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Students as meaning-makers and the quest for the common school: a micro-ethnography of a US history classroom

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This study examined the extent to which (a) nine US history students developed historically-grounded perspectives, and (b) the entire class engaged itself in inclusive, moral debate about historical events and issues. Inductive methods were used in this micro-ethnographic study to construct and verify its themes though interview, classroom observation and student survey. Seven students demonstrated identifiable perspectives. History was viewed by these students as personally-constructed interpretations, not as value-free chronologies. Only one student's perspective, however, was historically-grounded; other perspectives were grounded in references to contemporary issues. Evidence of moral debate was limited totwo debates observed during 24 classroom observations. These two findings seemed interconnected: students with little historical grounding to their perspectives may have little inclination toward collective, ethical critique. Moral debate consisting of student exchange of diverse historically-grounded perspectives was not the classroom norm. The debates that went into the making of American society concerned not just institutions or governing principles, but the capacity of humans to sustain those institutions. Whatever the disagreements were over other issues at the American Constitutional Convention \[in Philadelphia in 1787], the fundamental question sensed by everyone . . . was whether the people themselves would understand what it meant to hold the ultimate power of society, and whether they had enough sense of history and destiny to know where they had been and where they ought to be going. (Cousins; cited by Goodlad 1979: 40; emphasis added)

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: November 1, 1998

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