History is what happened, and history ought to be nothing more than the quest to find out what happened (Limbaugh cited in Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn, 1997, page 6).

Knowing Teaching and Learning History explores the complexity of teaching and knowing and learning history at a myriad of levels. This is not a static voyage; rather, it is one that will take the interested reader on a wonderful journey of discovery and reexamination. In many ways, this is a very positive and uplifting volume. While difficulties and problems are accurately noted and contextualized, the overarching sense that emanates from the book is that history is alive and well in classrooms around the world. Captured within its pages, Knowing provides an educational framework that anchors the discipline and centers its impact upon society.


Bennett, A. (1985). Forty Years On and Other Plays. London: Faber and Faber.

Cornford, F.M. (1922). Microcosmographia Academica. Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes Publishers.

Granatstein, J. L. (1998). Who Killed Canadian History? Toronto: HarperCollins.

Nash, G.B., Crabtree, C. Dunn, R.E. (1997). History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Jon G. Bradley – Faculty of Education. McGill University. Montreal, Quebec.

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