What does it take to change history? The present and the future are not set in stone. This flux and uncertainty is a wonderfully powerful idea. Change one thing in this interconnected world, and the outcome of history can be completely different.
This blog post is inspired by the excellent BERA (British Educational Research Association) post by Luke Billingham https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/could-the-study-of-historical-contingency-help-to-enliven-students-critical-citizenship based on his article in The Curriculum Journal, about using historical contingency to enhance the teaching of critical democratic citizenship. As Billingham writes, “to say that something is contingent means that it “could be otherwise” – it is not necessary or inevitable for it to exist in its current state (or at all)”.
I started thinking about how we could use this concept in primary and secondary classrooms. Moving beyond the rights and responsibilities of national citizenship, the applications to global citizenship education are exciting. When all of our actions now have a global impact, historical contingency could be a significant component in combatting apathy and cynicism to engage students to create a better world.
I was a secondary history teacher for many years and well aware that understandings of historical contingency are part of scholarship in the subject, but haven’t previously thought of connecting it directly with teaching democratic citizenship. In itself this is a good lesson in why educators must keep reading, learning, sharing and discussing! It also shows how skills crossover and synthesizing cognitive competencies are important in trans disciplinary learning, an increasingly important feature of 21st Century education. Billingham effectively transfers the historical skill of analyzing the past, with added philosophical thinking, to consider what it means to be a citizen today and the impact we have on the future.
The idea that we can challenge historical inevitability is empowering and encourages student agency. By thinking ‘what if?’ in historical narratives, students can understand causation and argue why things happened in the past. When we apply the question of ‘what if?’ to today, it enthuses student voice and action with the power to change the current narrative. Our history is being written now. And we can actually create an alternative.
Historical contingency for critical citizenship can be integrated within history or citizenship curricula in secondary classrooms. In primary classrooms it can be a cross-curricula component in global citizenship education. It includes deliberations of philosophical problems of free will and cause and effect. I have put together two primary school lesson ideas below which integrate historical contingency.
If I could go back in time, what would I change?
This is a hypothetical writing and discussion activity. If you could go back in time, would you change anything? This activity could be done in conjunction with a history unit or as a stand-alone exercise. I have made a graphic organizer as a starting point.
Why did you come to school today?
This activity, based on causation, could be adapted for written or oral skills development. Ask students to make a chain of cause and effects which led to them to arriving at school. It encourages deeper thinking about the past and their own history, and place in the world. How does the country you live in make it possible to go to school?