Teaching of complex historical facts



Main principles of the TRANSNATIONAL HISTORY project are to communicate European history in a transnational context, to try out suitable methods and to develop teaching and learning materials that help to communicate multi-perspective approaches to history in adult education, pedagogy and teacher training. In practice, individual historical events should be told from different national / social perspectives. The subjective, often contradicting, transnational experiences should be linked back to different historical contexts, but should by no means be standardized.

Personal views and subjective experiences are introduced into national narratives, going far beyond a national and / or geographical mediation approach. Not only history teaching in general, but specifically a multi-perspective storytelling requires that adult educators, pedagogues etc. deal with the multi-layered complexity of the subject.

As teacher / adult educator etc. it is worthwhile to achieve an active inside into making connections, providing clear structures and basing your teachings on strong and trustworthy sources. In this chapter we will have a look at selection of diverse teaching aspects, which are part of the complex challenge to teach history and, to present some tools, ideas and suggestions to master complexity and open a multi-perspective approach to mediating complex historical facts.

Let us look at the “before – while –after” teaching and learning situations and dimensions and at the “personal” and “institutional” dimension. In general this would include the questions of who am I as a teacher / adult educator etc., who are my students, how to teach, what to teach and how to take action and achieve chance with regards to the institutional / societal level(s).


Teaching strategies and social identity development

Self-reflection, individual needs and experiences

Why could having a greater understanding of social identity development be useful in (not only) teaching complex subject matters? Social identity models can serve as tools for self-reflection.

It can help to understand one’s own and students’ (and colleagues’) perspectives and behaviors, select teaching strategies that disrupt power dynamics, foster dialogue, support reflection for increased self-awareness and development and provide expanded learning opportunities.

A key outcome of intentionally exploring social identities is increased confidence in talking about diversity, supporting inclusion, working across difference, and addressing challenges or unexpected issues that may arise.

There are several types of “social identity profile” activities that are useful for self-reflection and building comfort around exploring and talking about social identities (our own and others). Social identities may shift and, while some of our social identities may stay the same over our lifespan (e.g., ethnicity, racial identity), others may change (e.g., age, able-bodiedness, class status).

The answer to “Who am I” depends largely on who the world around me tells I am. The question is relevant throughout our lives. Which experiences were critical in the development of your social identities, which more prominent, did that change over time or context? And with regards to the Transnational History project, what role do your social identities contribute to your socialization and development in your discipline (teaching)? Social and disciplinary identities grow and shape one another. They are fundamental to your approaches to teaching and learning, how you feel in the classroom, and what your comfort and confidence-levels are when engaging students.

Most of the social identity development models identify a similar sequence of developmental milestones:

    1. accepting and internalizing the dominant ideology and values that assume the superiority of the dominant group and the inferiority of the subordinated group;
    2. questioning, rejecting, and resisting the dominant ideology and oppressive systems and thus the way their social group is characterized;
    3. exploring, redefining, and developing a new sense of social identity that is not rooted in the norms and values of superiority and inferiority; and
    4. integrating and internalizing the new identity along with a commitment to social justice. (Adams, 2016, p. 36)


The stages or levels can be read and used as a metaphor to help a person describe where they feel themselves to be and to provide a framework for reflection and increased understanding. These are not fixed or final categories.

The models above might be too simple to show the complex processes, they can be helpful if we regard each stage as enabling important insights and opportunities for growth. Human development is not a simple, clear or linear process and much depends on context and circumstances.

While some of our social identities remain fixed, others may change over our lifespan, like ethnicity, location of origin, or first language. Others may change, either because we change or due to a change in culture. Our social identities are socially constructed and assigned relative value by society, and these systems work differently across cultures. Age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability status, socioeconomic status, nationality / citizenship status, and body size are all identity categories in which an individual will or may experience a significant change.

Even your race, which we tend to think of as a fixed identity, is something an individual can experience differently depending on their cultural location (part of the world, whether one is in the minority or majority, and other factors). If any of these come as a surprise, we encourage an inquiry mindset and further investigation, recognizing that what individuals and groups choose to call themselves may also change over time.


Teacher and student: intersectionality and multi-identity perspective

Intersectionality is a framework for conceptualizing a person, group of people, or social problem as affected by a number of discriminations and disadvantages. It takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face.

Intersectionality theory helps us understand how membership in multiple disadvantaged identity groups results in compounded challenges. Intersectionality theory emerged through studying how legal processes were applied in such a way that only single identity-based issues could be addressed at one time–thereby obscuring facts or impacts of a given situation on an individual who might be impacted based on two or more social identities (theory developed by. Kimberlé Crenshaw). The theory is regarded as a useful way for exploring the complexity of identity and challenges to establishing systemic equity.

“While ‘Intersectionality’ challenges us to think about our social identity from a multi-identity perspective rather than simply from a racial / monoidentity perspective, it also challenges us to review the ways that the many forms of social oppression operate as well”.

The concept of intersectionality enables us to remember the multi-identity perspective—both for ourselves and others—and the complexity of power dynamics, group dynamics, individual experience, and the interplay of all of these in the learning environment.

The concept of intersectionality considers including race or/or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, physical or mental ability, or any other social/group identity that is important to you. Each of these listed categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism.

More questions that can be explored in that context:

  • Where are you a member of an advantaged group, and where are you a member of a disadvantaged group?
  • What have your experiences been at the intersections of your various social identities?
  • Do people spend more time thinking about the identities in which they experience discrimination?
  • What more would you like to learn about the social patterns related to the groups to which you belong that you may not have thought about before?


One reflection that might emerge from pondering these images is to note that identity development is deeply affected by culture. Additionally, the ways in which forms of oppression operate are pervasive and dynamic, and considering the intersections is helpful for showing us identity is more complex than a single category or two.

There is no “simple truth” to achieve in the application of social identity development model approaches and the intersectionality theory. But they can be used as a framework for personal and professional development in your own teaching experience.


Teacher – professional identity

It might also be fruitful, to reflect on your professional identity and your role as teacher, pedagogue etc. It is an invitation to think both about the content of what you teach, and more broadly about the systems, influences, processes, thinkers, and leaders who decide and shape what gets taught. This can be very useful to examine how the knowledge, skills, and values of your discipline are articulated and how you could best communicate those to the pupils / students etc.

Reflecting and working on this aspect will enable you to:

  • Reflect on how your professional identity has been and continues to be influenced by your colleagues’ and discipline’s historical and current approaches to diverse perspectives.
  • Consider the importance of including a diversity of perspectives in your discipline and courses (e.g. through source materials, examples, and by other means).
  • Consider how learning-centered course design enhances transparency and contributes to an inclusive classroom.

You will consider how a discipline is guided and formed, how new knowledge is valued and created, and what the limits of a discipline are in what it does and doesn’t consider.

In this module, we ask you to consider curriculum—what you teach—at both course and disciplinary levels, from a diversity perspective:

  • You will hear students’ perspectives as they describe, for example, how diverse examples and role models impact their perception of access and welcome in a course and, more broadly, a discipline.
  • Instructors share their discipline-specific approaches to incorporating diverse perspectives and contributors in their courses and offer examples (e.g., content-related materials, readings, showcases of the work of a range of experts, and more).
  • Finally, we consider practical steps, in curriculum and course design, to foster an inclusive learning environment for students.

Content: what you teach – systems, influences, processes, thinkers, and leaders who decide and shape what gets taught

Potential for dealing with complexity on educational system level

Impact of problematic narratives on society and education – ways to recognize and share more complete narratives both inside and outside the classroom: Problematic narratives in history in the classroom impact not only on students in the school system but also on society as a whole. False, incomplete need to be identified and (more) complete narratives need to be brought into teaching practice.

The following models and ideas are based on the dealing with the impact of problematic narratives of Native Americans on U.S. society and education and learn ways to recognize and share more complete narratives both inside and outside the classroom. The educational practice is highly transferable to the transnational history teaching requirements.

How do historical documents and figures contribute to current perspectives of (marginalized / oppressed / excluded) groups in society?

As we have learned reviewing history books, all kind of documents play a major role in the history of a nation / group. Problematic narratives are still taught in education. All kinds of hateful, racist, romanticized depictions etc. about groups have become institutionalized beliefs, common understandings among people, and what people thought and believed about those groups.

How did these historical views begin to reflect in education? E.g. in textbooks from early 19th century on the idea that white people are superior to all other races became a common belief. Beliefs such as these were a result of the attitudes that had been inherited from previous generations. They include the descriptions of the physical features, stereotypical, and the pseudoscience of eugenics was working at this time to try to justify these views. It’s exemplary of the white supremacist values of the time. The “others” are referred to as primitive, unsophisticated, and lacking culture. Psychologists tell us that these types of messages, when they’re learned, actually wire the structure of our brains to accept them as truth, or normal, and deeply held beliefs. And so when a message comes along to counter those things that are so deeply rooted in our subconscious, we’re very resistant to those ideas, to any sort of change.

Institutionalized (racist and other) attitudes and beliefs are extremely difficult to counter and change.

These historical narratives and the way that these have fed into the education system and the types of stories and things that children learn about “other groups” does have huge effects. They undermine the educational experiences of members of all communities, especially those who’ve had little or no contact with the marginalized / excluded groups and it establishes an unwelcome and oftentimes hostile learning environment for those students that affirms negative images and stereotypes that are promoted in mainstream society, undermines the ability of those groups to portray accurate and respectful images of their own cultures, spirituality, and traditions, and that it’s a form of discrimination that can lead to negative relations between groups. Bad historical education also has an impact on leaders at every level. People who make decisions, people who deal with the management of national resources and legal issues of treaty rights, jurisdiction.

Media representations of marginalized / excluded groups: Very those groups are not portrayed as contemporary people or not portrayed at all. Invisibility is another form of bias. When they see their communities as stereotyped or locked in the past, or when they don’t see themselves at all, it leads to confusion, alienation, and other kinds of social and psychological issues. Generations of textbook can power.

Who still writes the history in the history textbooks has real impact and influence. Teachers lack access to good information. E.g. white supremacist Eurocentric attitudes still exist.

How can conversation forward of the understanding these historical and educational narratives be moved forward and how can we try to find solutions and to establish new ways of educating?

How can teaching and learning be transformed?


Potential of the method for transnational and multi-perspective approaches / best practice suggestions

Native knowledge 360 is a national education initiative at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to transform teaching and learning about Native Americans. It has many best practice features which reflect on the discussions of the Transnational History project and its framework is highly transferable.

Native Knowledge 360°(NK360°) provides educators and students with deeper and more comprehensive knowledge and perspectives about Native Peoples, bringing the richness of the museum’s collections, scholarship, and live programming, along with the diverse voices of Native experts and young people, directly into classrooms nationwide.

The first component is a set of what is called essential understandings. The first bit of work is to replace some of these inaccurate, incomplete, and stereotypical stories. So a framework of essential understandings based on the 10 themes of the National Council for the social studies standards was developed.

These concepts reflect a multitude of untold stories about American Indians that can deepen and expand your teaching of history, geography, civics, economics, science, engineering, and other subject areas. We want to replace this, those common narratives that we find in textbooks, with this, a set of essential understandings that provide for more expansive, more inclusive thinking and learning about Native Americans.

In addition, NK360° is collaborating with native communities to create new online lessons that offer a richer and more inclusive discourse, that include the voices of native peoples themselves.

Real, substantive, and lasting change will only happen when we prioritize and institutionalize truth instead of racist views and when we not only tolerate but we embrace who we truly have been and who we are. The education systems will follow.



Related links


FRAMEWORK FOR ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDINGS about american indians: Native Knowledge 360°

ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDINGS about Native Knowledge 360°





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Reading list

  • Adams, M. (2016). Pedagogical foundations for social justice education. In M. Adams, L.A. Bell (Eds.). Teaching for diversity and social justice (3rd ed.) New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.
  • Bennett, Milton J. (1993). Towards a developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. In R.
  • Bennett, M.J. (1986). Towards ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. In R.M. Paige (Ed.), Cross-cultural orientation: New conceptualizations and applications (pp. 27–70). New York: University Press of America.
  • Crenshaw, K. [Brown University] (2015, July 2). Race, Gender, Inequality, and Intersectionality)[Video File]. Retrieved on September 18, 2019.
  • Crenshaw, K. (1991, July). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6) 1241-1299.
  • Hardiman, R., and B.W. Jackson (1997). Jackson and Hardiman Model of Social Identity Development. Appendix 2A in Conceptual foundations for social justice courses, in M. Adams, L.A. Bell, P. Griffin (Eds.), Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook (New York: Routledge), pp. 23-29.
  • Harro, B. (2016). The cycle of socialization. In M. Adams and L.A. Bell (Eds.). Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, (3rd ed.) (pp 107). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Johnson, A. (2016). The social construction of difference. In M. Adams, W.J. Blumenfeld, H.W. Hackman, L.E. Hopkins, B. Love, M.L. Peters, X. Zúñiga (Eds.), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (4th ed.) (pages 16-21). New York, NY: Routledge.