CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1One might initially be surprised to come across an article written by a secondary-school teacher in a scholarly journal. The question, however, is less how than why is there an intervention by a teacher more accustomed to addressing an audience of middle-schoolers than academics. There seems to be a rift between experiences in secondary and higher education, which is—in theory—unique in that it brings students into direct contact with academic research or at the very least with instructors who are also researchers. In practice, the comparison between these two worlds is often made to the benefit of the university sector or “higher” education, whose very name reflects what secondary-school teachers often perceive as a feeling of superiority. This perception should not overshadow the complexity of the ties between teaching and research that are at the very heart of higher education, nor the existence of pedagogical problematics specific to the university. Nevertheless, it remains that universities are identified with research, itself synonymous with erudition and specialization, including in teaching; in contrast, teaching history and geography in middle and high schools might seem to boil down to simplifying and adapting knowledge in order to transmit it to a younger and less interested audience. This often gives the impression that there is an insurmountable barrier separating teaching at the secondary level from the world of research. And yet teaching as a whole should be founded on the fundamental connection between the knowledge that a teacher transmits to his or her students and the practical development of research as savoir-faire or know-how, perhaps even as savoir-être or knowing-how-to-be.

2At a time when school curricula and timetables are the subject of a vigorous debate not just within the education sector but across French society as a whole, the question of what meaning we grant to the teaching of history and geography is central. This is all the more true since an increasingly widespread utilitarian discourse continues to undermine these disciplines and their role in educating students—except as a way of transmitting a certain relationship to a collective and national memory that is itself in flux. This discourse is rooted in a specific conception of historical and geographical knowledge, one that must be interrogated. In truth, the absence or the negation of a connection between research and teaching in our subjects would render our occupation meaningless, and would even give reason to doubt its purpose within the context of secondary education. Even if well intentioned, the process would be reduced to a vertical transmission of factual information or civic and democratic principles.

3I would like to illustrate this idea by giving an account of pedagogical experiments conducted in front of a young audience generally unreceptive to the material being imposed on them. These experiments aimed to demonstrate how the relationship between research and secondary education in history and geography can—and should—be a source of concrete pedagogical insights into teaching practice. By way of contrast, I will also emphasize the limits of teaching that is disconnected from research, which is nonetheless what we produce through a system supplied by teacher-training programs. This might seem obvious, but to paraphrase George Orwell, the best articles are those that tell us what we know already. [1]

4The bond between research and teaching, along with conceptions of historical and geographical knowledge, is primarily forged during an individual’s time at university, when students preparing for careers as teachers construct a specific perception of their knowledge, of their know-how, and as a result of the profession they plan to join. In this respect, higher education offers an ambiguous model, because while it allows students to develop their critical minds through research, it can also negatively affect the image of middle- or high-school teachers’ knowledge by producing a fascination with specialization and erudition. For example, it has created a disconnect between the expectations of the French teacher-recruitment exams (or concours) and the true pedagogical stakes of the profession.

5This disconnect is often reinforced by the program of preparatory classes (Classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles, or CPGEs) that students follow before going to university. These classes are designed to prepare students for the entrance exams of the top-tier selective institutions (for disciplines like history, these are principally the écoles normales supérieures). They also enable students to acquire, in a selective environment, a rigorous work ethic and a general culture that go beyond what a student might find in public universities, institutions that are often looked down upon by CPGE professors and students alike. There are concrete reasons for this belief: over the two or three years that they spend in these programs, students are immersed in specific learning methods, acquire working habits, and generally develop resilience in the face of failure. These are skills that a teacher might often draw on at the beginning of a career, but they have little bearing on the core of history as a discipline. It is only at the university level that students are familiarized with a crucial element of the history and geography teacher’s profession: how to position oneself in relation to sources and, more generally, research methodology. Particularly in the CPGEs, the report-style dissertation remains the standard exercise, composed within a pedagogical context of vertical transmission that relies heavily on secondary sources and leaves little room for the study of historical documents. As strange as this may seem in comparison to the systems in other countries, once they have left preparatory classes French history or geography students often have to wait until the third year of their bachelor’s degree before they are taught to develop a truly critical approach grounded in the reading of primary sources and a historiographical perspective. This is a question of establishing the relationship of constituted knowledge to its construction, and thus to a method or know-how that is not a rhetorical technique but an intellectual process.

6Therein lie some of the benefits of a university education for prospective teachers. Yet we must not overlook its more problematic aspects. The fascination with erudition that is instilled at university level, which is also the price of a more profound relationship with the objects of research, might be seen as simply a side effect. A history student preparing for higher-level teacher recruitment examinations (the agrégation) must, of course, develop a solid and wide-ranging understanding of the subject, and there is even a section of the exam that requires candidates to prepare a lesson on an unknown or “off-syllabus” topic. However, this test reveals the contradictions between rhetorical mastery, the accumulation of factual knowledge, and the pedagogical ambitions of future teachers. The initial objective was to challenge candidates to prepare a lesson plan in a limited timeframe, on the principle that a future teacher should be able to structure a class not only in terms of preparation but also its practical implementation. This challenge, which from this angle seems altogether justified and justifiable, has nonetheless lost its original purpose and is increasingly seen as an exercise in encyclopedic knowledge and rhetoric, disconnected from the aptitude levels and needs of high-school students. The classes that prepare university students for the “off-syllabus” component serve no purpose if we forget that the point is to learn how to research a topic in a short period of time, to construct a central problematic, and to assemble the documents that will enable students to answer that question. Instead, it is far too easy to receive the impression that the goal is to learn a certain bibliography by heart, or even to stockpile general knowledge to be recycled for the sole purpose of impressing the jury. It is of course indispensable for a teacher, whether in secondary or higher education, to have a certain degree of knowledge at the beginning of his or her career. Above all, it is important to never stop learning. But there is a danger in making this accumulation of information the bedrock of our profession. It risks contributing to a distorted image of our subjects—one that many certified teachers do not in fact share—and breaking down the connection between secondary and higher education, with the latter demanding a much higher level of encyclopedic knowledge than the former. And yet in France the pedagogical training of future teachers now takes place in universities. [2]

7It is important to focus on this disconnect between the encyclopedic ideal of university-level preparation for a teaching career and the challenges that secondary-school teaching actually entails, because it conceals an essential contradiction. The nature of the teacher recruitment exams means that they serve to reproduce a specific conception of historical and geographical knowledge based on the accumulation of factual knowledge and, as a consequence, on a conception of teaching as the vertical transmission of this information. This is accompanied by the reproduction of certain tacitly acquired codes by which candidates are also judged. Quantity of knowledge is not simply an educational issue, it also represents a “cultural marker,” for this quantitative conception of history is closely linked with “culture” in the traditional sense of the term. Master’s-level preparation for the recruitment examinations at higher but also secondary level (the certificat d’aptitude au professorat de l’enseignement du second degré, or CAPES) thus seems to reinforce a certain conditioning. It requires those who jump through its hoops to forget the relationship between research and teaching that the universities worked so hard to instill at undergraduate level, especially since students are often presented with a choice between continuing in the “world of research” and reorienting themselves toward secondary education—it is seen as extremely difficult to reconcile the two. This is precisely where the contradiction lies: succeeding in the recruitment exams too often involves unlearning the connection between knowledge and historical savoir-faire and reestablishing a “pre-academic” relationship to historical knowledge. The preparation necessary for these exams thus allows for the reproduction of a system in which teachers are convinced that their duty is first and foremost the transmission of a body of factual information and a general culture.

8This attitude seems even more difficult to justify when we consider that our modern world is one of simultaneity, in which globalization and the development of mass media have led to a spatio-temporal compression across the planet. This position is not new; as early as 1939 Stefan Zweig criticized an education system inherited from the nineteenth century that taught national history in isolation, evoking a “world of synchronization” in which his contemporaries could “observe all global phenomena at once, as if from the summit of a mountain.” [3] This has only been reinforced by the new technologies that have vastly facilitated access to information. What point is there to studying history or geography when with a single click you can find out where you are on the planet thanks to Google Earth, or the answer to a question about French history thanks to Wikipedia? This is a direct echo of what teachers hear from their students: “Miss, what’s the point of learning about a country I don’t care about? If I ever want to go there, I’ll just look it up online.” But as soon as a teacher replies by highlighting the limits of Wikipedia, he or she engages with a different relationship to knowledge: not a positivist one, pitting the knowledge of historians against what can be found on a given website, but rather a critical knowledge, constantly under construction, that serves as a guide through the world of discourses, texts, and information that surrounds us.

9The full importance of teaching comes from its ability not only to transmit research methods and a certain caution with regard to various sources of information, but also to make the student an actor in his or her own learning process. Herein lies the fundamental relationship between teaching and research in history and geography at the secondary-school level. Once history teaching is associated with the process of developing a critical relationship to the world and to knowledge, it becomes clear that the age and experience of our students are of little importance in this process. Whether a student is twelve or twenty years old, he or she is capable of asking questions about a societal problem or a puzzling document—just as historians continue to do (though in a different manner and at a different level). The teacher’s work is to lead students toward this process of questioning, even if this sometimes means leaving room for improvisation. The final answer is less important than the work the student does in constructing the problem, because the key is nurturing a desire to seek out answers. Teaching skepticism, developing a spirit of critical thinking, encouraging young people to construct their own historical culture and their own relationship to the past and to the present—the majority of teachers would agree that these goals lie at the core of their task. However, it is the question of how best to achieve them, including in very concrete, pedagogical terms, that often gives rise to disagreements. The learning of factual knowledge clearly plays a role; to say otherwise would be pure demagoguery, not to mention false. Nonetheless, this information must be presented as the result of a tangible project, the learning of a process of analysis and research, which cannot continuously be put off until some future point when students are knowledgeable enough to be “ready for it.”

10This is why the transmission of knowledge from on high through lectures is more often than not ineffective—except for students whose upbringing and background have already provided them with the tools necessary to orient themselves in the world of knowledge. As Daniel Pennac observed, “Knowledge is, in the first instance, carnal.” [4] The key is to make students actors in their own learning process, and the rigid framework of lecture-style lessons too easily positions them as passive consumers. You might fall asleep during a movie if all you care about is finding out what happens at the end, but not if you are filming a scene in your own movie. There are obvious limits to this cinematographic analogy, of course: students do not rewrite history and they do not produce scientific research. But they can discover history in a manner that resembles what historians do and draws on their methodologies. A teacher might transform a lesson into a quasi-athletic “training session” that rewards those who employ appropriate methods (keeping in mind where a document came from, justifying answers with citations) rather than those who (simply) give the right answers. Another might use clips from Rocky IV to help ninth graders understand the meaning of the expression “Cold War” and the power of cultural propaganda. Another still might ask eighth graders to put together a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte in the form of a Facebook account, grabbing their attention and stimulating their curiosity but also giving them an experience of the complex nature of the biographer’s task. It might be easy to criticize these methods for being academically reductive or culturally pedantic. It is certainly unlikely that they will help students remember the dates of any of Napoleon’s battles—with the exception, perhaps, of his defeat at Waterloo. We might, however, hope that they will retain something of his significance in French and European political and military history. Moreover, the exercise may also help students understand that not everything they find on the internet is necessarily trustworthy and that, in order to make certain claims, they have to be able to compare and weigh different sources of information. Above all, students will have the opportunity, at least for a time, to engage with some of the moving parts involved in the construction of history, to try on the mantle of the research historian, and to confront some of the same obstacles he or she faces, helping them realize that a biography is neither the compilation of data nor a linear narrative but rather an incomplete mosaic, composed of different pieces that do not always fit together neatly.

11Understanding comes through students making a subject their own. A class that begins with a central question, moves forward as a process of collective research, and concludes with an answer mobilizes students to a far greater degree than a lecture, even one presented in the form of a “problematic” posed by the teacher with a set response in mind. Once again, the key is making the link between research and teaching concrete. This does not necessarily mean treating the students like apprentice researchers, but rather encouraging them, in their position as learners, to use mechanisms of knowledge construction that demand a degree of know-how, much as a historian might do in his or her work. To this end, the question that drives the class can even be examined and posed by the students themselves. It is not a waste of class time to allow students to articulate their own questions about a topic that has been dictated from on high. Why must the teacher always present the material from a position of knowledge—even relatively simplified—when there is a good chance that this will seem alienating to the students, and thus useless and uninteresting?

12For example, a seventh-grade class dedicated to medieval Mali could be framed by the following question: What was the foundation of the power and the wealth of the Mali Empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and what made it special? Yet this question might not seem relevant or important to a thirteen-year-old who is unaware of the emergence of World History and its impact on the revision of French school curricula. On the other hand, the teacher could entrust the students with the task of finding a question that seems pertinent to them, based on the subject or a document. Their thought process must, of course, be steered in the direction of the final objective, to wit the discovery of a powerful civilization that developed on the African continent during the same era as the knights, crusades, and Western feudal societies studied earlier on in the year. This is not, therefore, a call for the teacher to renounce his or her position as the bearer of knowledge, but to perform the functions of this role in a different way.

13For example, imagine students are presented with a European document, the Catalan Atlas, a fourteenth-century mappa mundi attributed to a Majorcan cartographer. This document captures students’ attention because of the space that its cartographic representation devotes to the African continent and in particular to a black-skinned figure wearing a crown and holding a scepter, an image of considerable size in relation to the rest of the mappa mundi. Every year a similar question is raised: Who is the sovereign represented on this atlas from 1375 and what had he done to be known to a European who was otherwise so poorly informed about basic aspects of African geography? Beginning with this question or one like it, formulated by the students rather than selected in advance by the teacher, the class will progress through a collective reflection on a number of written texts and the organization of notes taken while the teacher gives an account of the mansa Kankan Musa and his ancestor Sundiata Keita, the founding hero of the Malian Empire. This raises the question of sources that are primarily oral (such as the stories transmitted by the griots, traditional west-African storytellers) and will help students recognize the legitimacy of orally transmitted history while also identifying its limits.

14Unlike lessons structured by teachers, when this approach is used with student populations traditionally considered “difficult” (in the characteristically understated language of the Department of Education) it can surprise students, instilling in them a desire to understand but also to actually resolve the enigma they have uncovered and formulated. Of course, this requires time and patience, and the result will often be more unwieldy than if the class had been delivered in a lecture format or had followed a sequence of closed questions about specific documents. In certain classes this logic could even be followed through to a point where students are asked to write up the answer to the framing question themselves, based on ideas collectively discussed at an earlier stage. The element of surprise is once again a key factor in drawing out students’ cognitive abilities, whether in terms of the format of the class (for example, by providing certain elements of an answer and then asking students to establish the initial question from the sources) or the written work assigned (filling out tables, free writing, diagrams).

15Surprising students with pedagogical strategies grounded in a consciousness of historians’ methods is an approach that can be developed during the training of new teachers. It provides a potential solution to a problem that many young teachers face as they are starting out, and that often persists over the course of their careers: not knowing how to capture the attention of the class. When this approach was discussed during a teacher-training workshop, some student teachers rebelled against the idea, which they claimed would not work with their students and would result in confusion, perhaps even a loss of control over the classroom. The different ways that young teachers integrate this philosophy of loosening their grip over students is a reminder of the importance of mentoring during the student teacher’s placement year, and we must hope that its positive effects will not be undermined by reforms in teacher training. When the conditions are right, that is, when the mentor responsible for guiding the student teacher works in the same school as their mentee, has asked for the position, and sees it as a way of transmitting his or her hard-won experience—and not when he or she is doing it through obligation or is working in a different establishment—it becomes an absolutely fundamental stage in the transmission of teaching know-how, which can simultaneously draw on experience in the field and a connection to the practice of research.

16In point of fact, no theoretical training can impart practical skills in the same way the first year of a placement in real classroom conditions does, and this includes teamwork, a common and fundamental reality in secondary education. Auditing the classes of more experienced colleagues and participating in projects—at least as an active observer without becoming fully invested from one’s very first year—can be just as effective as feedback from a mentor who attends the student teacher’s classes or the application of theoretical training during the same placement year. With this in mind, and to return to the link between the world of university research and that of secondary-school teaching, this approach could be encouraged through the practice of observing classes at all levels, including exchanges between secondary and higher education. Would it not be useful for ninth grade teachers to familiarize themselves with what is expected of high-school and university students—in terms of both knowledge and know-how—by attending classes and engaging in conversations about the construction of history teaching in these environments? Would university professors not find it instructive to engage in the concrete observation of how the knowledge they have helped develop is transmitted in middle and high schools? This kind of collaboration between secondary-school teachers and academics could provide a way of bringing together two worlds that have everything to gain from narrowing the gap that divides them.

17If one is willing to lose a little control over the direction of the class, to let go a little, then giving up on a rigid idea of what one wants one’s students to say is the best way to help steer them toward an understanding of what they are studying. Letting them follow their own path, make mistakes, question a document, or even query something that their teacher has said, are all components of the know-how that a history and geography teacher should transmit to his or her students. The spirit behind this is in fact not all that far from the experience of the researcher who must also know how to let go of preconceptions in order to examine and understand a document. The teacher’s main task thus becomes reassuring students about their ability to find out for themselves without always falling back on what they have been told. The most academically oriented students are sometimes a little lost at first, but they quickly come to appreciate the virtues of this method and soon excel at questioning the reliability of sources. Students who face greater challenges, or at least those who find it a little harder to conform to the rigid school environment, are valorized by these practices, which are far less daunting than the unconscious pressure created by a teacher who expects predetermined answers from students. [5]

18This perspective ultimately consists in pushing a door that is already ajar, for who among us still follows the rigid practices current before the 1960s? This very year, one of my students—who is in eighth grade and thus already a good way through her secondary education—nonetheless wrote in the feedback section of her end-of-year history and geography test: “I’ve come to realize that the point is not to learn things by heart, what you need to do is understand the lessons.” She is far from alone. At a time when the testing and evaluation of students on the basis of “competencies” seems to be established at the Department of Education, it is perhaps not altogether useless to reexamine this question, fully aware that many readers will think, like Orwell, that what they have just read has told them what they already knew.


  • [*]
    This article was translated from the French by Thomas Scott-Railton and edited by Hollyann Nelson, Chloe Morgan, and Stephen Sawyer.
  • [1]
    “The best books … are those that tell you what you know already.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949), 201.
  • [2]
    Law no. 2013-395, dated July 8, 2013, laid out the orientation and schedule for a wide-ranging reform of the French school system. Chapter 7 stipulated the creation of graduate teacher-training institutes (Écoles supérieures du professorat et de l’éducation) within universities.
  • [3]
    Stefan Zweig, “Geschichtsschreibung von morgen,” a conference presented in the USA at the beginning of 1939 and published in Zeit und Welt: Gesammelte Aufsätze und Vorträge, 1904–1940 (Stockholm: Bermann-Fischer, 1943).
  • [4]
    Daniel Pennac, School Blues, trans. Sarah Ardizzone (London: MacLehose Press, 2010), chap. 12.
  • [5]
    For another example of pedagogical practices that aim to build the confidence of students having difficulty with schoolwork, in this instance students for whom French is not their first language, see: “Multiplier des occasions d’écrire dans toutes les disciplines,”

This article seeks to link the teaching of history and geography to issues affecting research in the two disciplines. It invites the reader to reflect on the relationship between the knowledge that a teacher passes on to his or her pupils and the acquisition of a research method as a savoir-faire or know-how, even as a way of being. After offering an insight into current teacher training, the author, a secondary-school teacher, uses concrete teaching situations to explain the necessity of making pupils active participants in their own learning process and helping them develop sound research methods.

Virginie Barbier
Collège Molière, Ivry-sur-Seine
Translated from the French by
Thomas Scott-Railton
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 09/02/2017
Distribution électronique pour Editions de l’E.H.E.S.S. © Editions de l’E.H.E.S.S.. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait