The Relationship between Historical Thinking and Historical Consciousness (Catherine Duquette)
While completing my Master’s degree in history, I was confronted for the first time with the possibility of teaching a course in this discipline, which triggered an important question: How does one teach history? How does one teach about “doing history” as I had just learned through my Master’s? This line of questioning led me through my doctoral dissertation because it was through searching for answers to these questions that I became interested first in history education and then in the possible relationship between historical thinking and historical consciousness.
My interest was born of the fact that numerous studies have shown that learning history through historical thinking is far from natural for students, a situation which has led researchers on a quest to discover how best to facilitate learning history. A growing interest in historical consciousness as a possible avenue for this has manifested itself in Europe as well as Canada. However, historical consciousness has remained an obscure concept. There are several different conceptions of the nature of historical consciousness as well as its link to historical thinking. Although much of the research on the topic emphasizes the importance of historical consciousness in the process of understanding history, no author clearly defines the relationship between historical consciousness and historical thinking. So it seemed justified for me to further investigate the precise nature of this relationship: in what way does historical consciousness influence the development of historical thinking, and vice versa?
To find an answer to this question, I undertook empirical research with 148 fifth-year secondary students in Québec. In order to elicit their understanding of the relationship in question, I asked the students to follow a research design that included four stages:
1. Through a questionnaire, solve a historical problem in order to have their initial historical consciousness emerge;
2. Through an interview and after working with documents, have a mental debate that puts into question their original interpretation;
3. During the interview, complete an activity that demonstrates their historical thinking;
4. Finally, in order to bring out the elements of their resultant historical consciousness, reinterpret the initial problem based on the previous stage.
The results of this inquiry tend mostly to emphasize the possible existence of two levels of historical consciousness. At the first level, people accept series of accounts that seem coherent to interpret the past, understand the present, and envision the future. At this level, historical consciousness is non-reflective. At the second level, the individual becomes aware of one’s own subjectivity and the influence of the present on the way in which one thinks about and understands the past. Historical consciousness thus becomes reflective.
The results also indicate that there is a close relationship between the development of a reflective historical consciousness and learning historical thinking. An analysis of the participants’ historical consciousness allowed the establishment of a four-tiered developmental gradient: primary, immediate, composite, and narrative. Primary and immediate levels represent a non-reflective historical consciousness while composite and narrative levels are closer to a reflective consciousness. An analysis of the interviews also supports the claim that a majority of participants arrived at a higher level of historical consciousness after going through the research process. To explain this improvement, I made a correlation between characteristics of students’ historical thinking and the four levels of historical consciousness. Generally, the results obtained indicate that the more developed historical thinking is in an individual, the higher the level of historical consciousness.
This research also suggests that learning the different elements of historical thinking, often referred to as second order concepts, follows a direct progression where mastering certain concepts is necessary for the development of others. These results imply that students’ level of historical consciousness in some ways influences their understanding of history. Participants who had a primary or immediate level of historical consciousness tended to view history as a true and unchangeable account of the past, while those at the composite and narrative levels perceived it rather as a critical interpretation of the past.
All things considered, this dissertation will have helped answer some of my questions, but above all, it opens several other avenues of in-depth research that need to be followed!