Critical Thinking And History Teaching In A Contested Society: The Potential Influence Of Social Cognitions.

Jacqueline Reilly, A.W. McCully

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


This paper aims to explore the potential influence of social cognitions on critical thinking within the context of history teaching in Northern Ireland, a society emerging from conflict. In such contexts interpretations of the past are hotly contested and often used selectively to justify contemporary political positions (Cole, 2007). Mutually exclusive interpretations of the past are woven into group identities and become part of the expression of who people think they are, and who they are not (Walker, 1996). Therefore, in contested societies, history teaching is often nurtures division but, alternatively, can contribute to greater understanding and reconciliation (Smith and Vaux, 2002).In Northern Ireland, history teaching has responded to conflict and its aftermath by eschewing a traditional “master” narrative approach and instead adopting an inquiry-based, multi-perspective method to enable students to critique evidence, perspectives and interpretations, thus formulating a considered and balanced view of past events for themselves. “Multi-perspectivity” in history teaching has become a recognised stance of the international community in seeking to promote educational reform in post-conflict societies (Cole, 2007).Recent research into the impact of historical learning in Northern Ireland (Barton and McCully, 2005, 2009, 2010), involved interviews with 263 students, in groups of 2 or 3, from 11 different schools representative of a variety of demographic, social, and educational contexts. Findings indicated that this inquiry approach has been welcomed by young people, has fostered criticality and has had some success in helping them make sense of the range of interpretations of the past they encounter inside and outside school. However, significant limitations were also identified. Despite recognising the more balanced and discursive nature of school history when encountering Irish history, most students’ thinking was clearly influenced by strong community associations. This raises questions as to the emphasis current practice places on cognitive understanding as the basis for challenging partisan history. This, and other work (McCully, 2006) suggests that young people often have strong emotional ties to particular cultural and political positions and that these may hinder critical thinking processes when encountering sensitive material. Hence, teachers may need to take greater heed of the affective dimension of learning and adapt their teaching approaches accordingly. However, little attention has so far been paid to the potential contribution of theories of social cognition, which may have much to offer in terms of understanding these issues. This paper revisits the research findings cited above through the critical lens of social psychological theories. A range of potentially relevant theories is identified, including social identity theory (Tajfel and Turner, 1986), stereotype threat (e.g. Steele, 1997) and attribution theory (Heider, 1958). These are applied to the earlier research. Instances where findings are amenable to analysis using these theories will be identified and interpreted to inform understanding of the complex social psychological processes involved in how learners perceive, interpret, recall and incorporate historical information and understandings in the context of a divided society. The insight gained will then be applied in turn to inform possible future learning and teaching approaches.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUnknown Host Publication
PublisherAmerican Educational Research Association
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 12 Apr 2011
EventAmerican Educational Research Association Annual Meeting - New Orleans
Duration: 12 Apr 2011 → …


ConferenceAmerican Educational Research Association Annual Meeting
Period12/04/11 → …


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