History Education as Content, Methods or Orientation?

A Study of Curriculum Prescriptions, Teacher-made Tasks and Student Strategies

by David Rosenlund (Author)
©2016 Thesis 208 Pages


Historical content, historical methods and historical orientation are three aspects that may be taught in history education. This study examines the emphases which are included in formal curricula texts and those which are included in teacher-made tasks. The results show that the curricula of history education contains historical content, orientation and methods, yet history teachers focus almost exclusively on the historical content. In a second step, this study examines the strategies with which students may process and combine elements from the three emphases of content, orientation and methods. The results provide insight into what strategies the students use and how they process the relationship between historical knowledge, historical methods and historical orientation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • 1. Introduction
  • Aims and research questions
  • Disposition
  • Definitions
  • 2. Theoretical Considerations
  • Two philosophies
  • Two philosophies and three approaches to history education
  • History education – the transfer of content
  • History education – the teaching of disciplinary tools
  • History education – including the present
  • Towards a theoretical framework
  • The philosophy behind the orienting approach
  • The philosophy behind the empirical approach
  • A tentative combination of the two approaches
  • To experience the past
  • Making historical interpretations
  • Temporal orientation
  • Curriculum emphasis
  • Companion meanings
  • 3. Research Overview
  • History syllabi
  • History teachers and the history subject
  • Student strategies
  • Alignment
  • Positioning of this study
  • 4. Design, Methodology and Samples
  • Choice of research methods
  • Selection of teachers
  • The teacher-made tasks
  • The interviews
  • Selection of students and collection of answers
  • The qualitative interpretations
  • A method to evaluate the degree of alignment
  • Inter-rater reliability
  • Ethical considerations
  • 5. Characteristics of the 1994 History Syllabus
  • The 1994 history syllabus, curriculum emphasis and companion meanings
  • The goals
  • Criteria for the grade Pass
  • Criteria for the grade Pass with Distinction
  • Criteria for the grade Pass with Special Distinction
  • Summary and conclusions
  • 6. Characteristics of Teacher-made Tasks
  • Teacher-made tasks and curriculum emphasis
  • Teacher-made tasks and companion meanings
  • Teacher-made tasks and their relation to the syllabus
  • The goals
  • Criteria for the grade Pass
  • Criteria for the grade Pass with Distinction
  • Criteria for the grade Pass with Special Distinction
  • Summary
  • A comparison of the syllabus and the teacher-made tasks
  • The cognitive complexity in syllabus and teacher-made tasks
  • A tool for measuring alignment
  • The revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy
  • Categorization of syllabus and teacher-made tasks
  • Alignment between syllabus an teacher-made tasks
  • Teachers talking about history education
  • Interviews
  • Presentation of the teachers
  • The purpose of history education
  • What is included in the course
  • Source criticism
  • The grading criteria
  • The issue of progression
  • The construction of tasks
  • Sources of inspiration
  • Summary
  • Characteristics of teacher-made tasks – conclusions
  • Continuity and change in two history syllabi
  • The syllabus from 2011
  • The core content
  • The 2011 history syllabus, curriculum emphasis and companion meanings
  • The goals
  • The core content
  • Companion meanings
  • A brief comparison of two history syllabi
  • 7. Student Strategies: Historical Content, Methods and Temporal Orientation
  • Operationalization of the emphases of historical methods and orientation
  • The historical discipline and historical questions
  • The historical discipline and historical interpretations
  • The historical discipline and contextual knowledge
  • The historical discipline and verifications
  • The historical discipline and temporal orientation
  • The historical discipline and the future
  • A comparison between disciplinary and educational definitions
  • A visualization of interpretations and orientations
  • The source-based assignment
  • Methodical considerations
  • Definition of the analytical framework
  • Students making historical interpretations
  • Historical interpretations on level 1
  • Historical interpretations on level 2
  • Historical interpretations on level 3
  • Historical interpretations on level 4
  • The role of contextual knowledge
  • Contextual knowledge and historical interpretations
  • Contextual knowledge and a source’s construction process
  • Contextual knowledge and the content of the source
  • Problematic use of contextual knowledge
  • Contextual knowledge and verification
  • Correlations between strategies
  • Historical interpretations – conclusions
  • Students engaging in temporal orientation
  • Definition of the analytical framework
  • Student answers
  • Statements with no references to history
  • Statements with references to history
  • Comparisons: continuity and change in student responses
  • Frequencies and correlations
  • Temporal orientation – conclusions
  • 8. Conclusions
  • References
  • Teacher-made tests
  • Interviews
  • Literature
  • Appendices

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It is sometimes said that completing a thesis is lonesome work. Although there have been times when I worked in solitude, this thesis could not have been accomplished without the assistance of others. First, I want to thank the National Graduate School of History for financing this thesis. I also want to direct a warm ‘thank you’ to all those who have had the patience to read and comment on my conference papers. The comments and suggestions I have received at these occasions have been of great importance. I also want to thank my fellow PhD candidates and the senior researchers at the research unit, History and History Didactics, Malmo University. The constructive environment and the lively seminars have meant a great deal in the process of completing this thesis. Also, because English is not my first language, the assistance I received from Sofia Rosenlund has been of great help.

I would like to extend my especially heartfelt gratitude to my two supervisors, Per Eliasson and Anders Jönsson. The many challenging discussions you initiated during this process have been invaluable. So has your belief (as it seemed to me) that the decisions made in the course of this work were moving the thesis in the right direction.

Finally, I wish to thank my family, Ylva, Tove and Björn: ’Cause you shine the dark away …’

Malmo, Sweden

May 2016
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1.  Introduction

The school subject of history can be composed in a variety of ways; each way can consist of a mixture of the aspects of historical content, historical methods and temporal orientation. Decisions on the degree to which these aspects are included in history education takes place on three different levels; first, in the designing of history curricula, second, in the actual teaching of the history subject, and third, when teachers assess their students’ historical knowledge and competencies. How the subject of history is composed is of interest, as the result of this composition presumably affects how students will be able to relate to history. When I apply a historical perspective to the issue of composition of history curricula, some similarities between countries are revealed, as well as some important differences.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, decisions on what to include in history curricula seem to have been made on similar grounds in many Western European countries. At the time, the overarching purpose of history education was to foster the younger generations in certain ways. These fostering missions were achieved by delivering a specific historical content to the students, with the type of content being dependent upon what the fostering was meant to achieve. The fostering of nationalistic feelings, which was common in many countries well into the twentieth century, meant the content would contain stories about the great deeds and adventures of characters who were perceived as the nation’s ancestors.1 This leads to the question, how does this approach to history education enable students to relate to history? I would argue that this approach to history education equips students with information that is useful for identity formation on an individual level and for social cohesion on a more societal level.2 Also, it equips students with historical frames of reference which they can then use to understand both the past and the present.

One consequence stemming from the two world wars was that the will to foster students in a nationalistic direction was somewhat reduced in Europe. As this nationalistic mission was perceived as being closely connected to the school ← 13 | 14 → subject of history, history education was thus subject to criticism. In Sweden, this criticism resulted in what has been described as a crisis for Swedish history education.

This crisis was the result of several changes: the mission of fostering students was transferred from the subject of history to a new, more present and future-oriented social science subject, and the amount of time dedicated to history education was reduced. An additional change was that the delivery of historical content, which was still the main purpose of history education, shifted from lively nationalistic narratives to the transfer knowledge, perceived as objective and derived from the historical discipline. Thus, the purpose shifted from carrying out a nationalistic mission to providing a picture of a consensual view of historical development which resulted in the modern Sweden of that time.3 The response to the criticism launched at the nationalistic history subject resulted in a reduced history subject and aimed at providing an objective backdrop for a country moving into modernity. Changes in history education were made, but these changes did not enable students to relate to history in any other ways than earlier generations; emphasizing national identity, social cohesion and an understanding of the present were still the main strategies made available to the students within history education.

However, the criticism of history education was not limited to Sweden. Similar discussions were also taking place in several other European countries, but the response to the criticism in these countries took the subject of history in directions different from that of Sweden. In England, history education was redirected from the delivery of nationalistic content towards a subject where studying the methods resembling those found in the historical discipline was given increased importance; for instance, how historical evidence is established. Germany’s response to this criticism was to direct history education towards issues of relevance for students in their own time, connecting the present with past, but also, the future.4 In contrast to the changes in Sweden, English and German students were able to relate to history in ways that were different compared with those of earlier generations. Thus, it is possible to discern three directions that history education has taken in these European countries; each of them enabling students to relate to history in different ways. ← 14 | 15 →

As the twentieth century drew to a close, changes were made to history syllabi in Sweden which introduced history students to the ways of relating to history that had already been used in England and Germany. The use of historical methods, and at a later stage, the concepts of historical consciousness and temporal orientation, were successively introduced into history syllabi to describe the purpose of history education and resulted in new ways of relating to history for Swedish history students.5

Whether or not one views history education in a European or a Swedish context, several possible ways to approach history education can be identified. The descriptions of these approaches are based on the intention of the history education as it is formulated in the history curricula of the different nations. This opens up for questions regarding the extent to which the changes of the previously described syllabi have had an impact on history teachers’ classroom practice. This is an important issue, as the teachers’ classroom practice is a crucial link between the curricular formulations and how students are actually prepared to relate to history. ← 15 | 16 →

Aims and research questions

There are two aims of this thesis. The first is to examine what characterizes the history subject offered to students in Swedish upper-secondary school. This includes both the subject that is prescribed in the syllabus and the subject that is enacted in teacher-made assessments, and also, how they relate to the three approaches to history education described in the introduction: the delivery of historical content, the teaching of historical methods and the teaching of temporal orientation.

The second aim of the thesis is to examine the strategies that students use when they handle a task that relates to these three approaches.

The two aims are operationalized in these four research questions:

  1. What characterizes the history subject that is described in the history syllabus?
  2. What characterizes the history subject that is addressed in teachers’ assessments?
  3. How can similarities and differences between the syllabus and the assessment be described and understood?
  4. When handling aspects of historical content, historical methods and temporal orientation, how can students’ strategies be described and understood?


Chapter 2 presents the theoretical framework that will be used to analyse the empirical material. Chapter 3 consists of an overview of research relevant for this thesis. In addition, a methodological discussion is presented in chapter 4, and chapters 5 and 6 are empirical chapters.

In chapter 5, the history syllabus from 1994 is examined. The second research question addresses the kind of history subject that was found in the teachers’ assessment materials, and this is the focus of chapter 6, together with a comparison between the syllabus and the teacher-made tasks. Interviews with teachers are also presented to further the understanding of the findings presented in the empirical chapters.

The fourth research question examines how, and with what strategies, students approach an assignment addressing the three approaches presented in the introduction. This is done by examining the students’ responses to the source-based assignment, and these are presented in chapter 7. Finally, a concluding discussion is presented in chapter 8. ← 16 | 17 →


Syllabus and Curriculum. The concepts of curriculum and syllabus are used with different connotations in different contexts. In this thesis I have chosen to use the meanings of the concepts that are used by the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket). They use the term ‘curriculum’ for the more overarching aims of education, while syllabus is used to describe the sections that describe each of the subject courses in the upper-secondary school

When referring to the goals, grading criteria and knowledge requirements in the syllabi, I will use the term ‘item’.

Competency. In this thesis I use the concept of ‘competency’ to describe abilities which are not innate. When using the concept of competency, I am referring to a skill that students can acquire and improve through education, for example.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (November)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 208 S., 11 Graf., 16 Tab.

Biographical notes

David Rosenlund (Author)

David Rosenlund is a Researcher and Test Developer at the Faculty of Education and Society at Malmö University in Sweden. His main research interest concerns history education in general, with a focus on teacher and student strategies, epistemology and the history curriculum in particular.


Title: History Education as Content, Methods or Orientation?
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210 pages