Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Teaching History in Ontario, Badly

Be forewarned that the following post could be classified as a rant and recommended to be read with a rapid, irate tone of voice.

Why do so many children in Ontario receive a lacklustre history education? I have the grade 10 mandatory Canadian history course in mind. I took that class as a student, I learned about that class as a teacher-candidate, I taught that class as a teacher and now I help students who take it as a tutor. Time and time again I see students have a poor educational experience, completely turned off from the discipline and ignorant to their own country's history.

There is fundamentally little wrong with the CHC2D/P curriculum. The document provides guidelines for a five unit course that focuses on the periods 1914-1929, 1929-1945, 1945-1982, 1982-Present and a unit on historical inquiry. However this document bears almost no resemblance to the education I see students receiving. I assume that the mentalities and approaches to history calcified in the previous curriculum and teachers have not bothered with updating their materials and approach. Which is baffling given that they are expected to address the present which is constantly moving forward.

In my experience CHC2D/P, also known as Canadian History since World War I, is taught as 3.5 units. The first unit is an exhaustive study of World War I, this is followed by a combined 1920s/30s unit, which is of course followed by World War II. If there is time a fourth unit is dedicated to "the rest". The entire second half of the 20th century and the 21st century is boiled down to whatever can be crammed in before the final exam. I recall when I was a high school student our class got past the mid-1960s while our peers across the hall ended WWII in June. I suppose it is a great irony that history teachers are unable to manage time, but for me, talking to students, it is immensely frustrating.

What I once assumed to be a laughable fluke seems actually to be the norm. If classes manage to get to the fourth unit, 1945-Present, it is so watered down and broad little meaningful information can be extracted by the students.

Most teachers (I hope) are not wasting time with their pupils, but they have poorly allocated the time they do have. From looking at countless worksheets and unit tests teachers become far too obsessed with the World Wars. Students are forced to study minute details about those conflicts. More time is dedicated to those 10 combined years than to the rest of the century. World War I was likely the most consequential war in the modern era. It fundamentally shaped the world into what we know it as today, but if you think a grade 10 student needs to understand the Schlieffen Plan as a term, but not be able to identify who Tommy Douglas was then you and I have very different understandings of Canadian history. The Schlieffen Plan is only relevant if you know about the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Otherwise, "The Germans invaded Belgium to surprise France in their offensive" is all that needs to be said on the topic.

Instead weeks of school time are dedicated to battles that Canada did not participate in and scrutinizing every piece of military technology. I am not arguing that World War I is not important, what I am asking is that if you wanted to teach someone what was relevant about Canada's history would you spend a quarter of the time on 1914-1918?

I believe the focus on the World Wars reveals a strong Eurocentric bias in the Ontario curriculum. Hitler's rise to power is not terribly relevant for a Canadian history class. It would be exceptionally relevant in a world history course though, or government. The focus on the World Wars sucks the oxygen away from other pressing issues. Labour unrest and political radicalism was at its peak in that period and arguably has far more to do with the country we live in today as the Battle of Ypres and the Liberation of the Scheldt. The Winnipeg General Strike and general unrest from 1910-1940 deserves just as much say.

Perhaps my perspective on this next part is heavily influenced by where I grew up. The Canada we know and love today was born in the Post-War period. The wartime, and hard times of the early 20th century are crucial, but many of the institutions we associate with our country comes from the post-war period. The welfare state, socialized medicine, our flag, multiculturalism, open immigration, technology, Canada's status as a middle/minor power all stems from mid-20th century. I teach mostly non-white students. When I ask them about their family history and they say their grandparents or parents came in the 1970s I can tell them that that was because of the point system and previous to that they likely could not. It shocks them, literally, that there was a time when people like those in their families were not welcome here. A great deal of time is spent on events (many of which are only tangentially related to Canada) rather than the spirit of Canada in different time periods. From proudly white and British and a reticent French contingent to what we are now was a hell of a journey, one this course isn't communicating.

History has certain fracture points that tend to echo decades or centuries down strongly. Martin Luther's theses is one example that pops to mind. But aside from these moments the most recent past has a greater impact on our day-to-day life. The last couple decades are critical for understanding the world we currently live in. In particular the events of September 11th, 2001 would fit well in a history course today. It profoundly impacted our lives today in Canada and elsewhere and the ripple effects are still out there. Students in this course, 15-16 years old, have no memory of 9/11. They don't understand that North America has transformed since then. That the post-Cold War euphoria transformed into the paranoia security state etc. we know today. Right now a graduate from CHC2D/P has very little information that helps them understand how Canada came to be the country it is today. Canadians know shockingly little about their history and politics. Is it any wonder if they are left with 40-50 year gap in their knowledge to how we got from World War II to the present?

Finally, Canadian history is not and should not be a film studies course. The number of students I have spoken to that have described multiple classes being dedicated to multiple films for little tangible educational benefit is staggering. I showed clips in my class. The most I showed, I believe, was the episode of Band of Brothers on a long-weekend Friday where they liberate the concentration camp, as I thought the visuals would be more effective for them. The D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan is incredible, but the whole film doesn't belong. Hollywood is not renowned for its tact and thorough depictions of historic periods, events or figures. Offering them as a solid resource gives a plastic, flimsy understanding of history to students.

History, by its nature, is a narrative discipline. We're trying to tell stories, present arguments and offer up perspectives. A dull recitation of facts and dates with more relationship to world or European history with scant context and the enticement of frequent films is hardly serving our students to become informed, knowledgeable citizens. Not all history teachers are bad at what they do; though a shocking number who teach though are not trained in history. We are lucky to have a mandatory history course, but who is it currently serving? It's time for Canadian history to better reflect the entire 20th century and for what's happening in classrooms to better match what the curriculum intends.


S.A.Andrews said...

Preach, Brother Steven.

SJL said...

Historians have to stick together.