Arbeitsbereich Geschichtsdidaktik / History Education, Universität Hamburg

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Successful Perspective-Taking? On the Problem and Potential of “Empathy” (or simulative) Tasks in Historical Education (2nd, enhanced version)

18. Februar 2020 Andreas Körber Keine Kommentare

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​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​E​t​h​e​r​pad). 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).

Anmer­kun­gen /​ Refe­ren­ces
  1. 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.[]
  2. 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). []
  3. e.g. accord­ing to Green, Norm; Green, Kathy (2007): Koope­ra­ti­ves Ler­nen im Klas­sen­raum und im Kol­le­gi­um. Seel­ze-Vel­ber: Klett; Kall­mey­er.[]
  4. 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. []