Ms Bridget Martin is a secondary History Teacher at the International School of Paris, Bridget also leads teacher training activities with EuroClio. She holds a Master of Teaching from the University of Melbourne as well as a Master of Arts (History) from the University of Groningen. She has produced peer-reviewed research on topics such as history curriculum debates and approaches to oral history in education. Holding Australian and Dutch nationality, Bridget is fluent in both English and French. More here.
Integrating multiperspectivity in history classrooms remains one of the most important and most challenging undertakings facing history teachers today. Amongst its many values, multiperspectivity can add complexity and nuance to our understanding of the past and the ways in which history is constructed, it can foster an appreciation for contestability and ambiguity in the study of history, and it can highlight previously marginalised voices. Beyond its benefits for learning within the discipline of history itself, multiperspectivity also encourages greater empathy, open-mindedness and an appreciation of difference and diversity.
In my own teaching practice, despite investing significant time and effort into incorporating multiperspectivity, it is one of the areas I still find most difficult to do well. Developing the necessary attitudes, dispositions, and ways of thinking in students to allow them to meaningfully engage with diverse perspectives from and about the past is highly complex. In addition to this inherent challenge, there are many factors that can make a multiperspectival approach particularly difficult for history teachers to put into practice. These include: a lack of sufficient training, a lack of confidence in addressing multiple perspectives on sensitive topics, difficulty in locating or developing appropriate resources, limitations on multiperspectivity set by certain educational systems, and insufficient time in often crowded curricula to incorporate multiple perspectives (Stradling 2003; Bennett 2004; Wansink, et al. 2018). Many of these obstacles rest outside the control of individual teachers. Thus, if we hope to follow expert advice, including the Council of Europe’s own Recommendation REC(2001)15 On History Teaching in Twenty-first-century Europe, system-wide support in terms of initial teacher training and ongoing professional development, curriculum design and resources will be required.
In my own teaching practice, despite investing significant time and effort into incorporating multiperspectivity, it is one of the areas I still find most difficult to do well. Developing the necessary attitudes, dispositions, and ways of thinking in students to allow them to meaningfully engage with diverse perspectives from and about the past is highly complex.”
In the present article, I aim to offer my reflections as a classroom teacher on some of these systemic opportunities and challenges before examining practical ways in which individual teachers can make efforts to integrate greater multiperspectivity within the constraints of their specific contexts. These reflections and strategies are based on my own experience, key literature on multiperspectivity, and the many excellent ideas I have encountered through my colleagues over the years.
It is first necessary, however, to clarify what is meant by multiperspectivity in the context of history education. In his comprehensive booklet Multiperspectivity in history teaching: a guide for teachers published by the Council of Europe, Dr Robert Stradling defines multiperspectivity as “a way of viewing, and a predisposition to view, historical events, personalities, developments, cultures and societies from different perspectives through drawing on procedures and processes which are fundamental to history as a discipline” (2003: 14). Important in this definition is the focus not only on the inclusion of the perspectives themselves but the emphasis on students’ predispositions and ways of viewing. This is similarly underscored by Wansink et al. who suggest that “multiperspectivity refers to the epistemological idea that history is interpretational and subjective, with multiple coexisting narratives” (2018: 496). This has significant implications for classroom teachers as it demonstrates that foundational to any specific strategies used to explore multiple perspectives is a set of shared understandings about the very nature of history.
Dr Robert Stradling defines multiperspectivity as “a way of viewing, and a predisposition to view, historical events, personalities, developments, cultures and societies from different perspectives through drawing on procedures and processes which are fundamental to history as a discipline”
One key question that the concept of multiperspectivity imposes is: which perspectives are we considering and for what purpose(s)? To this end, I find that Wansink et al. (2018) have provided a very helpful “temporal framework.” They suggest that there are three key temporal layers for perspective-taking:
- historical perspective-taking: wherein subjects are positioned “in the past”
- historiographical perspective-taking: wherein subjects are positioned “between the past and the present”, and
- contemporary perspective-taking: wherein subjects are positioned “in the present.”
The authors provide a useful visual (below) to illustrate these layers.
Figure 1 – A Model of Temporality and Functions in Multiperspectivity
These layers will be used to frame the present discussion as each one implies a different set of perspectives, a different type of exploration, and serves a slightly different pedagogical purpose. Of course, these layers are inextricably linked, though in many instances they may be dealt with discretely in the classroom for practical reasons.
While we can strive to consider multiperspectivity at each of these layers, it is impossible for teachers to cover the full array of possible perspectives relating to any given historical event, period or issue. They must therefore use their judgement (and resources available to them) to select the most appropriate perspectives for investigation in each instance, while seeking to present as wide a variety as possible of perspectives across national, ethnic, religious, political, gender, and socioeconomic lines throughout a student's educational experience. All this while acknowledging that perspectives within these and other groups are also typically diverse.
One final important comment on the nature of multiperspectivity in history classrooms relates to how students treat the various perspectives with which they engage. In a world rife with the misuse and abuse of history, voices from certain corners raise legitimate concerns that a multiperspective approach may encourage such phenomena by putting forth an entirely relativist view of history. In response to such concerns, I would first point to the important distinction between being able to understand a perspective and how it developed and agreeing with or endorsing that viewpoint. For example, encouraging students to understand the perspectives of actors in the past is essential for investigating the reasons for their actions but in no way implies that students should support or sympathise with all of the individuals or groups they study.
In a world rife with the misuse and abuse of history, voices from certain corners raise legitimate concerns that a multiperspective approach may encourage such phenomena by putting forth an entirely relativist view of history.
Moreover, many theorists have emphasised that multiperspectivity should involve “teaching students to judge and compare the validity of different narratives using disciplinary criteria” (Wansink et al. 2018: 496). Indeed, while it is important that multiperspectivity guides students to “accept that there are other possible ways of viewing the world than one’s own and that these may be equally valid” (Stradling 2003: 14), this does not mean that all perspectives should be viewed as equally valid. We must therefore walk a tightrope in which we help students find space for multiple valid viewpoints to coexist while being cautious not to suggest that every viewpoint is of equal value, validity, or significance. Students must be encouraged to use appropriate disciplinary approaches, particularly the analysis and evaluation of historical evidence, to arrive at balanced judgements about the perspectives they encounter. I would therefore argue that it is only by supporting students to critically engage with multiple perspectives and narratives that we will combat the abuse and misuse of history by giving them the tools to identify this for themselves. A single-narrative approach serves only to make students vulnerable to such abuses and misuses.
We must therefore walk a tightrope in which we help students find space for multiple valid viewpoints to coexist while being cautious not to suggest that every viewpoint is of equal value, validity, or significance.”
As I have already outlined above, there are numerous contextual factors that may limit or enhance a teacher’s ability to integrate multiperspectivity in their history teaching programs and influence the way they do this. Before continuing to practical classroom applications of multiperspectivity, I will briefly examine just a few aspects of my own professional context which have positively impacted my appreciation of and ability to integrate multiperspectivity. I hope that highlighting some of these enabling factors might elicit ideas about how we can foster the contexts necessary for multiperspectivity to thrive in history classrooms while reminding us that we cannot expect all teachers to adopt exactly the same approaches as each teacher must adapt to their individual context.
During my initial teacher training which began in Australia in 2011, the concept of perspectives in history education was already prominent thanks to the growing work of predominantly European and North American experts. This was mainly conveyed through our study of historical thinking and reasoning through the works of such theorists as Peter Seixas (2009), van Drie and van Boxtel (2008), and Stéphane Lévesque (2008), among others. While I may not have encountered the term “multiperspectivity”, the underlying premise was encapsulated in these works as a core element of disciplinary thinking and our instruction aided us in developing activities to engage with the concept. Although multiperspectivity could have been treated in greater depth, I feel that I began my teaching career with solid foundations both in terms of the paradigm in which my understanding of history and history education was situated and in a practical sense with ideas about effective strategies to explore perspectives in the classroom.
As a teacher within the International Baccalaureate (IB) system, my ability to integrate multiperspectivity has also been enhanced by a history curriculum that is explicit about the inclusion of multiple perspectives. For example, within the Diploma Programme History curriculum for upper secondary students, the stated aims include to “encourage students to engage with multiple perspectives” (International Baccalaureate Organization 2015: 10). The assessment criteria differentiate between students who do not engage with different perspectives in their work, students who show awareness of different perspectives, and, at the highest level, students who integrate an evaluation of different perspectives into their responses. Within other educational systems and curriculum models, teachers may have to justify to themselves or others the decision to incorporate multiperspectivity in teaching and learning and the time it takes to do so. In some cases, multiperspectivity may be actively discouraged by assessment models that require students to recount a single, accepted narrative of events. Although by no means perfect, the IB curriculum shows that it is possible to make multiperspectivity a meaningful and assessable aspect of history curricula.
Finally, the particular school environment in which one teaches also has implications for multiperspectivity. At the international school where I currently teach, for instance, our student body includes pupils from over 60 different nationalities. Many have studied in national education systems and international education systems all over the world. These students thus arrive in my history lessons with very diverse perspectives and beliefs about the past and the nature of history derived from their personal, family, and educational experiences. For me, this multinational and multicultural make-up offers rich opportunities to explore the highly diverse perspectives students hold or have encountered.
It also presents several challenges; for instance, when teaching about sensitive historical events involving a great number of nations or groups, such as the world wars. This has been a positive professional challenge for me overall as I have learnt to teach about these conflicts very differently, in a much more balanced, careful, considered, and multiperspective manner. Even as a theoretical exercise, I would encourage any teacher planning lessons on these conflicts to imagine their classroom filled with descendants of all of the affected nations and groups and no certainty about what these students might already have been taught about their nation or group’s experience. There are significant implications for the formulation of narrative aspects of lessons, the selection of sources and examples, the use of language, the choice of questions, and so on.
Even as a theoretical exercise, I would encourage any teacher planning lessons on these conflicts to imagine their classroom filled with descendants of all of the affected nations and groups and no certainty about what these students might already have been taught about their nation or group’s experience.
Each school environment presents its own opportunities and challenges and teachers must always adapt themselves to the set of students in their classrooms. The student body might inform the way in which sensitive or controversial topics are broached or the teacher’s decisions about which perspectives to include for study (for instance, to make sure members of different groups feel represented or, conversely, to ensure students are exposed to unfamiliar perspectives). It is important to remember that a one-size-fits-all approach to multiperspectivity in teaching practice is therefore both unrealistic and undesirable. This should be borne in mind while considering the proceeding overview of some brief examples of practical strategies for the inclusion of multiperspectivity at different temporal layers.
Historical perspective-taking is focused on the investigation of the perspectives of people situated in the past and living at the time of the event, period, individual or issue being studied. This might include specific historical actors or more general social groups. Tim Huijgen and others (2014) have identified three core elements necessary for students to successfully achieve historical perspective-taking:
- Historical contextualisation
- Historical empathy
- Avoiding presentism
Working to avoid presentism, an impossible but worthy goal, requires both a deep appreciation of historical context as well as a high level of self-reflexivity. Students need a strong sense of historical context, what Michael Hill (2020) refers to as “world-building”, to support them to “genuinely inhabit” the historical places they study. Students must also become aware of the various aspects that underpin their own perspectives: the values, beliefs, personal experiences, geographic and temporal context, etc. that shape their present-day points of view. These need to be identified in order to be placed aside and also in order to appreciate the complex make-up of the perspectives of people in the past who had their own values, beliefs, experiences, and so on. Only then can students attempt the complicated intellectual exercise of historical empathy, which Huigjen et. al. importantly distinguish from sympathy: “sympathy is compassion, sorrow or concern for another person. Historical empathy focuses on identifying with people in the past based on historical knowledge to explain their action” (2014: 655). Historical perspective-taking can then become multiperspective in nature “when perspectives of multiple subjects within the same time era are addressed and reflected upon” (Wansink et al. 2019: 498).
Only then can students attempt the complicated intellectual exercise of historical empathy, which Huigjen et. al. importantly distinguish from sympathy: “sympathy is compassion, sorrow or concern for another person. Historical empathy focuses on identifying with people in the past based on historical knowledge to explain their action”
As we have seen, it is essential that historical context and primary sources are used as a foundation for historical perspective-taking. Seixas (2017: 9) notes that “a common pedagogical error comes from divorcing them, and asking students to ‘write a letter’ from an enslaved African-American or a coal-miner’s daughter, without adequate primary source evidence.” When analysing primary sources, teachers should therefore formulate questions that are specifically designed to uncover the perspectives expressed in historical sources representing a variety of viewpoints. Questions should guide students to identify the explicit and implicit opinions, beliefs, values, and viewpoints present in the sources. Teachers must also provide students with sufficient contextual information on the sources and their authors for students to draw evidence-based conclusions about the reasons the creators may have developed such a perspective. These may range from specific statements within the sources, the broader political or religious frames of reference of the author, or more practical realities such as where a person was physically situated at the time of events (Stradling 2003).
The analysis of primary sources can be a useful starting point for other activities. Role-play, for instance, can be an effective and engaging tool to help students better appreciate historical perspectives, though it must be used with caution. As role-play requires students to attempt to take on the viewpoints of others in a way not required in other more distant or intellectual explorations of historical perspectives, teachers should be cautious in the selection of roles and scenarios to avoid traumatic events or obliging students to adopt for themselves the perspective of the perpetrators of atrocities, for instance.
The most effective role-plays will require students to take on the roles of specific historical individuals in real historical scenarios for which there is ample source evidence to allow students to make supported claims in the roles they adopt. Teachers might select a real historic negotiation, such as peace negotiations or nuclear non-proliferation negotiations, where students must adopt the stance of real historical actors. For example, I have used this to good effect with the Geneva Conference of 1954 as a basis. Such activities can lead to interesting discussions and reflections when comparing the outcome of student role-plays with the genuine historical realities.
“Hero or villain?” style activities can also be useful. Evidently, the tropes “hero” and “villain” are problematic but the very nature of these activities helps students to appreciate why this is so. These activities require students to consider the complexities of historical figures and examine the ways in which they were viewed by their contemporaries, though teachers might also integrate historiographical perspectives. Using two points with “hero” at one extreme and “villain” at another, students decide where each perspective is situated along the spectrum. This will necessarily entail discussions of what is meant by the terms “hero” and “villain.” Students might be provided with cards containing quotes, facts and/or images which they hold up and arrange themselves in a line, they might place the cards in position on a desk or on the wall, or they may use any number of online applications to complete the task virtually. I have used Jamboard, for example, to help students explore conflicting perspectives about Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the US Civil Rights movement. Students compared accounts and sources relating to racist actions and language, his efforts to undermine the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and his role in advancing remarkable legislative change. This case in particular led to students raising interesting points about Johnson’s own perspective and how his personal context may have shaped his behaviour.
Once positioned along the spectrum, teachers can facilitate a discussion about why the perspectives on this individual vary and how the motivations and backgrounds of the different contemporaries (or historians) may have impacted their view. To round out such an activity, students can then be invited to offer their own synthesis and characterisation of the historic actor based on their evaluation of the various perspectives and evidence presented.
This activity can thus also cater to historiographical perspective-taking which relates to the perspectives of historians or others concerned with the past (journalists, politicians, etc.) who did not live at the time of the object of study and may also not have lived synchronously with one another (Wansink et al. 2018). This presents additional challenges in comparison to historical perspective-taking as “students must take multiple historical contexts from multiple times into account and students are faced with epistemological questions of the historicity of the historical method” (Wansink et al. 2018: 498). A major challenge here can be finding sufficient time in the curriculum to explore the context of non-contemporaneous perspectives. Ensuring students have ample contextual knowledge of the past they are studying is time-consuming enough, taking further teaching and learning time to explore later contexts in which that past was (re)interpreted can be prohibitive. Thus, in-depth historiographical explorations may be infrequent, though teachers can find ways to continue raising student awareness of competing perspectives that have emerged in the disciplinary and public sphere.
Ensuring students have ample contextual knowledge of the past they are studying is time-consuming enough, taking further teaching and learning time to explore later contexts in which that past was (re)interpreted can be prohibitive.”
A simple approach is for teachers to select two or more competing claims about the same topic. Students can begin by analysing the claims themselves, any evidence mentioned, and the authors behind the assertions. Alone or in groups, students can be tasked with seeking out evidence (through their own research or provided by the teacher) which supports the claims and evidence which refutes or challenges the claims. Students can then work towards making a balanced judgement about the claims, determine the extent to which they agree with them, and compare the strength of alternate historiographical interpretations.
Using historiographical schools of thought can also be a helpful way of considering broad strokes and key issues of debate in the historiography of particular topics. Students might explore “intentionalist” and “functionalist” perspectives or examine “orthodox” and “revisionist” viewpoints in relation to their topic of study. As far as possible, contextual information on the emergence of these schools of thought and specific historians associated with them should be provided. Students can then be asked to prepare, using the key ideas and evidence of historians from the relevant schools, a debate on a pertinent question. This requires students to explore the perspectives in greater depth and respond to challenges put forward by others. Such an activity can be concluded in various ways. For instance, with a discussion of the students’ genuine conclusions rather than those they were assigned to argue, or an attempt to compose a synthesising statement that may achieve a certain level of compromise between the different schools.
The researchers chose to separate contemporary perspectives “in the present” from historiographical perspectives as, although there is no clear delineation between the past and the present, there are certain perspectives and pedagogical goals at this layer which differ. They argue that “the specific educational function of addressing contemporary perspectives is informed reflexivity, that is, the realization that perspectives are personal and that teachers and students themselves are consumers of history, critically or uncritically accepting the constructions presented by others or even making their own constructions of the past” (Wansink et al. 2018: 499).
The integration of multiperspectivity at this layer, therefore, includes an exploration of perspectives within the classroom. Students reflect on their own perspectives, the way in which they develop their historical understanding, and how this may differ from their classmates. A useful strategy to help students gain an appreciation of the constructed nature of history while also working towards greater self-reflexivity is to assign them the role of the creator of historical media: a museum exhibit, a textbook chapter, a documentary, etc. Students can explore concepts of selectivity, significance, and interpretation as they make decisions about what to include in their imagined creation and justify their decisions. Asking students to then compare their approach to that of other students can allow them to see the ways in which their perspectives align or differ from their classmates and then discuss some possible reasons why.
A useful strategy to help students gain an appreciation of the constructed nature of history while also working towards greater self-reflexivity is to assign them the role of the creator of historical media: a museum exhibit, a textbook chapter, a documentary, etc.”
Simple spectrum or corners activities, which require students to position themselves either along a line between “agree” and “disagree” or in corners which represent levels of agreement, can be active ways to allow students to express their perspectives and understand those of others. Students place themselves where they see fit in response to various questions and are invited to explain their decision. I typically encourage my students to move during the discussion if they find they are persuaded by the reasoning of others to foster open-mindedness and a sense that perspectives can evolve and are not necessarily entrenched.
This temporal layer also makes teachers themselves a point of focus. The extent to which teachers feel comfortable explicitly discussing their own perspectives varies significantly (Wansink et al. 2018: 518). Personally, I find this a difficult line to walk. On one hand, it is important to highlight to students how the teacher’s perspective shapes the way history is taught in the classroom in the same way that creators of other sources shape historical narratives. It is impossible for teachers to remain “value-free” in their approach and being open and honest about this with students can help promote an atmosphere that allows for respectful, evidence-based disagreement and debate even with the teacher. We cannot ignore, however, the inherent power dynamics in even the most progressive of classrooms, which can mean that the frequency or manner in which teachers explicitly share their perspectives can greatly influence their students whether or not they intend to do so. At the conclusion of class discussions and debates, students frequently ask me for my views on the question. I am often concerned that, even if they have reached a well-reasoned interpretation, they may feel it is invalidated if I am not personally in agreement. It is challenging to find an appropriate balance between acknowledging one’s own perspectives and their inevitable impact, while being cautious about when and how to explicitly share one’s own perspectives with students to ensure they are given the space to freely develop and test their own.
We cannot ignore, however, the inherent power dynamics in even the most progressive of classrooms, which can mean that the frequency or manner in which teachers explicitly share their perspectives can greatly influence their students whether or not they intend to do so. At the conclusion of class discussions and debates, students frequently ask me for my views on the question.”
To conclude, multiperspectivity can have immense value for the study of history and more broadly for the development of inclusive and democratic societies. Teachers face many challenges when seeking to integrate multiperspectivity in their classroom practice. These challenges can relate to the complexity of multiperspectivity itself and to the contexts within which they work. There are, nonetheless, ways in which we are able to enhance the integration of multiperspectivity in history classrooms at policy, institutional and classroom levels. In this short article, I have attempted to offer some brief reflections from the “coal-face”, not with a view to offering definitive solutions but in the hope that this might stimulate thought and discussion about how each of us can contribute to increasing and improving the integration of multiperspectivity in history classrooms.
- Bennet, S (2004), ‘The use of multiperspectivity when teaching history in secondary and upper-secondary schools: an example of the United Kingdom,’ Multiperspectivity In Teaching And Learning History: Presentations from Seminars and Workshops Materials Nicosia, Cyprus, 24 – 27 November 2004, Council of Europe.
- Hill, M (2020), ‘Curating the imagined past: world building in the history curriculum,’ Teaching History, no. 180: 10-20.
- Huijgen, T, van Boxtel, C, van de Grift, W and Holthuis, P (2014), ‘Testing elementary and secondary school students' ability to perform historical perspective taking: the constructing of valid and reliable measure instruments,’ European Journal of Psychology of Education, Vol. 29, No. 4 (December 2014): 653-672.
- International Baccalaureate Organization (2015), Diploma Programme History guide: First examinations 2020, Cardiff, Wales.
- Lévesque, S (2008), Thinking historically: Educating students for the twenty-first century, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
- Seixas, P (2009). ‘A Modest Proposal for Change in Canadian History Education,’ Teaching History, no. 137: 26–30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43259415.
- Seixas, P (2017). ‘A Model of Historical Thinking’, Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 49, No. 6: 593–605, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2015.1101363.
- Stradling, R. (2003), Multiperspectivity in history teaching: A guide for teachers, Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe.
- Wansink, B, Akkerman, S, Zuiker, I and Wubbels, T (2018), ‘Where Does Teaching Multiperspectivity in History Education Begin and End? An Analysis of the Uses of Temporality,’ Theory & Research in Social Education, vol. 46, no.4: 495-527, DOI: 10.1080/00933104.2018.1480439.
- van Drie, J and van Boxtel,C (2008). “Historical Reasoning: Towards a Framework for Analyzing Students’ Reasoning about the Past.” Educational Psychology Review 20, no. 2: 87–110. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23364115.
*The opinions expressed in this work are the responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Council of Europe.
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