Notes On Shalini Dixit’s The Psychology Of Teaching Critical History

Dixit, Shalini. The Psychology of Teaching Critical History. 1st ed., Routledge India, 2021.

Shalini Dixit’s The Psychology of Teaching Critical History is a brilliant dive into the realm of historical understanding. It explores the fundamentals of how history is perceived, how it is taught and learned, and the roles it plays in everyday life. It argues that the teaching of critical history can help people comprehend the uses of history in the present, as well as comprehend the field of history in general.

It is only about 100 pages and I recommend anyone interested in the field of history reads it at least once.


The 4-Circuit Model of Historical Understanding

The chart is found on page 24.

1 – Temporality

a – “Awareness of the difference between present and past”

b – “Linking history to chronology”

2 – Causality

a – “Relating social forces to an event”

b – “Critical and comparative analysis”

3 – Methodology

a – Imagination

b – Perspective taking

c – Searching for patterns and regularities

d – Drawing abstract concepts and information from concrete objects

4 – Understanding the Historian’s Job

a – Analyzing primary sources

b – Understanding interaction between historians and their facts

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 briefly discusses the psychology and sociology of historical understanding. Page 6 has a bit about some controversial school textbooks about history that I want to look into more. The impact of politics on historical education is discussed here too.

“If there is to be any possibility of changing ‘the way things have always been done’ there must be reasoned appraisal of how and why they came to be done in this way.”
Arthur John Brereton Marwick as cited by Dixit[p.6]

I think she does a good job highlighting the role of history in shaping people’s identities and social interactions.

“History is to the nation as memory is to the individual.”
Schlesinger (1992) as cited by Dixit[p.9]

She concludes with a summary of the chapter and the layout for the rest of the book. The first chapter had a lot of good information about history’s relation to national identity.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 discusses history in school settings and as a discipline. She discusses modes of communicating history, then methods of investigating history.

Page 16 has a section discussing the importance of the first “eye of history”, chronology. The following page has a section titled “History as a study of social dynamics” which reminded me of Snooks’ Laws of History (not mentioned by Dixit). She does mention the search for historical laws in the next section though before moving onto the next “eye of history”, geography.

Pages 19 and 20 gender historians with she/her pronouns. This is inappropriate.

A note about the importance of studying historians to understand their work is included on page 21.

Pages 23-27 contain a brilliant depiction of the dimensions and subdimensions of historical understanding.

“To sum up, understanding history is an ability to receive, comprehend, analyse, and apply historical information by using various cognitive abilities.”
Shalini Dixit[p.27]

The book is heavily geared towards how to apply this information to elementary age children, but I think it can be applied to older individuals as well.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 discusses some scholarship and studies related to the development of historical understanding. She mentions the number of studies in this area is limited.

The summaries are well-written. It reads almost like an informal annotated bibliography.

I find the study she conducted fascinating. Schoolchildren ages 9-14 had their historical understanding tested in each category laid out in Chapter 2.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 goes on to discuss the impact of community on historical understanding. The previous chapter shared a new study conducted on children. This chapter shares a study conducted on adults to gage their historical understanding and how their ideas differ across educational investment.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5 discusses some cases of rewriting history in Indian textbooks. It also discusses the shape of the education system in India, as well as the effects of excluding the historical narratives of marginalized communities from the “official history”.

Chapter 6

Chapter 6 focuses on how history is learned and taught.

A clear definition of what critical history is is presented on page 81. According to Dixit, Hegel defined “critical history” as the History of history. Then she says,

“Critical history looks into the sources, processes of construction, and social and temporal contexts of historical narratives. It leads the reader not just to reinvestigate the interpretations of past phenomena, but also to question and analyse matters of current times, which inform our understanding of the past.”[p.81]

Critical history helps people think and understand the uses of history for present moments, past and future.

Wineburg (1991a) sounds like a report I want to read. It covers differences between what students and historians desire in historical education. Students tended to want the facts, historians tended to want the methods/skills.


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