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History is much more than kings and wars

2016-11-02

The teaching of history at Swedish high schools reveals a strong emphasis on content, despite the fact that policy and regulatory documents stress that proficiency in methods, source verification and temporal orientation is equally important. This is revealed in a newly published thesis by David Rosenlund.

David Rosenlund“There is a risk of history teaching becoming rather insipid if the teacher focuses purely on historical content,” said David Rosenlund. “It would result in the students failing to acquire the necessary methodological ability that would allow them to make full use of history.

Bringing the subject to life

“The students must learn to seek out historical evidence from a range of sources if they are to make reasonable interpretations and if they are to be able to place history in a broader context that covers the past, present and future. It is a question of using and analysing history and bringing it to life.

“A spirited debate is currently taking place throughout the whole of Europe about the benefits of history as a subject and what should be emphasised when teaching history. In Germany, for example, the focus is on historical orientation, whilst in the United Kingdom it is on methodology. My thesis is part of this discussion.”

David Rosenlund’s thesis consists of a series of studies. He examined the key elements that are highlighted in Swedish policy documents and he found that attention was drawn to all three areas – content, methodological ability and temporal orientation – in the curricula from 1994 and 2011. The 2011 curriculum even includes a clarification about content, stating that industrialisation and democratisation in the 19th and 20th centuries should also be included.

Elements of education lacking                                   

He then went on to examine the content of 940 examination questions set by some 20 teachers. He discovered that there was a very strong emphasis on content and very few questions were related to methods, sources and temporal orientation.

David Rosenlund continued: “Teachers highlight a historical subject in a way that deviates from the curricula and this could represent a serious legitimacy problem.”

David Rosenlund also wanted to know if and how a group of students addressed the true complexity of history. They were presented with questions about parliamentary reforms and the introduction of the bicameral system in the 1860s, as well as questions about universal suffrage reforms in the 1920s. Certain questions focused on content, source verification and using history as a starting point for independent reflection on the future.

“The students reasoned best on the introduction of universal suffrage as they knew a great deal about the content,” said David Rosenlund. “Knowledge of historical content is necessary. A student’s ability when it comes to source verification and temporal orientation is consolidated and deepened if the student has good subject knowledge.”

Text: Helena Smitt

Last updated by Adrian Grist