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Developing Historical and Metahistorical Thinking in History Classrooms: Some Reflections on Research and Practice


The history of history education, past and present, often resembles a history of contestation, in which rival and polarized understandings of the meanings of ‘history’ and ‘history education’ vie for dominance (Nakou and Barca, 2010). A common polarity in debates on history curricula is the opposition between ‘knowledge’ and ‘skill’, an opposition that has had considerable currency in recent curriculum reform processes in England which have emphasized ‘core knowledge’ (DfE, 2013).

Drawing on examples of classroom practice (Chapman, 2003; Woodcock, 2005; Buxton, 2010) and on systematic research and theorizing (Shemilt, 1983; Lee and Shemilt, 2009) this paper aims to destabilize such binary talk and to explore the ways in which ‘first order’ knowledge and understanding about the past and ‘second order’ or metahistorical knowledge and understanding of how the discipline of history works are both logically inter-related and inseparable in practical terms. The notion of historical ‘enquiry’ (Counsell, 2011) is explored as a pedagogic tool for the simultaneous development of these inter-related dimensions of historical thinking.


As has often been the case around the world (Carretero, 2011; Nakou and Barca, eds., 2010; Taylor and Guyver, eds., 2011), recent public discussions of history curriculum and pedagogy in England have tended to be structured through overdrawn dichotomies - between ‘content’ and ‘skills’, between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ and between ‘child-centred’ and ‘subject-centred’ pedagogies (Lee, 2011, pp.132-134). This paper aims to demonstrate the emptiness of these oppositions through discussion of a key aspect of historical understanding - historical explanation. It will argue that these oppositions present us with fallacious choices that restrict options to ‘either / or’ where, in reality, more complex choices, including ‘both / and’, are possible and desirable and, very probably, inevitable.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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