Successful Perspective-Taking? On the Problem and Potential of “Empathy” (or simulative) Tasks in Historical Education (2nd, enhanced version)

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In text­books as well as in the class­room, there are always tasks that require the learn­ers to put them­selves in the shoes of a his­tor­i­cal per­son­al­i­ty and to per­form a cer­tain men­tal effort “from their per­spec­tive” — for exam­ple, to write a let­ter or the like.

The aim of such tasks is usu­al­ly to deter­mine the extent to which stu­dents are able to take this step of “tak­ing” or “adopt­ing” a per­spec­tive, i.e. to “put them­selves in the shoes” (or posi­tion) of a tem­po­ral­ly and/or cul­tur­al­ly “for­eign” per­son and to judge past sit­u­a­tions not only from their present per­spec­tive, with mod­ern con­cepts and val­ues etc. In the back­ground of such tasks there is thus a fun­da­men­tal con­cept of fun­da­men­tal (not only mar­gin­al) change extend­ing over time, which requires us to judge each past epoch “from with­in”, in the hori­zon of con­tem­po­rary think­ing. Accord­ing to Rüsen, this con­cept under­lies genet­ic his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness.1 In this respect it is (prob­a­bly right­ly) con­sid­ered specif­i­cal­ly mod­ern (where­by the sequence of the types of mean­ing as forms of thought in deal­ing with the past that have emerged in the course of his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal his­to­ry is in turn based on the genet­ic con­cept. The typol­o­gy itself is thus specif­i­cal­ly mod­ern). It is this way of think­ing that makes the uncon­di­tion­al per­cep­tion, think­ing through and judg­ing of a sit­u­a­tion that is alien in time with the help of cat­e­gories that are not con­tem­po­rary but present, sus­pect under the con­cept of “pre­sen­teeism”. Accord­ing to Sam Wineb­urg, this form of think­ing is the nat­ur­al, but un-his­tor­i­cal one, its over­com­ing in favour of a per­cep­tion and recog­ni­tion of the fun­da­men­tal oth­er­ness of the past that is the labo­ri­ous core of his­tor­i­cal learn­ing against the pre­sen­tist default.2

Even if his­tor­i­cal think­ing and learn­ing is hard­ly absorbed in this over­com­ing of a qua­si-nat­ur­al pre­sen­teeism, but rather cap­tures much more com­plex setups and oper­a­tions, espe­cial­ly if one empha­sizes the ori­en­ta­tion func­tion of his­to­ry in the present (as Jörn Rüsen’s the­o­ry does and with it most of the con­cepts of Ger­man his­to­ry didac­tics), the aspect empha­sized by Wineb­urg cer­tain­ly belongs to the core of the busi­ness.

But to what extent are tasks of the type men­tioned suit­able for this? Some doubts are in order. But this does not mean that these tasks are fun­da­men­tal­ly use­less. What is need­ed, how­ev­er, is an inten­sive reflec­tion on their log­ic, the per­for­mances and achieve­ments demand­ed by them of the learn­ers, as well as on the work required of the cor­re­spond­ing tasks (vul­go: stu­dent achieve­ments — to what extent they are real­ly “achieve­ments” remains to be reflect­ed) and their sig­nif­i­cance in the learn­ing process.

One aspect of this is that (like so many in his­to­ry teach­ing) these tasks — at least in tra­di­tion­al teach­ing con­texts — often mix up char­ac­ter­is­tics of learn­ing and achieve­ment tasks. Stu­dents must — at least with­out fur­ther clar­i­fi­ca­tion of the teach­ing func­tion — gain the impres­sion that the required adop­tion of per­spec­tives is valid­ly pos­si­ble and can be assessed by the teacher. This makes the task a per­for­mance task. Even if it is not intend­ed to ques­tion and check some­thing that has already been prac­tised before, but to present the stu­dents with a new chal­lenge, such tasks do not in any way indi­cate what is to hap­pen to the work done by the stu­dents oth­er than that it is to be dis­closed to the plenum or the teacher and assessed by them — but on the basis of which cri­te­ria?
Which teacher, which researcher of today could ever say when the adop­tion of a per­spec­tive has “suc­ceed­ed”? None of us can think or assess a sit­u­a­tion like a 10th cen­tu­ry monk or a Japan­ese samu­rai. No one will have a “ful­ly valid” answer to a cor­re­spond­ing task — and no teacher can decide which achieve­ment is “right”.

Nev­er­the­less, such tasks are not non­sen­si­cal. After all, they are not at all con­cerned with (unfair­ly) demand­ing some­thing more or less spon­ta­neous­ly from the stu­dents (name­ly the tem­po­rary under­stand­ing of past actions), which is still the sub­ject and task of exten­sive research today. Rather, such tasks actu­al­ly aim to make plau­si­ble the require­ment of abstrac­tion from the present per­spec­tive and the oth­er­ness of per­cep­tion, inter­pre­ta­tion and deci­sion result­ing from such attempts. The cri­te­ri­on for the suc­cess of such tasks there­fore lies nei­ther in actu­al­ly hav­ing come close to the past per­son mimet­i­cal­ly, nor in strip­ping off one’s own present posi­tion­al­i­ty and per­spec­tive as com­plete­ly as pos­si­ble, so that one sim­ply argues “as strange­ly as pos­si­ble” and then pass­es this off as proof of a suc­cess­ful adop­tion of per­spec­tive.
Rather, the aim of such tasks is that stu­dents should rec­og­nize from the attempt to adopt such a per­spec­tive that they have to aban­don present self-under­stand­ings in order to some­how “do jus­tice” to a past per­spec­tive. Thus, it is not the coher­ence of the indi­vid­ual result that is impor­tant, but rather the recog­ni­tion and sig­nif­i­cance of the claim of his­tor­i­cal think­ing: some­one who judges and eval­u­ates the (suf­fi­cient­ly com­plex) cog­ni­tive­ly pre­sent­ed past sit­u­a­tion as he/she would do from today’s present with­out any cir­cum­stances, shows just as lit­tle his­tor­i­cal under­stand­ing as some­one who presents and eval­u­ates every­thing as dif­fer­ent­ly as pos­si­ble, but can­not say at all to what extent this should be appro­pri­ate to the con­crete sit­u­a­tion.

Only when talk­ing and dis­cussing about the respec­tive (and prefer­ably dif­fer­ent) “solu­tions” (bet­ter: treat­ments) it becomes clear what the indi­vid­ual stu­dents have already under­stood, but the poten­tial for the actu­al learn­ing process is actu­al­ly only there.
The orig­i­nal pro­cess­ing of the task is there­fore wrong­ly used as proof of the ful­fil­ment of a require­ment for a suc­cess­ful change of per­spec­tive for the­o­ret­i­cal and didac­tic rea­sons. Such tasks must not be under­stood as achieve­ment tasks, but must be learn­ing tasks in so far as they gen­er­ate the mate­r­i­al for the actu­al process of his­tor­i­cal think­ing and learn­ing.

In this way, how­ev­er, they achieve a learn­ing poten­tial that is only slight­ly changed on the ter­mi­no­log­i­cal lev­el, but clear­ly changed in the­o­ret­i­cal terms. From the ulti­mate­ly unful­fil­l­able and mea­sur­able or iden­ti­fi­able claim to a suc­cess­ful (or post fes­tum: suc­cess­ful change of per­spec­tive), the pos­si­bil­i­ty of not aban­don­ing one’s own per­spec­tive, but rather expand­ing it by means of the required jus­ti­fied, i.e. cog­ni­tive con­sid­er­a­tion of fac­tors that make up anoth­er per­spec­tive, would become pos­si­ble. Broad­en­ing and reflec­tion of per­spec­tive instead of a change of per­spec­tive.

In this respect, one could (also) bor­row method­i­cal­ly from the for­eign lan­guage didac­tic prin­ci­ple of “task-based learn­ing” in that the pro­cess­ing of a task by stu­dents is sub­ject to reflec­tion in a focus on (here:) his­to­ry phase, in which his­tor­i­cal think­ing (and lan­guage) is made explic­it, and pre­cise­ly in this process new­ly acquired or dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed con­cepts, terms, meth­ods, etc., which are more abstract and pro­vid­ed with a reflex­ive index, are also made explic­it. is the­ma­tized and pro­gres­sion is explic­it­ly encour­aged.

This in turn can be method­olog­i­cal­ly imple­ment­ed by using coop­er­a­tive learn­ing meth­ods3, for exam­ple by using the “Think-Pair-Share” (or “Think — Exchange — Dis­cuss”) scheme is imple­ment­ed in such a way that the results of such a task, which were ini­tial­ly pre­pared in indi­vid­ual work (“Think” phase), are nei­ther direct­ly giv­en to the teacher nor pre­sent­ed and dis­cussed in the ple­nary ses­sion, but rather in part­ner work or also in small groups (“Pair” phase) of learn­ers them­selves, who first com­pare and analyse sev­er­al such work­ings of the task from oth­er points of view than only how “good” or “suc­cess­ful” they are.
As usu­al, such “Pair”-phas­es should not only be about pre­sent­ing the indi­vid­ual results to the oth­er stu­dents so that they all know them. Rather, such phas­es need their own work assign­ments. In the present case, these can con­sist of com­par­ing the indi­vid­ual work assign­ments in a descrip­tive way: What have the authors done sim­i­lar­ly, what dif­fer­ent­ly? What effect do these deci­sions have on the pro­cess­ing of the task? Do insights and ques­tions arise regard­ing the mean­ing and pur­pose of the task — now that dif­fer­ent solu­tions are known?
Such a com­par­a­tive analy­sis, which does not imme­di­ate­ly con­sid­er the present works from the point of view of suc­cess, and even puts them in a one-dimen­sion­al series, but rather works out, on the basis of these adap­ta­tions, what could some­times make every­thing dif­fer­ent, con­tributes to the fact that the thought process, the require­ment of his­tor­i­cal thought, which the task addressed, comes into view as such. It may even be advis­able that the small group car­ry­ing out the com­par­a­tive work only looks at oth­er pupils’ texts, not at their own, and that they receive these anony­mous­ly (e.g. through com­put­er writ­ing). It may even be use­ful for the teacher her­self to include one or two dif­fer­ent works “anony­mous­ly”, which are to be dis­cov­ered, com­pared with the oth­ers and assessed in terms of their poten­tial and lim­i­ta­tions.
The “Share” phase of the dis­cus­sion in the plenum then receives its own task, name­ly the dis­cus­sion and nego­ti­a­tion of the insights gained in the groups (was this the case in all small groups? Do the insights com­ple­ment each oth­er or are they rather in ten­sion with each oth­er?) and ques­tions not so much about indi­vid­ual treat­ments, but about the con­trasts per­ceived between them.
It could be that…

  • … Stu­dents have used very dif­fer­ent words when writ­ing their indi­vid­ual assign­ments and now real­ize that they can­not sim­ply assume that their cur­rent terms can be used “in the sit­u­a­tion” with­out fur­ther ado.
  • … some pupils* dis­cov­er the ques­tion to what extent it can be assumed that the per­son they are sup­posed to put them­selves in the shoes of is not nec­es­sar­i­ly able to write. (Even a refusal of the task for such a rea­son can then be pro­duc­tive­ly includ­ed as the result of a his­tor­i­cal thought process).
  • … a com­par­i­son between two edits in the small group shows that the authors quite nat­u­ral­ly (= with­out hav­ing giv­en it much thought) start­ed out from very dif­fer­ent lev­els of infor­ma­tion about “their” per­son, so that the ques­tion aris­es: what could one know about … back then?
  • the com­par­i­son shows that some stu­dents may have includ­ed hind­sight infor­ma­tion in the process, while oth­ers did not.”

The lat­ter case in par­tic­u­lar shows that such an approach makes it pos­si­ble not to let such “errors” in his­tor­i­cal think­ing become imme­di­ate­ly (or even at all) effec­tive as “errors” (and demo­ti­vat­ing their thema­ti­za­tion), but to use them (qua anony­mous com­par­i­son) pro­duc­tive­ly to gain insight.

Such pro­ce­dures of coop­er­a­tive learn­ing with its pos­si­bil­i­ties to let pupils think about their own prod­ucts in a form that does not imme­di­ate­ly hier­ar­chise and eval­u­ate them, can also be sup­port­ed by dig­i­tal instru­ments, name­ly those that make it pos­si­ble to make the results of pupils’ work vis­i­ble (anony­mous­ly) next to each oth­er on a large smart board or sim­i­lar and to work on them in ple­nary, such as with “Ether­pads” (cf.

Final­ly, such a pro­cess­ing and eval­u­a­tion of such a task also enables non-sep­a­rat­ing dif­fer­en­ti­a­tions by means of scaf­fold­ing. It is pos­si­ble, for exam­ple, that in the indi­vid­ual pro­cess­ing phase stu­dents with dif­fi­cul­ties in writ­ing and for­mu­lat­ing, with abstrac­tion etc. are not required to write their own texts, but that they are enabled to decide on the basis of a series of pre­pared “text mod­ules” what would be con­ceiv­able and con­sis­tent in a solu­tion. The giv­en text mod­ules must then of course in turn have quite dif­fer­ent solu­tions and designs — up to and includ­ing incom­pat­i­ble and even con­tra­dic­to­ry parts. In this way, the con­struc­tive task would be turned into an assign­ment of giv­en sym­bol build­ing blocks to each oth­er by “task rever­sal”. A task that is quite dif­fer­ent on the “sur­face” can thus — for the pur­pose of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and scaf­fold­ing — address and require sim­i­lar and com­pa­ra­ble oper­a­tions of his­tor­i­cal thought and — in reflec­tion — pro­mote them. (Of course, such dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion and under­pin­ning by means of scaf­folds also means that the anonymi­ty that may have been cho­sen for fur­ther eval­u­a­tions can no longer be ful­ly main­tained. But this can also be dealt with pro­duc­tive­ly).

  1. Rüsen, Jörn (1983): His­torische Ver­nun­ft. Grundzüge ein­er His­torik I: Die Grund­la­gen der Geschichtswis­senschaft. Göt­tin­gen: Van­den­hoeck & Ruprecht (Kleine Van­den­hoeck-Rei­he, 1489); Rüsen, Jörn (2013): His­torik. The­o­rie der Geschichtswis­senschaft. Köln: Böh­lau. []
  2. See Wineb­urg, Sam (1999): His­tor­i­cal Think­ing and Oth­er Unnat­ur­al Acts. In: The Phi Delta Kap­pan 80 (7), S. 488–499; Wineb­urg, Sam (2001): His­tor­i­cal Think­ing and Oth­er Unnat­ur­al Acts. Chart­ing the Future of Teach­ing the Past. Philadel­phia: Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty Press (Crit­i­cal per­spec­tives on the past). []
  3. e.g. accord­ing to Green, Norm; Green, Kathy (2007): Koop­er­a­tives Ler­nen im Klassen­raum und im Kol­legium. Seelze-Vel­ber: Klett; Kallmey­er. []
  4. In con­trast to some oth­er instru­ments praised in the con­text of dig­i­ti­za­tion, which ulti­mate­ly do noth­ing else but imple­ment con­ven­tion­al, small-step meth­ods of a knowl­edge check with imme­di­ate right-wrong feed­back elec­tron­i­cal­ly and often even wors­en in so far that due to the elec­tron­ic com­par­i­son of the stu­dents with a sam­ple solu­tion cor­rect, but dif­fer­ent­ly for­mu­lat­ed answers are report­ed back as ‘wrong’, just as half cor­rect answers can­not be appre­ci­at­ed, ether­pads enable the orga­ni­za­tion of a com­mon con­sid­er­a­tion of a num­ber of indi­vid­ual solu­tions. Due to the often typed-in and there­fore giv­en inde­pen­dence from hand­writ­ing, a cer­tain anonymiza­tion can be achieved, which allows the focus to be on the text, not the author. Regard­ing the avail­able space, font size etc. there are still lim­its, how­ev­er, which may make it advis­able to use “anal­o­gous” meth­ods with cards, posters etc. []

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