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Between every now and then : history and social studies teachers’ interpretations of history agency and social change den Heyer, Kent

Abstract

If history and social studies instruction helps to create "imagined communities," then presumably it also creates images of the ways in which communities have formed, now function, and will continue to evolve. Questions about the ways that people imagine their capacities and contribute (agency) to how communities change through time (social change), thus, lie at the very heart of history and social studies instruction. Yet, to what degree or in what ways teachers engage students in such questions is insufficiently addressed in the history and social studies education research literature. This study begins with a review of this literature. I conclude that students cite an "American middle-class conception" of agency, casting celebrated individuals as the cause of social change in a light that fails to illuminate the complexities of human subjectivity and the multiple sources of social change. I continue with a theoretical investigation of historical agency as a more distributed and fractious capacity. I create a "sensitizing framework" from recent work in historiography and sociology offering a range of interpretations of the ways that social conditions and individual and group intentions and actions intersect to affect social change. In the empirical portion of this study, I use the "sensitizing framework," observations, and individual interviews to explore four high school history teachers' interpretations of historical agency and change in their teaching and thought. The framework serves as an effective heuristic device aiding participants' reflection on their practice and clarifying the disjunctures and complexities of their interpretations. I conclude that a similar exploration by teachers with students will enhance both the complexity of their historical explanations of social change and reflection on their variegated capacities as agents of social life.

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