In traditional First Nations communities, Elders are educators who provide learning opportunities for all members. These knowledge keepers share their teachings for everyone’s benefit. For Social Studies teachers, who need to provide all students with equal access to knowledge, there is an important lesson to learn from them.
In Social Studies, students need opportunities to develop their identity, critically inquire about political and social phenomena, and demonstrate citizenship. This is a difficult challenge, given the politicized nature of Social Studies content and teachers’ often limited understanding of this content. Too often, history is understood as a progression of events unfolding in a logical sequence of cause-and-effect. Teachers often rely on this simplistic telling of history, what Stanley (1998) termed the “grand narrative,” and present a Eurocentric version of events free from the context in which they occurred.
Teachers who rely on grand narrative understandings of history will overlook minority experiences without even realizing it. This provides an unequal educational experience for students, many of whom will not readily relate to the situations and events taught in their classrooms. Critical inquiry in Social Studies involves looking at unequal structures and dynamics in society that promote advantage for some while holding others back. A curriculum that is not equally accessible for all students does just that. In this article, three teachers discuss their diverse experiences with grand narratives and the resulting impacts on their teaching practice.
Teachers may not even be aware of their reliance on grand narratives—I know I wasn’t. History, in my mind, was a closed canon. I enjoyed learning about the past, but understood it as one story. Perhaps in large part due to my European ancestry, I connected easily with the development of ideas and the unfolding of events, often centred on a European experience of history. It wasn’t too long into my teaching career that I realized that this framework for understanding the past was insufficient. I felt like I wasn’t reaching many of my students who could not so readily see themselves in historical events.
I can still remember the patriotic and celebratory tone my teacher used while explaining the colonization and imperialism of Canada by European countries. This overlooked the experiences of Aboriginal peoples, reducing their perspective to that of uncivilized savages in need of submission to a superior culture. Now, as a First Nations educator, I experience significant internal and external struggles. My beliefs, values and loyalty to Aboriginal education often clash with my professional responsibility to deliver the approved Social Studies curriculum, which I contend does not fairly infuse an accurate depiction of Aboriginal people and perspectives. I notice significant changes in student engagement and success when I teach from an Aboriginal perspective. I can’t help but wonder how other Aboriginal students in Canadian classrooms feel about the exclusion of their narratives and identity in Canadian curricula.
As a junior high teacher in Fort McMurray, the interplay between grand narrative understandings and minority perspectives plays out in a unique way. When history is viewed as a linear progression of growth and advancement, it follows that economic growth is the ultimate goal of education—preparing students for participation in an ever-growing economy. My community is a major base of operations for transnational companies invested in oil extraction, a major driver of economic growth in our country. This draws attention from environmental sustainability groups. My experiences as a teacher are a microcosm for a greater struggle. I run our school’s “Green Team,” a club that promotes environmental sustainability, but our funding comes from those same transnational corporations whose actions may under-mine the aims of the Green Team’s efforts. I feel the tension of accepting the funding to run environmental education programs knowing where that money is coming from. Will systemic change truly be the goal of ecological educational opportunities funded by corporations?
Our three experiences offer examples of the tension between grand narrative understandings of history and minority perspectives. Whether exploring curriculum from an Aboriginal, ecological, or other overlooked perspective, teachers must design inclusive educational opportunities so that all students can clearly see themselves and their lived experiences at school, and marginalized voices are heard and considered.
American sociologist, Robert Connell (1995) argues that any education that privileges one child over another is corrupted, even for those who benefit socially or economically from it (p. 57). Outside of grand narrative understandings of history, the untold stories of minorities are sidelined by teaching that excludes their experiences and understandings. Outside of grand narrative understandings are ecological imperatives that demand our attention and, potentially, systemic changes to prevent catastrophic environmental destruction. Problematically, people have come to adopt grand narrative history as real history (Stanley, 2006) and in doing so push aside those alternative viewpoints and minority perspectives of historical events. If educational programming seeks to provide the full benefit of education to all students, just like traditional knowledge keepers have practiced for generations, it must avoid relying on grand narratives. As Blackmore (2006) asks, “if school leaders and teachers are not prepared to lead to reduce inequality, who will?”
Connell, R. W. (1995). Social justice in schooling. Sydney, Australia: Centre for Equity.
Blackmore, J. (2006). Social justice and the study and practice of leadership in education: A feminist history. Journal of Educational Administration and History (38)2, 185-200. doi: 10.1080/00220620600554876.
Scott, D. (2013). Teaching Aboriginal perspectives: An investigation into teacher practices amidst curriculum change. Canadian Social Studies, 46(1), 31-43. Retrieved from https://eric.ed.gov/.
Stanley, T. (1998). The struggle for history: Historical narratives and anti-racist pedagogy. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 19(1), 41-49. doi: 10.1080/0159630980190103.
Stanley, T. (2006). Whose public? Whose memory? Racisms, grand narratives and Canadian history. In R. W. Sandwell (Ed.), To the past: History education, public memory, and citizenship in Canada (pp. 32-49). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kevin Winkel, Tiffany Hourie, and Nazia Jeelani-Hiscock
Kevin Winkel, Tiffany Hourie, and Nazia Jeelani-Hiscock are full-time secondary teachers and graduate students at the University of Alberta. All have been inspired to teach with a more inclusive approach to Social Studies, recognizing overlooked minority perspectives in education and highlighting the contribution of minority peoples in historical developments and events.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2017 issue.