Deepening historical consciousness through museum fieldwork: implications for community-based history education

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University of New Brunswick


This case study explores the link between historical thinking and historical consciousness at middle school level, over a 14-week unit of study. It builds upon an existing body of empirical research within Canada and internationally, including the recently published Canadians and Their Pasts national survey, as well as The Historical Thinking Project. With regard to historical thinking, this dissertation focuses on historical narratives, evidence, and sources—since these historical thinking concepts are often encountered within informal learning settings such as community history museums. Indirectly, the concept of historical significance is also relevant to this inquiry. In keeping with instrumental case study design, the findings provide insight into pragmatic applications for historical thinking within a community history museum. Findings also reveal the phenomenological meaning that both middle school students and volunteer heritage community members drew from the experience. The methodology is informed by a sociocultural theoretical perspective. As a result, research procedures were framed around Falk and Dierking’s (2000, 2013) Contextual Model of Learning—during the data collection phase; as well as by Rüsen’s (1987; 1993; 2004) typology of historical consciousness—during the data analysis phase. The ultimate intent was to map out any changes that may have occurred over time regarding participants’ relationship with their past, present, and future. Through the adoption of a series of scaffolding tools designed around a Material History Framework for Historical Thinking, students became actively engaged in: (a) discovering and deconstructing the narratives that they encountered within the museum, (b) analysing the artifact sources behind such narratives, and (c) reconstructing their own narrative claims. Through this experience, students’ social roles were transformed from passive listeners to active historians. In turn, adult participants became engaged in: (a) responding to students’ questions, and (b) modelling historical thinking. Through this experience, adult social roles were transformed from information-transmitters to collaborative agents, as they developed a sense of empathy for the students as historical researchers. As a result, the authority of the museum was challenged in a constructivist way, and the community of inquiry was opened up to include students as active members of the community. Over the course of this inquiry, students’ narrative interpretations became explicitly focused upon the artifact, as a source of evidence to support their narrative claims. Students also came to recognise complexity in interpreting the past. With regard to Rüsen’s typology of historical consciousness, their narratives for remembering Canada’s past shifted away from traditional—toward exemplary—templates, while their narratives for remembering New Brunswick’s past also shifted away from traditional—toward genetic—templates. Through the lived experience of historical thinking, history became something that students envisioned doing for themselves. These findings have implications for classroom teachers, museum educators, and history education researchers. They support the assertions of Seixas (2001) that students can be empowered to “read [and re-write] the [informal] texts that structure their lives” (p. 561).