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Agency, choice and historical action: How history teaching can help students think about democratic decision making

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At the heart of both historical understanding and democratic decision making is agency – the ability to act on decisions in order to bring about desired goals. Students are rarely exposed to the concept of agency in school, however. In order to better understand the complexity of historical agency, students need exposure to a wider range of historical actors than has traditionally been found in history curricula, and they need to consider the societal factors that enabled or constrained their actions. They also need to recognize that people in the past were not simply acted upon by historical forces but were themselves active participants in events and trends of the day. Such participation involved not only large-scale political involvement but everyday actions and decisions influencing the historical development of cultures and societies. No nation or group, however, acts in complete unison, and students also need to learn about the diversity of perspectives and behaviours that characterized people in the past. By thinking about these issues, students should be better prepared to think about their own lives in the present, about their ability to contribute to societal change and continuity, and about the consequences of their actions. This is one of the ways in which history education can contribute to students’ ability to engage in democratic decision making. Studying history in isolation, however, may not be enough to enhance students’ participation in society. Instead, students need to develop a metacognitive awareness that agency is a lens for making sense of any social topic, past or present. They also need opportunities to explicitly connect historical agency to the choices that face people today as they respond to social, economic, political and environmental issues.

Keywords: agency; citizenship; decision making; history; perspectives; power

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Indiana University

Publication date: 2012-04-25

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  • Citizenship Teaching and Learning is global in scope, exploring issues of social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy. It advances academic and professional understandings within a broad characterisation of education, focussing on a wide range of issues including identity, diversity, equality and social justice within social, moral, political and cultural contexts.
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