The new Social Studies curriculum may be new for many, but not for Heritage Fairs teachers. On a tour of a recent Fair there were creative displays that explored topics as diverse as residential schools, corsets, Igor Gouzenko, and Harry Jerome. All of these projects focussed on what the curriculum calls ” big, open-ended questions” such as “How is dress reform connected to women’s rights and freedom?” and “How did Igor Gouzenko start the Cold War?” Students gave thoughtful, knowledgeable explanations of their topic and answered questions about historical significance and their use of evidence.
The Ministry of Education curriculum document quotes Levstik and Barton: “By allowing students to pursue their own investigations and reach their own conclusions, inquiry should enable those whose experiences have not traditionally been represented in the official curriculum to deepen and expand their historical understanding rather than simply to remain distanced from school history.” Many of the topics students presented at recent fairs were non-traditional ranging from family history – “My Bannock Family” – and local – “Kingsway: A Biography of a Street” – to national – Farley Mowat – and international – Spanish Flu.
Others are more closely tied to the official curriculum. Some teachers require students to choose topics that connect to one of the big ideas for that particular grade level. For example, grade 4 is about resources, grade 5 – immigration, through to grade 9 on collective identity.
As well as big ideas, each grade lists curricular competencies that “are built around six disciplinary concepts put forward in history by Peter Seixas and the Historical Thinking Project, and in geography by the Critical Thinking Consortium: significance, evidence, cause and consequence continuity and change, perspectives, and ethical judgement.” Evidence and significance are the most evident at the Fairs, but you will also find projects that ask questions about cause and consequences, for example, “Fraser River or the Klondike Gold Rush: Which had the most impact on Canada’s history?” Others pose ethical questions such as “Should Canada participate in wars or is peacekeeping the best decision?” Many student projects explore change and continuity with some very imaginative, visual timelines.
Education researcher John Hattie argued in a recent interview: “We are terrible in education at acknowledging success.” Moreover, “When we have a successful lesson, or when you’re running a successful school, very often we attribute that to the kids but it is actually us.” Behind these thoughtful and articulate students are “us”: teachers and Heritage Fair co-ordinators who kindle student curiosity about a topic, focus it through an inquiry question, and stress reflection and critical thinking along the way.
The Heritage Fairs Society and its coordinators continue to build on the successful strategies of these teachers and students through workshops and the web site www.bcheritagefairs.ca in order to grow beyond the 5,000 students who currently participate and to ensure that the historical thinking at the heart of the curriculum come alive.