Educating for diversity and democracy: teaching history in contemporary europe

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Phase 1 of the project (2016-2017)


The initial project document identified five specific objectives. They were:

  1. To collect and analyse information on the history curriculum, teaching and learning and teacher education in relation to the development of democratic citizenship; its position in educational systems and its importance in relation to other subjects in the curriculum.

  1. To identify and evaluate the range of approaches employed in assessing not only students’ levels of performance in history, but also the dispositions and competences relevant to the concept of democratic citizenship.

  1. To collect examples of effective practice with a view to determining how history education could best help young people to consider diversity positively, to learn how to live together, to combat manipulation and violence, and to develop a culture of co-operation.

  1. To produce policy recommendations and guidelines for identifying and achieving high quality history education in the context of current challenges and particularly growing diversity at both policy and practitioner level.

  1. To provide support for the continuing development of history education in present-day diverse societies, with special focus on the development in young people of democratic competences.

Phase one of the project is designed to address the first three of these objectives.

In order to achieve this, the two years during which this phase will run will provide a wide forum for discussion for those involved in history education at a variety of levels.

Following the suggestion made by the Steering Committee for Educational Policy and Practice (CDPPE) in March 2015 the first phase of the project will be developed in the framework of regional seminars to be organised in close co-operation with the ministries of education of the member states. Two activities will be held in 2016 and two in 2017.
Two representatives from each of the participating countries, one nominated by the relevant ministry of education – a specialist involved in the preparation of curricula- and one invited by the Council of Europe –a history teacher, will take part in each seminar.
Prior to the date of a seminar, the participants will be asked to complete a questionnaire designed to provide details and exemplar material of ways in which history teaching and assessment in their country contributes, or could be enabled to contribute, to young people’s understanding of diversity and the development of democratic values.
Some examples of questions which will be included in the questionnaire are attached at Annex I. Findings from a preliminary analysis of the responses to the questionnaire will be presented at the seminars.
It is envisaged that, minor adjustments apart, each seminar will follow the same programme. This is to ensure the overall coherence and consistency of the project’s findings and outputs.

The rationale for the project identified a number of major challenges currently confronting Europe’s democratic and diverse societies and their educational systems. How far these systems are capable of addressing these challenges successfully is a significant benchmark by which to determine the quality of an education system. Education has a key role to play in providing young people with values, skills, attitudes, knowledge and critical understanding necessary to combat forms of extremism that threaten political and social stability. A vitally important task for history education is that of helping young people to know and understand the past in ways which enhance their ability to live constructively in today’s diverse and complex world.

The seminars will, therefore, focus on three major themes:

  1. History education’s contribution to building diverse, inclusive societies

History and history education play an important role in shaping identities. Versions of the past can appear to lend legitimacy to identities by giving them the appearance of timeless continuity and, therefore, an ‘essential’ or ‘natural’ quality. This may become problematic when the cultural dominance of particular ethnic or national groups within the nation-state leads to the conflation of their interests and ‘culture’ with those of the nation-state as a whole, thus marginalising other ethnic or national groups. But history can also be utilised to help to emphasise more inclusive notions of identity. This capacity of history teaching becomes even more important now bearing in mind latest immigration waves in Europe.

The Assembly notes that relations with people from different cultural backgrounds have become a common experience for a majority of people at school, in the workplace, in residential neighbourhoods and in a variety of public spaces, particularly in urban areas. A growing number of individuals, especially young people, have multiple cultural affiliations to enjoy, but also to manage, on a daily basis. Their “composite identity” can no longer be restricted to a “collective identity” related to a particular ethnic or religious group.

Identities and diversity within intercultural societies, Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Resolution 2005 (2014), paragraph 2.

  1. Developing critical historical thinking in the digital age

Navigating in the space created by technology and the unprecedented access to information and social inter-change that it offers has many advantages. But at the same time young people have to acquire the strong analytical and interpretation skills and the powers of judgement, which will permit them to travel constructively and safely in this virtual world. They need to be helped to develop the critical antennae which will enable them to detect deliberate misinformation, recognise stereotypes and counter false arguments in ways which will strengthen their resistance to manipulation from whatever source.

‘Critical thinking’ used to be one of the goals of a liberal arts education, but wasn’t always a high priority, especially in the age of ‘teaching to the test,’ but now that the answer to any question is available through a web search—but the accuracy of the answers can only be determined by the questioner—the ability to assess the credibility of web information, and the mind-set that encourages critical analysis, has become an essential survival skill for the Digital Age.

Rheingold H. Smart Mobs: the Next Social Revolution, 2002

In addition this part of the project could contribute to the development of the Digital citizenship education project.

  1. Dealing with sensitive issues: the affective engagement of young people in the teaching and learning of history

This aspect has to do with recognising that history is necessarily values based subject – in terms, for example, of the choice of a particular body of content, or the way in which that chosen content is transmitted. It recognises also that the key words embodied in the project – ‘diversity’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘democracy’, ‘quality’ – involve both the making of value judgements and the active embracing of a given set of values on the part of both teacher and student. Further, affective engagement of students is an element in helping to address questions such as: ‘How can history teachers enable students to deal with emotions stemming from collective (and sometimes manipulated) collective memory and commemoration?’ ‘How should history teachers approach the teaching of sensitive issues?’

If teachers in Northern Ireland hope to engage students in controversial issues discussion, particularly those that might involve connections to the present (and why would they be controversial otherwise?), they must be prepared to grapple with students’ emotional responses. On a practical level, this is important because such responses, if unacknowledged, may act as a barrier to careful consideration of evidence and argument. Ultimately, if emotional issues are ignored, then far from learning to deal with difficult issues rationally, students may simply come to see school history as irrelevant to their own concerns. And students are, after all, entitled to their emotions. Asking them to ignore their own identity as the price for public discussion may demand too much, and it is not necessarily a demand we have the right to make.

Barton K. and McCully A. Teaching controversial issues… where controversial issues really matter, Teaching History, Vol 127, June 2007, Historical Association.

Within each of these themes participants will consider a number of sub-themes and develop materials illustrating the ways in which they might be addressed in the various aspects of history teaching and learning as indicated in the table on next page.


History education’s contribution to building diverse, inclusive societies


Combatting stereotypical thinking

Teaching the history of ‘the other’

Understanding multiple identities

Teaching controversial and sensitive issues

How might each of these sub-themes be built into the various aspects of history teaching?


Developing critical historical thinking in the digital age


Using and abusing internet resources

Addressing multiperspectivity through new technologies

The role of social media in the history classroom

Harnessing students’ digital experience

How might each of these sub-themes be built into the various aspects of history teaching?

        • themes and topics in the curriculum

        • teaching materials and resources

        • classroom practice and teaching approaches

        • assessment and examinations


Dealing with sensitive issues: the affective engagement of young people in the teaching and learning of history


Empathetic understanding and historical explanation

History teaching’s role in developing democratic values, attitudes and beliefs

Combatting societal myths and the misuse of history

Teaching history in conflict and post-conflict situations

How might each of these sub-themes be built into the various aspects of history teaching?

        • themes and topics in the curriculum

        • teaching materials and resources

        • classroom practice and teaching approaches

        • assessment and examinations

The development of these themes and sub-themes will help to analyse how the competences indicated in the new Framework of References of Competences for Democratic Culture: Teaching, Learning and Assessment could be used in pedagogical practices.

Working in small groups, participants will be tasked to produce proposals for exemplar curricular documents, lesson structures, teaching materials and strategies, and approaches to assessment on a chosen historical topic or theme. These exemplars should reflect what the group considers to be effective practice in the teaching of history for a specified age group, and they will be asked to justify their decisions. During the plenary sessions there will be opportunities for groups to share their materials and discuss their judgements.

In order to assist this work, participants will be invited to bring to the seminar relevant materials (e.g. curricular and policy documents, teaching materials, lesson plans, assessment strategies, good practice guides).


Following each seminar there will be a regional report detailing:

  • common elements and differences in curricula, in teaching and learning processes and in assessment emerging from the analysis of the collected data (objective 1);

  • the range of approaches in assessing students’ performance in history and progress in competences relevant to the concept of democratic citizenship and democratic culture (objective 2);

  • documents, materials and references representing examples of effective practice produced by the working groups and outcomes from the plenary discussions (objective 3);

  • proposals on what makes for high quality in history education at the regional level.

The regional reports from phase one will inform the second phase of the project.

Annex I



(To be distributed to participants prior to the seminar)

For the following questions, when describing history teaching’s contribution, please consider for example:

  • the aims and content of the history curriculum (please note whether all students follow the same curriculum, or whether different groups follow different curricula);

  • the nature and range of teaching materials and other resources (e.g. museum collections, archives, historical sites) available to teachers;

  • the evidence you have of classroom practice;

  • the pedagogical approaches for which teachers are trained – including both initial and in-service training.

It would also be very helpful if you could provide specific examples (of, for example, curricula, teaching materials, policy documents) to support your responses.

When responding to the questions please keep in mind the major current challenges confronting European societies and their governments, namely:

  • economic and social inequalities;

  • the need to reach and come to terms with new concepts of identity and citizenship, including accepting the reality of multiple identities;

  • challenges to the concept and practice of living together, including inter-ethnic, inter-cultural and inter-religious tensions and the development and dissemination of stereotypes;

  • threats to political and social stability posed by extremist and terrorist groups;

  • changed connections and interdependencies resulting from globalisation and increasing move of the population;

  • breakdowns in means of social control; and

  • changes in patterns of social networking and means of communication.

Examples of questions

  1. How does history teaching in your schools help young people (7-19) to understand the growing diversity within the society/communities in which they live?

  2. How does history teaching in your schools help young people (7-19) to understand what makes a society democratic and what have been the main steps towards achieving this over time?

  3. How does history teaching in your schools help to promote the ideas of inclusivity within society and social cohesion particularly bearing in mind the latest migration waves in Europe?

  4. Are the issues of diversity, inclusivity and democratic values considered in history assessment in school and in national examinations? (If not, how do you think they might be?)

  5. What changes, if any, have been introduced over the past 25 years in order to promote democracy and the understanding of diversity through the teaching of history?

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