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 methods 3, 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. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etherpad). 4
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).
- 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.
- 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).
- e.g. according to Green, Norm; Green, Kathy (2007): Kooperatives Lernen im Klassenraum und im Kollegium. Seelze-Velber: Klett; Kallmeyer.
- 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.