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Perspective matters: social identity and the teaching and learning of national history.

STATE AND NATIONAL social studies standards have laid out what young people need to know about history, government, and other social studies subjects, but they do not provide information on what young people actually know and believe about a subject. The perspectives or frameworks of knowledge and beliefs that young people bring to their social studies lessons are significant not only because they can serve as a scaffold or springboard for learning, but also because they serve as filters through which teaching, subject matter, and learning must pass. Young people's perspectives about the social world, like those of historians and teachers, are shaped by their identities as members of families, communities, regions, and nations, as well as by their affiliations with racial, ethnic, religious, and other groups. These identities and affiliations influence if, how, and how much young people engage with social studies teachers and texts in schools and how much they learn from school subjects.

In this article, we summarize research that has examined the relationships among children's, adolescents' and adults' social identities (their national, racial, ethnic, and gender identities) and their knowledge of, engagement with, and beliefs about texts and tasks related to the study of national history. Our purpose is to bring to teachers' awareness the mukiple forces that shape and differentiate young people's understanding of national history. With this awareness, teachers can recognize and build on their students' perspectives and in this way help more students learn.

National Identity and History

In a comparative study of fifth graders in the United States and Northern Ireland, differences were found in the ways that children and adults in the two countries thought about historical change. (1) American children attributed changes in their nation's past more often to the actions of individual historical actors than to larger political or social forces. Northern Irish children, however, more often associated changes in the nation's development with large-scale social or political phenomena. The researcher attributed the differences in the children's understanding of historical change to the narrative structures of historical texts that children and adults in each country encountered. Northern Irish textbooks, curricular materials, and the culture at large often presented historical change as a result of large-scale movements or processes, such as immigration or industrialization. American textbooks and the culture at large more often credited great men or individual actors with changing national circumstances.

Another researcher studied Estonian adults' knowledge of, and beliefs about, theft nation's past. (2) He was interested in how Estonian adults who had grown up under Soviet control of the country thought about Estonian history once the Soviet Empire ended in the 1990s. He found that the adults who had gone to school while the Soviet Union controlled the country actually had learned two competing historical narratives. One was based on what they had learned in schools: that Estonians in 1940 had asked the Soviet Union to integrate their nation into the Soviet empire to protect it from German aggression. The Soviet Union graciously obliged and took Estonia under its wing. The second narrative was one that had been handed down by family members and other adults who lived during the Soviet takeover. Unlike the school-based accounts, family members' accounts portrayed the Soviet Union as having forced Estonia into the Soviet Empire in 1940. Even though adults had greater knowledge of the Soviet perspective on Estonian history, they believed and were committed to the history handed down from family members and others.

Racial Identity and National History

We also know something about how children's, adolescents', and adults' racial identities influence their interpretations of U.S. history. In a study of European American teachers' and children's concepts of Native Americans in U.S. history, a researcher found that kindergarten and first-grade children entered school with stereotypical views of Native Americans. They saw them as exotic and uncivilized, images they had acquired from children's literature and the media? Once second graders in the same schools completed a unit on Native American life, they shed the stereotypical images that younger children had acquired and saw Native Americans as diverse groups of peoples. Fourth and fifth-grade students continued to incorporate instruction on Native Americans as diverse and as victims of European expansion during the colonial period, and these students expressed respect and empathy for Native Americans. But as the fifth-grade teachers changed the focus of instruction away from settlement and towards the American Revolution, the students began to identify with the colonists. Rarely did they recognize or express empathy for Native Americans again. "When describing westward expansion in the nineteenth century, for example, the teachers and students portrayed pioneers as heroes and barely mentioned that pioneers displaced Native Americans in the march west.

Children's racial identities also affect how they interpret primary sources and how they judge the significance of particular subject matter. In one study, researchers in Kentucky asked African American and European Americans fifth graders to interpret a 1967 photograph of white protesters and armed soldiers at an anti-war protest. (4) The African American children interpreted the photograph as either a rally against racism (the children associated the 1960s protest with the civil rights movement) or as a dangerous place for African Americans (white soldiers were armed and facing a crowd). Oddly enough, the European American children in the study identified the same picture as having belonged to the Civil War era. In another study, African American and Latino eighth graders saw little purpose in having studied about European settlement during U.S. colonial history, while the European American students thought the unit was interesting and important. (5)

Researchers also have examined race-related differences in the patterns of young people' and adults' historical perspectives and engagement. Researchers in Canada and the United States found that differences in high school students' racial, ethnic, and immigrant identities led to differences in their selections of significant actors, events, and themes in national history. (6) In a Canadian high school, for example, an adolescent who emigrated from Hong Kong listed as a significant historical event the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong during World War II. Similarly, a Chilean immigrant student selected the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende as a significant historical event. (7) In another study, researchers found that Sioux Indian adults explored family history and visited historical museums or sites more often than did African American, Mexican American, or European American adults. African American and Sioux Indian adults also thought that it was more important to situate their families' experiences within the broader contexts of their racial group's history than did the European American or Mexican American adults in the study. (8)

The pattern emerging from these studies is this: Students' social identities--national, racial, and ethnic--are not inert. Rather, they actively shape how and what students learn about national history. Another study brings this point home. One of the authors of this article (Epstein) studied the teaching and learning of U.S. history in fifth, eighth, and eleventh grade classrooms in an urban Midwestern community comprised of African American and European American students. (9) At each grade level, she collected data on students' interpretations of historical actors and events before and after the students had received a year of history instruction. She found that although the classroom teachers (all of whom were white) had some effect on students' interpretations of historical actors, events, and themes, the students' pre-instructional interpretations acquired from family members and peers had a greater effect. This was particularly true of students' explanations of actors and events related to race relations and political rights.

At the beginning and end of the year, African American fifth-, eighth-, and eleventh-grade students saw European Americans or whites as those responsible historically for enslaving, segregating, and physically abusing African Americans. European American students at each grade level referred to black enslavement and segregation but did not refer to European Americans or whites as those who enslaved or segregated blacks and downplayed or totally omitted the role of European American violence towards African Americans. Similarly, African American students at each grade level discussed how Europeans took Native American lands and/or false credit for the discovery of the New World. European American students more often described Native Americans as people who assisted Europeans in the New World or contributed to the larger national culture.

In their depictions of political rights, European American students associated the Bill of Rights, and other actors and events connected with national formation, with the granting or expansion of rights to all Americans or as the foundation of equal rights in contemporary society, which all people enjoy. Even in classrooms where teachers taught that the Bill of Rights extended rights to wealthy white men only, European American students still portrayed the document as having "given us our rights." African American children and adolescents on the other hand more often referred to the Bill of Rights as having given "some people but not other people rights" and commented that people like African Americans still do not have equal rights today. This was the case at the end of the year even when teachers taught that Americans had equal rights today. Overall, African American and European American students at each grade level incorporated aspects of the teacher's lessons into their explanations of race and rights in U.S. history and contemporary society, but they did so in ways that amplified, rather than revised, their pre-instructional historical views.

Gender and National History

We turn now to gender differences in historical thinking. At the end of a unit on early Native American and pioneer history, European American boys in grades K-3 in a Midwestern community knew more about the construction of Native American dwellings than did the girls. Girls, however, knew more details about the interiors of log cabins. (10) In another study conducted in the Northwest, fifth- and eighth-grade European American boys and girls were asked at the beginning of the school year to draw pictures of Puritans, Western settlers, and hippies. (11) The girls included more pictures of women in their historical drawings than did the boys, who primarily depicted male figures. In both studies, the researchers attributed the differences in boys' and girls' depictions to gender role socialization.

In another study, European American eighth-grade girls and boys who completed a unit on nineteenth century U.S. women's history believed that women were a significant part of history and had been left out of previous courses. (12) At the same time, these students worried that the unit on women's history silenced men, even though the teacher had included relevant male actors and activities. Similarly, European American males and females in an eleventh grade U.S. women's history class had difficulty reconciling the historical perspectives that they encountered in the class with the male-oriented approach to U.S. history that they had learned during the previous 10 years of schooling and throughout the broader culture. (13)

Researchers in Amsterdam examined the effects of a women's history course on high school age young women and men. (14) The course dealt with twentieth-century women's history in the Netherlands, Europe, and the United States, and the researchers compared student learning in this course to the learning of similar students in traditional history classes. Students in the women's history class learned more about women in history than did students in the traditional history class. Also, the course contributed to young women's positive gender identity. But the young men in the women's history class said that they preferred traditional history classes to the women's history class.


Although there have been a limited number of studies that examine the effects of social identities on people's historical knowledge and beliefs, they provide teachers with rich food for thought about teaching and learning national history. First, even as early as kindergarten, children come to school with historical content and concepts which are related to their racial, gender, and national identities. There are limits to what and how much children or adolescents will adopt from teachers or texts, especially when school-based historical content conflicts with history accounts learned in the home.

Second, differences in North American and Northern Irish children's concepts of historical change provide a powerful example of the ways in which broader national cultures shape children's understanding of historical content and suggest ways to broaden children's concepts of historical change. While it is important for teachers in the United States to emphasize that individual actions can and do make a difference in history, they also ought to emphasize that great individuals do not make or change the past or present alone. Teachers who place greater emphasis on the roles of groups or social movements in promoting historical change and place group or movement activities in the broader context of political or social forces provide a more powerful explanatory framework for how and why particular individuals, groups, or movements at particular times were or were not successful.

Third, social identities have an important influence not only on what children, adolescents, and adults know about their nation's past, but also on what they believe or are willing to accept about national history. The study of Estonian adults found that the adults knew more about Soviet perspectives on Estonian history than they did about the history handed down from family members, but they did not accept the historical perspectives taught in school. The studies on race-related differences in children's and adolescents' knowledge of race relations and political rights in U.S. history illustrated that teachers' instruction had at best a small effect on students' perspectives on race and rights. These studies suggest that teachers who understand the perspectives that underlie students' historical knowledge may be better equipped to support and broaden the historical knowledge that young people carry into the classroom.

Teachers can examine how their own social identities shape their knowledge and beliefs about national history. Also, they can step up their efforts to assess students' knowledge and beliefs both before and during instruction. Teachers can learn from students whose social identities differ from theirs and incorporate these perspectives into instruction on national history. They can do this by remembering that there is not one but multiple interpretations of history and by paying special attention to the interpretations and perspectives of historians who may share the social identities of their students. Teachers can then integrate these perspectives into their instruction on historical actors, events, or periods, either in place of, or in comparison to, traditional interpretations. To the extent that teachers are willing to broaden their knowledge and beliefs about the nation's past, differences among children's, adolescents', and teachers' social identities can be a source of growth and achievement rather than a reason for avoidance, conflict, or disengagement.

"Research & Practice," established early in 2001, features educational research that is directly relevant to the work of classroom teachers, Here I invited history-education Scholars Terrie Epstein and Jessica Shiller to synthesize the research that shows how the social identities that students bring with them to the history class shape how and what they learn there.

--Walter C. Park University of Washington, Seattle


(1.) Keith Barton, "A Sociocultural Perspective on Children's Understanding of Historical Change: Comparative Findings from Northern Ireland and the United States," American Educational Research Journal 38 (200l): 881-913.

(2.) James V Wertsch, "Is it Possible to Teach Beliefs, as well as Knowledge about History?" in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, eds. Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg (New York University Press, 2000), 38-50.

(3.) Jere Brophy, "Elementary Students Learn about Native Americans: The Development of Knowledge and Empathy," Social Education 63, no. 1 (1999): 39-45.

(4.) Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton, "'They Still Use Some of Their Past': Historical Salience in Elementary Children's Chronological Thinking," Journal of Curriculum Studies 28, no. 5 (1996): 531-76.

(5.) Bruce VanSledright, "I Don't Remember, the Ideas are all Jumbled in my Head: Eighth Graders' Reconstructions of Colonial American History," Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 10, no. 4 (1995): 317-345.

(6.) Peter Seixas, "Historical Understanding among Adolescents in a Multicultural Setting," Curriculum Inquiry 23, no. 3 (1993): 301-327; Sexias, "Students' Understanding of Historical Significance," Theory and Research in Social Education 22, no. 3 (1994): 281-304; Terrie L. Epstein, "Deconstructing Differences in African-American and European-American Adolescents' Perspectives on U.S. History," Curriculum Inquiry 28, no. 4 (1998): 397-423.

(7.) Seixas, "Historical Understanding among Adolescents in a Multicultural Setting."

(8.) Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

(9.) Epstein, "Urban Adolescents" Perspectives on Racial Diversity in United States History: Case Studies from an Urban Classroom," American Educational Research Journal 37, no. 1 (2000): 185-214; Epstein, "Race, Research and Social Education," Theory into Practice 40, no. 2 (2001): 42-47; Epstein, "Deconstructing Differences in African American and European American Adolescents" Perspectives on U. S. History."

(10.) Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, "Second Graders' Knowledge and Thinking about Shelter as a Cultural Universal;' Social Education 66, no. 7 (2002).

(11.) Janice Fournier and Samuel Wineburg, "Picturing the Past: Gender Differences in the Depiction of Historical Figures" American Journal of Education 105 (1997): 160-185.

(12.) Levstik, "Scary Thing Being an Eighth Grader: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in a Middle School History Unit," Theory and Research in Social Education 30, no. 2 (2002): 233-254.

(13.) Mary K. Tretrault, "It's so Opinioney," Journal of Education 168 (1986): 78-95.

(14.) Geert ten Dam and Rally Rijjkschroeff, "Teaching Women's History in Secondary Education: Constructing Gender Identity," Theory and Research in Social Education 16, no. 1 (1996): 71-89.

Terrie Epstein is a visiting associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at New Fork University's (NYU) Steinhardt School of Education. Jessica Shiller is a doctoral candidate at NYU's Steinhardt School of Education.
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Author:Epstein, Terrie; Shiller, Jessica
Publication:Social Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
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