Academics at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) have developed an analytical framework for researching the extent to which students possess historical reasoning skills and the quality of those skills. The framework also makes it possible to test which teaching methods are effective at promoting such skills. Carla van Boxtel and Jannet van Drie, both affiliated with the UvA’s Interfaculty Teacher Training Programmes, presented their research at a conference of the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI), held in Exeter, England. This is Europe’s largest conference for researchers working in the field of education.
Learning about history requires pupils to master concepts and ways of thinking and reasoning that are intrinsic to the field of history. Many historical concepts, such as ‘the Enlightenment’ and ‘decolonisation’, are abstract and far removed from the world of students’ day-to-day experience. They are naturally inclined to view the past from their modern-day frame of reference and to neglect the historical context. Explaining historical events is also complicated by the fact that there are always multiple interconnecting forces at play.
Van Boxtel and Van Drie describe historical reasoning as the description of processes of change and continuity, the explication of historical events and circumstances and the comparison of events and periods in history. They distinguish between six individual components: the use of historical concepts, the use of historical meta-concepts (such as cause, effect, historical proof, and change), historical contextualisation, the formulation of historical questions and the use of sources, and argumentation. Using these components, it is possible to measure the quality of historical reasoning skills in contexts such as group work, tutorials and projects.
Linking didactic and domain-specific perspectives
In seeking to answer the question of how historical reasoning skills can be stimulated, Van Boxtel and Van Drie studied the effects of different tasks, tools and teacher strategies. To begin with, they used open tasks to which there was more than one right answer, such as the evaluative question: ‘To what extent was the sixties a revolutionary decade?’. Secondly, pupils were given tasks in which they were asked to create what is known as a multimodal representation, such as an argumentation diagram with arguments for and against a given statement. Van Boxtel and Van Drie’s research accords with the existing didactic literature on reasoning in the classroom and cooperative learning, but is distinguished by its combination of a general didactic perspective with one that is domain-specific.
About the conference
The 14th edition of the biennial EARLI conference was held from 30 August until 3 September at the University of Exeter, where international experts on Education from 40 different countries came together for the largest conference of its kind in Europe.