Is history teaching stuck in the past?

New survey shows Canadian students believe history class is important but suggests teaching the past could use an update.


Most Canadian grade schoolers say it's important to learn about the past, but fewer like learning history in school, according to a U of A study that suggests the ways history is taught in classrooms could use updating. (Photo: Getty Images)

While teaching in history classrooms has begun to step out of the past, a survey focused on young people’s experiences learning history in schools suggests the ways history is taught could use an update.

A team of researchers led by University of Alberta education professor Carla Peck conducted the National Youth Survey — the first of its kind in more than 55 years — which saw more than 2,000 youth aged 10-18 respond to the online survey designed by members of the Thinking Historically for Canada’s Future research partnership and conducted by Leger Marketing.

The research team reported 75 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “It is important to learn about the past.” Students in secondary school rated the importance of learning about the past slightly higher than their younger peers did.

However, only 55 per cent of young people agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I like learning history in school.” Students in secondary school showed a slightly higher preference for learning history compared with elementary and junior high school students.

Of those who disagreed with the statement, “I like learning history in school” — 17 per cent of respondents — the most frequent explanation was that the subject is “boring.”

Of the learning activities students reported doing in class, the most common included listening to the teacher describe and explain past events (78 per cent), reading and answering questions from the textbook (58 per cent), discussing topics with the whole class (55 per cent), writing notes from the board or from slides (53 per cent), studying and practising for tests and exams (46 per cent), talking about how the past connects to current events (46 per cent) and discussing topics with their classmates in small groups (45 per cent).

“Looking at these results, it is not surprising that many students were not enthusiastic about learning history in school, despite the fact that they view learning about the past as important,” says Peck. “Most of these activities would fall into what are commonly referred to as traditional teaching practices, which are likely familiar to many adults who attended school long ago.”

Providing students with a variety of learning activities, particularly those that are grounded in the discipline of history, could help in increasing student engagement while providing more opportunities for students to engage more meaningfully in the study of the past.

Carla Peck

Carla Peck
(Photo: Laura Sou)

Students who indicated they enjoy learning history in school reported that they engage in active learning activities that promote “historical thinking” more often than their peers who said they don’t enjoy learning history.

Such activities include taking historical perspectives to try to better understand what life was like for people who lived long ago, explaining causes and consequences of historical events, and using different kinds of historical evidence to learn what happened in the past.

Although a small percentage of students reported being involved in this sort of learning regularly, Peck said the fact that most students report engaging in this type of learning at least some of the time during their history lessons is “a reflection of research-informed changes to provincial and territorial history, social studies curricula and teacher professional learning that focuses not only on the ‘what’ of history, but also on teaching students how to ‘do’ history.”

She adds, “Students who engage in a variety of activities, such as participating in class discussions, conducting research and developing their ability to ‘think historically’ tend to have a greater appreciation for learning about history.

“Providing students with a variety of learning activities, particularly those that are grounded in the discipline of history, could help in increasing student engagement while providing more opportunities for students to engage more meaningfully in the study of the past.”

The survey also showed that nearly three-quarters of students have acquired some knowledge of Indigenous histories in school. Students aged 15-18 tend to have more extensive knowledge, particularly regarding colonialism in Canada and its ongoing impact, treaties and Indigenous protest movements.

“Since the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, provincial and territorial jurisdictions have made strides to include more Indigenous perspectives, histories and knowledges in school curricula and teacher professional learning,” notes Peck.

“We see these results as indicative that such efforts are bearing fruit, although there is always more work that can be done on these important initiatives.”

She notes a central rationale for teaching history is its connection to citizenship, or the belief that knowing more about our past will result in more informed, active citizens who are capable of thinking critically about present-day issues.

Though the survey findings indicate a majority of youth see the value in learning about the past to understand why things are the way they are today (71 per cent) and developing critical thinking skills (62 per cent), fewer are making connections between learning about the past and making change in their communities (55 per cent) or seeing themselves as someone who can make change (51 per cent).

And while students acknowledge the benefits of learning history in fostering complex thinking skills, such as understanding the present in relation to the past, understanding other people’s perspectives and cultivating critical thinking, fewer students believe that historical knowledge can lead to tangible changes in society or that historical knowledge inspires them to take action.

“This suggests that teachers and students need to make more explicit connections between learning history and citizenship competencies in the present,” Peck says.

The survey was funded in part by the Government of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.