History as Knowledge

Ethical Values and Meaning in Encounters with History

by Niklas Ammert (Author)
©2015 Monographs 154 Pages


What do you know when you know something about history? What is important to know and how do you learn? Adolescents encounter history everywhere: at school, in the family, in media and society. But how do adolescents perceive history and in what ways do aspects of meaning and ethical values affect the encounters with history? This study discusses how Swedish adolescents and teachers encounter, communicate and define knowledge about history, analysing the process from curricula and history textbooks to the world of the pupils.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Encountering history
  • History in Swedish schools
  • Knowledge
  • History and knowledge
  • Applied research on knowledge about history
  • Meaning
  • Materials and methods
  • The content of the book
  • Chapter 2. 100 years of knowledge about history
  • A 100-year perspective – similarities
  • Differences
  • A two-dimensional analysis – similarities
  • Differences
  • Summary conclusions
  • Chapter 3. Pupils encounter history
  • At the end of the last century
  • The current picture
  • How pupils learn history
  • Encountering history at school
  • In-class activities
  • Summary conclusions
  • Chapter 4. Pupils and knowledge about history
  • How do pupils describe knowledge about history?
  • What forms of knowledge do pupils demonstrate?
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter 5. Pupils’ meaning-making in encountering history
  • Making meaning
  • Pupils’ encounters with history – an interview study
  • Two patterns of thought
  • Didactic consequences
  • Chapter 6. Teachers’ views of knowledge about history
  • Examining the view of knowledge
  • The teachers’ responses
  • The taxonomy analysis framework
  • Relativism, attributing and “educated guesses”
  • Chapter 7. Relations between history and students: syllabi and textbooks, 1905–2005
  • History textbooks and pupils
  • Curricula and syllabi for the subject of history
  • Relations between the subject of history and students – a summary discussion
  • Chapter 8. Ethical values bridging knowledge about history
  • History education – values – history
  • Two perspectives in history textbooks
  • Values convey history
  • Pupils, values and history
  • History and values – a “prima-vista” view
  • An applied example
  • Summary
  • Chapter 9. To learn and to know history
  • The pupil and the syllabus
  • The pupil and history
  • The pupil and knowledge about history
  • The pupil and meaning
  • The pupil and the teachers
  • The pupil and the instructional content
  • Pupils – history – values
  • A natural dimension in human life — knowing something about history
  • References

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Chapter 1. Introduction

History is a natural dimension of human life. This historical dimension is wide; it ranges from the memories of what we did last week to the narratives of human life and societal change in another century. People share common memories – that is why we often discuss what happened in the past and what we have heard about. Memories from the past, and people’s relationship to time gone by, bind groups of people together. For an individual, the relationship between the past and the present is an integral part of one’s identity, providing some safety. It is this relationship between past and present that also makes us human and shapes our way of relating both to the world and to the future. On a societal level, memories may include the almost mythological stories about the successes of the local soccer team decades ago, or as the time when there was that big fire in the village, or when the Prime Minister was murdered. In many countries, living memories of wars and other traumas are present in the collective memory.

There are distinct uses of history in different contexts. In films and in literature, historical themes are ubiquitous, and historical references are often necessary in order to understand the plot. In sports, people often relate to previous results, particularly wins. Having a “long history” is a marker of quality for a university, a company or a military unit, as well as for exclusive merchandise, such as watches or cars. In political debates opponents almost immediately launch into blaming each other for something that happened, or did not happen, during the previous term or the term before that. History is indeed a natural, and thus a present and palpable dimension of human life.

We all have a history and we all are part of a history we can relate to in different contexts and phases of life. We also do history when we recreate the past, research the past, locate ourselves in time, interpret time. We also do history when we use it to remember, forget, experience or relate to something.1 Here the concept of history is understood as the past as such, as well as narratives and representations of the past.

In a comprehensive study of how the average American engages with history, historians Rosenzweig and Thelen report that 70 percent of the Americans ← 7 | 8 → feel strongly tied to the past and that 40 percent have a hobby relating to the past.2 In that way history – the past, but also perspectives on the present and the future – is significantly present for people. This is a common way of defining the concept of historical consciousness. When an individual experiences mutual signification and connection with an interpretation of the past, the understanding of the present and the perspective on the future, she has a historical consciousness. In recent decades, the concept of historical consciousness has been crucial in research on history didactics. Historical consciousness is an established definition of how individuals relate to dimensions of time and experience the connections between them; it is about how people are interconnected through time. From the multi-dimensional relationship among the past, the present and the future, the individual forges meaning in life. Accordingly, meaning bridges relationships between dimensions of time.

Encountering history

People encounter history in everyday life in many different ways, and these encounters comprise the field of study for history didactics. Central questions in history didactics often include the content, perspectives and structure of the school subject. History didactics also includes the methods and issues of teaching history, such as the interaction between students and teachers, and how history is perceived among the students.

Of course, how people encounter the content of history education can also be studied in a broader context outside of the educational setting. This is obvious in a discipline such as history because it is omnipresent in popular media (for example, TV documentaries), literature, film, advertising and public debate.3 In the midst of this rich variety of potential encounters with history, however, the school plays a crucial role. Schools organize history education; in Sweden, national curricula and syllabi specify the objectives that every student must meet. History class provides the setting in which students and teachers interact with each other. In addition, students’ knowledge and skills are assessed and graded based on the teachers’ authority to rate their students’ performance. Since every student encounters history at school, this is another reason to study and analyse the issues at stake in history didactics. ← 8 | 9 →

In didactic research we often focus on how students, teachers and textbooks describe and define the content of instruction. There are also sporadic studies aimed at analysing the learning process – an interesting and relevant project, but one that is also fraught with potential methodological problems. To analyse processes or actions regarding learning requires either a psychological study or a physiological one, because the moment of learning, on a physical level, consists of signal impulses between the brain and other parts of the body such as the eye, the ear or the hand. In history didactics, the focus is instead on the subject matter and how students encounter the content they learn. In recent years the concept of knowledge in relation to different disciplines, not only history, has been stressed in educational research.4 Knowledge is often discussed on a theoretical level, but relevant empirical studies on how knowledge is defined, communicated and experienced are comparatively rare.

The main question guiding this book is how students and teachers regard knowledge about history and the development of knowledge. Included sub-studies take a history didactics theoretical perspective in which they present analyses of students’ and teachers’ views on what it means to know something about history, along with how and when students learn history. Guidelines from national curricula constitute the perspective of educational history in order to frame current educational environment within a broader historical context.

History in Swedish schools

The history of History in Swedish schools is neither linear nor undisputed. The subject of History has long since been central in Swedish education; it has been a high-status subject and has often been popular among students. It is still quite popular and there is competition to obtain a place in the university education programme to become a History teacher.

Until the 1960s History instruction in compulsory school and in upper secondary school was characterized by nationalist narratives – stories of great men, glorious states, God and the homeland. In the 1960s, however, there was a comprehensive wave of reforms in Swedish society. The aim was to clear out the traditions, conservatism and the kind of education that would reproduce social classes in society. Instead the focus was to describe social structures, vulnerable ← 9 | 10 → groups and diverse perspectives regarding antagonism and struggle. At this time History was not a compulsory subject in upper secondary school, and at compulsory school History became part of Social Science.

In the 1990s the ideological tones were softened. Historical narratives with traditional themes were revisited. Novels with historic themes became bestsellers and university courses in History were requested en masse. In 1997 a report from CEIFO (The Centre for Research in International Migration and Ethnic Relations) indicated that 15-year-old Swedish students were not sure that the Holocaust had really happened. The results were widely debated, not least because the Prime Minister Göran Persson canceled a budget debate in Parliament in order to discuss the students’ lack of knowledge about history and to express his concerns. PM Persson promised to ensure that every pupil learn about the Holocaust at school. The Government then decided to establish a national authority that would provide education about the Holocaust and genocide – the Living History Forum. Despite this national focus on awareness of the Holocaust and the Living History Forum, History was still not a compulsory subject in upper secondary school, and there was no additional time dedicated to History education in compulsory school. The curricula and the syllabi were vague about historical content and perspectives to be covered. The only subject matter stipulated was the Holocaust and other genocides.

In several ways, 2011 was a turning point for the Swedish school system. It had become obvious that attempts in the 1960s and 1970s to eliminate traditional education resulted in weaker educational outcomes. Swedish students were performing at lower levels, which became apparent not only in international examinations, but also in students’ performance once they reached higher educational settings.

In response, History was again made a compulsory subject in upper secondary school in 2011, and in compulsory school, students were required to study History in all grades. A new curriculum with new syllabi for compulsory school was implemented. It was characterized by fewer central aims and clearer core content. The main focus was in developing student’s historical consciousness. To make this possible, teaching and learning had four objectives based on four different abilities: (a) to use a historical frame of reference; (b) to examine, interpret and evaluate sources critically as a basis for creating historical knowledge; (c) to reflect upon one’s own and others’ uses of history; and (d) to use historical concepts to analyse how historical knowledge is organized, created and used. By developing these abilities, students should be able to make qualified interpretations of the past, and link these interpretations to the present. Finally, students should also be able to apply these interpretations to arrive at a possible prediction for the ← 10 | 11 → future. Students should also have an understanding of how history is used, both by him/herself and by others.5


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
compulsory school history didactics adolescents
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 154 pp.

Biographical notes

Niklas Ammert (Author)

Niklas Ammert is associate professor of History at Linnaeus University (Sweden). His main research interest concerns History didactics and History Education – how people encounter and communicate history at school, in higher education, in politics and in other cultural and societal contexts.


Title: History as Knowledge