A History Teacher Looks Back – Ken Osbourne: Reflection

While making my definitions, I was careful to avoid articulating “teacher” and “learner” as distinct roles in the classroom.

Osbourne discusses extreme manifestations of this in some of the classrooms he has observed. “No matter how carefully teachers explained a topic, outlined what they expected from their students and expatiated on its interest and importance, the not-so-hidden message was always that this was something students did not know and were expected to learn.” (p. 127) In these cases, learning was a passive action, and students were seen as receptacles.

At the beginning of the article, Osbourne discusses some of the things he most enjoyed about being a history teacher. The conversations, the debates, the opportunities that his students provided for him to develop his own learning and understanding. (p. 109-110) Education is by no means a one way street, and the purpose of it is not to transmit knowledge but to “explore the questions that bother[ you and] … be interesting in its own right.” (p. 117) In fact, Osbourne emphasizes that when he first started teaching teachers, he believed “the first obligation of history teachers … is to make their subject interesting.” (p. 126) This interest is what sparks an engagement with material and a sublimation of the concepts and themes explored.

Throughout the article, Osbourne highlights how teaching history can be transformative. He quotes H. G. Wells saying “This is a world where folly and hate can bawl sanity out of hearing. Only the determination of schoolmasters and teachers can hope to change that. How can you hope to change it by anything but teaching?” (p. 113)

This idea is to not merely teach students, but to stimulate and engage them. Osborne quotes Jean Barman saying, “Education, even present-day education, with all its defects, tends to stimulate the imagination and sharpen the perceptions of those who receive it.” (p. 113)

The type of education that Osbourne is promoting combats student passivity in class. He demands that students are active in imagining and re-creating history, so that they can create a deeper understanding and network of skills. We should not approach history “as recounting the more or less authoritative story of how the Canadian nation came to be built.” (p. 122) He articulates his methodologies most clearly as “teaching against the textbook.” (p. 122)

What makes this more interesting is a very early quote in the article, “Arthur Lower once described high school teaching as ‘just the turning over again of relatively elementary material,’ and Michael Bliss has written that many high school teachers begin to ‘vegetate intellectually’ after three or four years of teaching…” (p. 109) Osbourne is eager to tell us that he never became bored as a high-school teacher, but the fact of the matter is, if these quotes exist, so does a tendency towards passivity in the teacher.

As a result, I would ask Osbourne, do you think professional tendencies towards formalism, complacency and reliance on previously used materials/textbooks lead to classrooms demanding only passivity and recall from students? Is there a relationship between educational methodology and student engagement?

Osbourne reflects on how so little has actually changed with regards to how we teach history, despite the fact that we have known better ways to approach this type of education for over a century. (p. 132) What I am brought to consider is how conceptions of “teachers,” and especially a teacher’s own conception of the duties implied in their profession, can hold a causative relationship to the type of learning that takes place in the classroom.

  • Osborne, K. (2012). A history teacher looks back. The Canadian Historical Review, 91(1), 108–137. doi: 10.3138/chr.93.1.108

Web Data Integration with ManageBac

This post was written for the talk “APIs and Beyond” at the Faria Education Technology Conference 2021.               APIs or Application Programming Interfaces are central

Read More »