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Foundational Ideas

The Big Idea

Everybody loves a murder mystery. Of all the historical situations researchers encounter, nothing has quite the same impact as discovering an innocent person hanged or a guilty person going free. Taking full advantage of the non-linear and graphic features of the World Wide Web, the units are designed to draw students in with the near-universal attraction to the morbid and to injustice.

But the mystery is mere bait to lure the unsuspecting into a much more complex understanding of the whole historical enterprise. It provides an initial introduction to archival research and archival materials. The particular skills it teaches include critical reading, critical analysis/thinking, understanding different points of view and the ability to think historically (i.e., to understand how people thought and behaved at different times in the past).

Teachers are familiar with the response of so many students to school history -- "It's boring." Research has demonstrated what good history teachers already know: when students are actively involved with the "raw materials" of history -- primary documents -- they are much more engaged with and enthusiastic about their history courses. In this series of sites students are invited to use historical research and thinking skills to solve a mystery by studying the wide range of primary documents available within each site: newspaper clippings, court depositions, signed confessions, witness statements, photographs, maps, diaries, artists' reconstructions, and a variety of written narratives relating to each of the "case files."

However, these websites are not meant simply to entertain students. The sites are designed to make history interesting, helping students to learn more effectively about issues and events in Canadian history. But students will also learn how to think critically about history itself:

  • What makes a good historical interpretation?
  • How can we decide what evidence is the most convincing?
  • What makes an event significant historically?

By trying to solve each mystery, students will learn more about how to "do history", but they will also learn some important skills and gain some important knowledge about how to make sense of the world of information that they are confronted with every day. Moreover, many of the issues presented in stark fashion in the mysteries are still either a part of our own lives today or in the news -- issues like racism, child abuse, terrorism and aboriginal rights.

Educational Philosophy

The Great Unsolved Mysteries website is the tip of a large pedagogic iceberg. The berg, or foundation, is a new literature on active learning and "Document Centred Inquiry" (DCI). A short list of readings which elaborate this philosophy is given below.

It is important to note that these educational websites are not designed as "stand-alone" teaching tools. Most of the important learning happens when students analyze and discuss the website in a classroom or in a moderated Internet discussion. For unlike more traditional history teaching, these websites promote the idea that history is an active process of critical enquiry to be explored, rather than a set of facts to be memorized and regurgitated on tests. This does not mean that students do not have to learn any content; on the contrary, students will learn that they cannot think critically about evidence without having some understanding of the historical contexts in which the event happened. Teachers' Guides help teachers and students to tie content and skills together in a way that is meaningful and that also meets curriculum expectations about history education across Canada.

Each site is designed to simulate primary archival research. It is not written as a "story" with a beginning and end but rather is a series of clues -- a collection of documents and images which relate to this particular mystery and to social history more generally. Students are required to build their own stories around the incident. More junior students will require more direction about where to look than others.

These sites work on four main levels. The level to which instructors push their students will depend on the abilities of the group being taught. The first two levels are accessible to grade school as well as junior university students. The third level is probably appropriate for university students at a junior and senior level. The final level is aimed at upper level undergraduates and graduate students.

Level 1: Reading and Understanding Primary Documents

The first level is the most obvious. Each site brings ready access to a wide variety of primary documents about a particular event in Canadian history. Obtaining these documents is usually a time-consuming and difficult process, even for skilled researchers with the time and resources to travel to several archival repositories. For students with little experience and limited access, the examination of primary documents is practically impossible. Yet, it is the personal and immediate nature of primary sources like letters, diaries and newspapers that bring the past alive for most of us. To assist students, the documents have been transcribed. The first level at which the site works, therefore, is the exposure to a wide variety of the raw materials and some basic skills used by historians. Ideally it will excite interest in doing more historical research.

Level 2: Exploring the Social History of Canadian Society

At the next level, students acquire a basic understanding of some of the major elements of life in nineteenth-century colonial society. Given the right questions and learning environments, this information comes easily to students as they seek and weigh the evidence surrounding the mystery. In their attempt to solve each mystery, students come to grips with the historical antecedents of current issues such as differing cultural values, social violence, family relations, and even economic change. In solving the mysteries, they examine the real lives of ordinary people who lived in Canada before us, down to the details of everyday life. The localized nature of these studies brings the period to life in a way that is impossible when the scale of reference is larger. To consolidate this information, students can be presented with specific factual questions, or higher level interpretative questions which require them to use the site to find specific answers.

Level 3: Doing History

At the third level, students are drawn into the work of doing history. The students go through a number of obvious stages as they learn about this practice. At first, the site seems novel and even amusing to student surfers. Quickly, however, they are confronted with the complexities and difficulties of doing history. The students will encounter, probably for the first time, evidence that is not laid out in a linear/narrative form for them. They realize, painfully, that history is a process of creating their own narrative from complex and often contradictory bits of evidence, all of which must be evaluated according to particular standards and used in particular ways. Merely asking them to describe "what happened" forces them to evaluate evidence and make choices about what they consider most reliable. At this level students are "doing" or "making" history: they are using their own critical skills to evaluate evidence and form an argument.

It is at this point that students can benefit most from the classroom discussion and workshops that are integral to using the site as a teaching tool. Barring this, an on-line discussion group moderated by an instructor could be used as a substitute. Students will be in a position to discuss the minutiae of the case, and of the lives of many of the individuals associated with it. They can be asked to defend their interpretations and in so doing must reveal their strategies for discriminating among contradictory evidence. Instructors/moderators can, at this point, draw out the successful strategies and foreground them for those students who used them unconsciously or who did not have the skills to judge at all. Students can be encouraged to develop a schema for analyzing historical evidence and present that to their discussion group.

Since students will follow different research strategies and so view different kinds of evidence, they will inevitably come to different conclusions about what the issues in this mystery "really" were. Either through role-playing, class discussion or written assignments students will have to consolidate their understanding of the mystery and its historical context in arguing for their interpretation. In this way, this telling of the story of each mystery reverses the logic of standard texts and teaching formats. Too often a text, like a lecture, raises a topic and then attempts to invoke "rhetorical closure" by offering one interpretation as the most convincing and authoritative. By contrast, this format is open-ended, designed to provoke discussion about major questions such as family relations or justifiable violence in a specific historical and geographical situation as students solve the mystery. Instead of answers, students are given the criteria by which they can make sense out of the past.

Level 4: What is History and How Can We Know It?

For more sophisticated students, the website also operates at a fourth, or historiographical/epistemological level. Since students will have looked at the same information base and much of the same basic evidence, and yet come to different conclusions, they can be introduced to questions about the status of historical knowledge and the interpretation of facts. If they come to a variety of conclusions, they can discuss the interpretive and tentative nature of "History" and the importance of understanding the location of the historian as the mediator. If instructors wish, they can introduce post-structuralist critiques of history and the rejoinders, using the documents contained in each site. At this level, the website allows students to explore some of the most important theoretical questions in the discipline.

We hope that you and your students find the sites rewarding.

Ruth Sandwell
John Lutz

Short Reading List

Barton, Keith. "'You'd Be Wanting to Know about the Past': Social Contexts of Children's Historical Understanding in Northern Ireland and the USA." Comparative Education Vol. 37, No. 1 (2001): 89-106.

Lee, Peter and Rosalyn Ashby. "Progression in Historical Understanding among Students Ages 7-14." In Knowing, Teaching and Learning History: National and International Perspectives ed. by Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas and Sam Wineburg. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Sandwell, Ruth. "Reading Beyond Bias: Using Historical Documents in the Secondary Classroom." McGill Journal of Education/Revue des sciences de l'education de McGill Vol. 38, No. 1 (Winter 2003): 168-186.

Seixas, Peter. "The Community of Inquiry as a Basis for Knowledge and Learning: The Case of History." American Educational Research Journal Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer 1993): 305-324.

Sexias, Peter. "Conceptualizing Growth in Historical Understanding." The Handbook of Education and Human Development ed. by David R. Olson and Nancy Torrance. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Seixas, Peter. "Historical Understanding Among Adolescents in a Multicultural Setting." American Journal of Education 102 (May 1994).

Seixas, Peter. "Parallel Crises: History and the Social Studies Curriculum in the USA." Journal of Curriculum Studies Vol. 25, No. 3 (1993): 235-250.

Stearns, Peter N., Peter Seixas and Sam Wineburg. Knowing, Teaching and Learning History: National and International Perspectives. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Wineburg, Samuel S. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Wineburg, Samuel S. "On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach Between School and the Academy." American Educational Research Journal Vol. 28, No. 3 (Fall 1991): 499-519.