Perspective Matters: Social Identity and the Teaching and Learning of National History

Article excerpt

STATE AND NATIONAL social studies standards have laid out what young people need to know about history, government, and other social studies subjects, but they do not provide information on what young people actually know and believe about a subject. The perspectives or frameworks of knowledge and beliefs that young people bring to their social studies lessons are significant not only because they can serve as a scaffold or springboard for learning, but also because they serve as filters through which teaching, subject matter, and learning must pass. Young people's perspectives about the social world, like those of historians and teachers, are shaped by their identities as members of families, communities, regions, and nations, as well as by their affiliations with racial, ethnic, religious, and other groups. These identities and affiliations influence if, how, and how much young people engage with social studies teachers and texts in schools and how much they learn from school subjects.

In this article, we summarize research that has examined the relationships among children's, adolescents' and adults' social identities (their national, racial, ethnic, and gender identities) and their knowledge of, engagement with, and beliefs about texts and tasks related to the study of national history. Our purpose is to bring to teachers' awareness the mukiple forces that shape and differentiate young people's understanding of national history. With this awareness, teachers can recognize and build on their students' perspectives and in this way help more students learn.

National Identity and History

In a comparative study of fifth graders in the United States and Northern Ireland, differences were found in the ways that children and adults in the two countries thought about historical change. (1) American children attributed changes in their nation's past more often to the actions of individual historical actors than to larger political or social forces. Northern Irish children, however, more often associated changes in the nation's development with large-scale social or political phenomena. The researcher attributed the differences in the children's understanding of historical change to the narrative structures of historical texts that children and adults in each country encountered. Northern Irish textbooks, curricular materials, and the culture at large often presented historical change as a result of large-scale movements or processes, such as immigration or industrialization. American textbooks and the culture at large more often credited great men or individual actors with changing national circumstances.

Another researcher studied Estonian adults' knowledge of, and beliefs about, theft nation's past. (2) He was interested in how Estonian adults who had grown up under Soviet control of the country thought about Estonian history once the Soviet Empire ended in the 1990s. He found that the adults who had gone to school while the Soviet Union controlled the country actually had learned two competing historical narratives. One was based on what they had learned in schools: that Estonians in 1940 had asked the Soviet Union to integrate their nation into the Soviet empire to protect it from German aggression. The Soviet Union graciously obliged and took Estonia under its wing. The second narrative was one that had been handed down by family members and other adults who lived during the Soviet takeover. Unlike the school-based accounts, family members' accounts portrayed the Soviet Union as having forced Estonia into the Soviet Empire in 1940. Even though adults had greater knowledge of the Soviet perspective on Estonian history, they believed and were committed to the history handed down from family members and others.

Racial Identity and National History

We also know something about how children's, adolescents', and adults' racial identities influence their interpretations of U. …