CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1An increasing number of teachers have the opportunity to participate directly in the design and implementation of the history curriculum. Indeed, there were five among the group of experts who supervised the 2008 reform of the French middle-school curriculum, while academic historians were left out of the planning. [1] Others contributed to the implementation of the curriculum by designing learning activities to help teachers apply these new approaches in the classroom. I joined this group and was asked to design a situation where students could develop one of the “skills” highlighted in the new history curriculum: “narration.” This article will attempt to put this experience—which marked a profound turning point in my career—into perspective by considering the relationship between classroom practices and historical and historiographical research.

2At a time when often heated debates opposed knowledge-led learning and the development of skills, the assignment was an opportunity to show how competency-based learning, defined as applying resources (knowledge, skills, attitudes) to solve a complex problem, can strengthen the acquisition of knowledge. It was also an opportunity to demonstrate the advantages of directly engaging students though an “inquiry-led” learning similar to that being promoted in new middle-school curricula for the experimental sciences, technology, and mathematics. [2] Where the material being studied permitted, the task consisted in developing a method of history teaching based on hypotheses and deduction. [3] This integration of inquiryled learning did not, however, exclude other aspects of history teaching (such as narrative and memorization) or other techniques (such as lecture-style classes).

3My purpose here is to highlight how engaging critically with the approach of professional historians and the ways they write history can contribute to this kind of teaching; in other words, how scholarly history (understood as the professional practices associated with research produced in an academic context) contributes to the history we teach. The article thus participates in the current paradigm shift from a vision of education centered on the teacher imparting knowledge to an increasing focus on the student engaged in learning—a shift in emphasis from the teaching to the learning of history. The introduction of “narrative” skills into the new middle-school curriculum provides an opportunity to promote a focus on developing historical skills, a focus which requires us to look beyond the apparent schism between scholarly history and school history.

4Of course, “history classes aren’t about training historians,” as one might have heard in university-based teacher training institutes (Instituts universitaires de formation de maîtres, IUFMs). The instructors who take this stance do so to emphasize the contrast between the recent experience of a history graduate and the future experience of a history teacher. According to this position, the link between “scholarly” history and history taught in schools essentially lies in “didactic transposition”—in the transformation of the scientific knowledge produced by historians into the taught knowledge passed on by teachers—and not in the skills developed through studying history. Our aim, on the contrary, was to concentrate on the principal tasks of a historian—analyzing a document, shaping a historical narrative—in order to outline a pathway toward competency-based learning.

Connecting Academic History to School History

5If I somehow stumbled through my first year as a newly qualified secondary-school teacher (2000–2001), the following year was quite different. I found myself working in a middle school in the high priority region of Vitry-sur-Seine, just outside Paris, where classes were much more mixed and difficult to manage. Problems began to mount, especially as I became more and more focused on “disruptive” students. Like many teachers, I stopped worrying about the knowledge I should have been passing on to all of my students and concentrated on managing conflict situations involving just a few of them. It was at this moment that I had the good fortune to be invited to give courses in historiography at the University of Marne-la-Vallée.

6Gradually, and in a way I hadn’t anticipated, weaving back and forth between my middle-school students and my first-year university students reestablished a connection that should never have been broken: I reconnected the thread that links the teaching of history in schools to a reflection on the nature of the historian’s craft. I discovered that the questions I had as a secondary-school teacher about how to engage students were in fact answered, at least in part, in the historiography courses on “the writing and social uses of history.” As the years passed and I spent more time with both middle-school and university students, it became increasingly clear that “getting all the students involved” meant explaining each of the steps we were taking in the classroom by drawing on historians’ skills, particularly research methods and approaches to new information. If we start from the idea that rather than a disjunction, there is a continuity between the ways students and academics construct knowledge, then defining this notion of “historical apprenticeship” is a first step toward promoting independent work in our students. [4]

From the Classroom to the Workshop

7The idea, which I put into practice with my colleague Pierrick Martin, was to transform the middle-school classroom into a “workshop” of apprentices. The students were not there to learn a trade, but they could still be inspired by the researcher at work and go on to gain a stronger grasp of historical knowledge, language, method, and perspectives. The sessions were organized in three phases, each one structured by routine classroom practice: the setting of the historical context, the learning experience itself, and addressing the issues raised with the students.

8“Workshop” activities built links to the present day, with sessions usually beginning and ending with discussion of a recent news story. Our goal was to get students to engage with the fertile dialectic between the past and the present by introducing their task via an initial phase familiarizing them with the topic at hand. Starting the class from the perspective of a current news story also enabled students to better grasp the extent of change and the difference between the past and the present. Returning to the present at the end of the task allowed us to evaluate the way the past influences the present. [5] This meant spending time finding out about current events in order to identify documents that would help students approach the subjects covered in lessons. Even when clumsily applied, the ability to formulate a question is the first step in the active construction of an understanding of the past, implicating all the students in a collective and collaborative activity based on hypotheses they have developed themselves. For example in 2007, a few days before the first round of the presidential election and while we were studying the “France and the French since 1945” component of the old ninth-grade curriculum, Nicolas Sarkozy visited the commune of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises in the Champagne-Ardenne region, the burial place of Charles de Gaulle. We used this as an opportunity to start the following day’s class on “the de Gaulle years (1958–1969)” by looking at a photo of the presidential candidate standing at the foot of the vast cross of Lorraine that commemorates de Gaulle’s role as commander of the Free French Forces. Working on this image, a cleverly staged shot distributed by the French Press Agency, enabled students to dissect the sequence of events and formulate hypotheses about the candidate’s motives, while at the same time adopting a retrospective historical approach to the place of Gaullism in political culture.

9After this initial activity, designed to get the students comfortable with formulating their own questions about a situation, it was time to introduce them to something they couldn’t figure out for themselves: the concept they were preparing to explore and establish, which was written up on the board—war, power, religion, etc. This was an important step because it allowed students to connect theoretical learning acquired at different stages in their schooling and to move beyond the “chronological” progression of dates and events. For instance, by applying the concept to multiple situations and by drawing together learning experiences from different grades, the students reencountered the word “crisis,” which they had already come across at several points (the crisis of 1789, the 1930s crisis, and so on). This helped them gradually engage with the complexity of the notion via a sort of spiral structure, returning again and again to the same concept, developing it further each time by applying it to different contexts. This method of constructing interpretive concepts is a fundamental skill because it enables students to improve their social literacy, especially those from socially and culturally disadvantaged backgrounds.

10Once the central issue had been established through its relation to the students’ own present and the guiding concept identified, the apprenticeship model was designed to engage students in activities that would stimulate their capacity to learn from the inquiry-based approach of the historian. This was how the three phases of Ricœur’s “historiographical operation” found their way into our history class: the documentary phase (looking through various types of sources), the explanation/understanding phase (analyzing these documents by comparing them in search of helpful information), and the representative phase (solving the problem). [6] As much as possible, we tried to give students direct contact with archives. This meant they could leaf through the guide to the 1931 Colonial Exhibition, inspect original anti-Resistance propaganda from occupied Paris, and handle artifacts from the First World War. Such activities were of course the exception rather than the rule, but were nonetheless learning highlights for the students, who often felt genuine emotion as they engaged with archival material—something they rarely encountered elsewhere in their school experience. I am not grandstanding here, just endorsing our belief that teachers can create circumstances that introduce students to the “allure of the archive” [7] while also demonstrating that no source is self-explanatory and that documents must be examined by the historian and compared with other sources.

11The “explanation/understanding” phase is an essential step for apprentice historians. Based on the information obtained during the documentary phase, the student must project him or herself into the past in order to suggest explanations for the facts they have brought to light. The anachronisms this inevitably produces are often very useful in the learning process. In accounts of Christianity under the Roman Empire written by sixth graders, for instance, one might read that “Christianity became international” or that “the arenas started to go bankrupt.” Creating these kinds of situations and thus facilitating the connection between present and past is a fundamental aspect of history teaching. In a situation where the teacher and the students have developed the lesson together, the teacher’s role is simply to intervene and contribute the necessary corrections. This student involvement fosters learning and the assimilation of the requisite knowledge. The undertaking nevertheless requires rethinking standard pedagogical practices: it is still rare for students to be fully engaged in the production of knowledge, whether through their oral contributions or in their written work. The skills developed in history lessons are often limited to taking notes and answering factual questions posed by the teacher in both written and spoken formats.

12At the end of our classes, we returned to the central issue in order to integrate the students’ own learning experience, going back over, in order, the hypotheses that they had formulated, the central concept, and finally the current news story. These activities closed the learning loop for the apprentices: the classroom became a workshop for knowledge, built by students under the supervision of their teacher and recorded in written form in their workbooks.

The Language of the Workshop

13Setting up these independent activities allowed us to take enough of a step back to observe students and try a collective competency-led approach, some years before the “common core of skills and knowledge” (socle commun de compétences et de connaissances) was established in 2005. Predominantly focusing on language skills, we undertook a project with our colleagues in the French department, Vanessa Dottelonde-Rivoallan and Natanaëlle Afonso, which centered around two elements: language level and the principal forms of discourse.

14This dimension was reinforced when students who did not have French as a first language were included in mainstream classes. This was a major pedagogical challenge: How could we help these students continue to progress in a complex linguistic environment like a history class? The answer lay in establishing routines, structured by the inquiry-led nature of the class, that allowed every student to contribute to the collective activity regardless of their language level. This also meant that we were able to give more accessible activities to non-Francophone students, with their historical learning sometimes coming second to improving their comprehension of the documents. For example, one such exercise simply involved identifying the antecedents of pronouns in a text (“‘We have to hold [on] by a rope’ [8]: who is this ‘we’ in Betty Harris’s testimony?”). The contribution of non-Francophone students to the collaborative historical learning of the “workshop” might seem limited, but these activities allowed them to continue to progress while also contributing to the work of the class when it was time to reconsider the central issue at stake, sometimes providing a perspective that had not occurred to other students.

15At the same time, we were developing interdisciplinary work with the French department relating to the major forms of discourse (descriptive, narrative, interpretive, and argumentative) that were being put into practice in history classes. The transition from a “narrative history” to a “problem-based history” took on a very concrete form, foregrounding interpretive rather than descriptive or narrative discourses. Nevertheless, even when our objectives shifted from a narration-based goal to one of comprehension, narrative discourse, which plays an important explanatory role, continued to be part of historical learning, featuring either as a multitude of fragmented narratives or as a collaboratively constructed account.

New Curricula, New Opportunities

16When the new middle-school curriculum was implemented in 2008, a new opportunity arose to link history teaching in schools with scholarly history. A small group of teachers were selected to develop key training units that would then be presented to teachers of the Créteil school district in order to promote the main changes that had been introduced. One of the most important aspects of the curriculum reform was the place given to narrative, an extension of the work of Paul Ricœur, for whom history ultimately has a narrative character. [9] In the new curricula, historical narrative is understood as both the narrative presented by the teacher and that constructed by the student.

17The new validation of the teacher’s narrative was tied to criticisms of an approach that placed too much emphasis on the document and had resulted in “a complete recentering of the classroom, placing the teacher outside the student-document interaction.” [10] The objective was thus to promote the narrative discourse of the teacher in learning sessions: “we should not only vary the use made of documents but also make space for the teacher’s narrative: their words are crucial to capturing students’ attention as they give bodily form to the narrative and will focus on the salient points their pupils need to remember.” [11] This emphasis on the teacher’s narrative caused many colleagues to fear that teaching practices would regress and revert to lecture-style classes presented to passive students. In fact, the shift was envisaged as a recalibration of the dialectic between teaching and learning, between the transmission of knowledge and its construction.

18It was around this second aspect—historical narrative as a skill to be progressively developed by students—that we structured our competency-based approach, connecting the simplest forms of narrative to the professional skills of the historian. [12] As school curricula were no longer organized solely around the knowledge acquired by students but also emphasized their development of explicit competencies, [13] it was necessary to consider the development of this “skill” at the middle-school level as an “increasing proficiency in constructing a historical narrative, both written and oral, moving from its most basic form (a few sentences) to more elaborate developments incorporating interpretive and demonstrative elements.” [14]

The Pedagogical Experiment

19This project was conceived as part of a competency-based pathway leading from secondary to higher education, with school history serving as an “intermediate model for the assimilation of history.” It thus involved creating a situation that would foster the ability to “produce a historical narrative.” [15] The first step was to understand this ability as one of the skills employed by professional historians, and thus to envisage the “end” of the pathway. There are many works on the place of narrative in the writing of history that set out its main characteristics [16]: it is an account of “true events in which man is the actor,” as Paul Veyne emphasizes; it is a narration that draws on both eyewitness accounts and the historian’s explanation, which intersect in a “layered” text; it is a “full” text in the sense that it restores a narrative continuity to events; and finally, it has a dual function: telling and explaining. [17]

20By drawing on these characteristics and on recent studies of the place of historical narrative in history teaching, it was possible as a second step to analyze the skill level expected of the students by the end of their time in middle school, making sure to incorporate their linguistic resources into our analysis. [18] Our study led us to distinguish two main elements—constructing a historical narrative and explaining historical events—which became the focus of a learning situation designed to enable students to develop this skill. As part of the experiment, seventh graders were asked to produce an account of the life of Joan of Arc in the context of a writing workshop linked to a unit on the Kingdom of France during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

21During the first hour, students had to write an account based on facts presented in their textbook which they had to list, prioritize, and organize chronologically. For each item in the list, the students had to introduce an element of explanation, demonstrating their understanding of the actions carried out by the protagonists of their account. This task led them to use analogical reasoning. In order to explain the reasons behind particular actions, the author of a narrative, whether an academic historian or a student, has to “call upon the natural reasoning of common sense, social representations, and a more or less naïve form of psychology and sociology explaining the general behavior of people in society.” [19] This first phase, which Didier Cariou has called “socialization,” may well lead students to suggest anachronistic explanations: a process that is intrinsic to the mechanisms of knowledge construction—including that of professional historians.

22During the second hour, the students returned to their interpretations in a different setting. This time they were able to use resources (dictionaries, encyclopedias, other textbooks) that enabled them, with their teacher’s support, to correct and refine their interpretations of historical events. One student was at a computer taking notes from an interview with Georges Duby about the life of Joan of Arc; her classmates could go and ask her questions during the lesson. In this second phase, students were able to go back over the first version of their account, employing techniques of “historicization (source analysis, testing analogical reasoning, periodization, establishing historical concepts) necessary to the rationalization of the knowledge that has been reshaped in this way, with a view toward formalization and in line with the expectations of the discipline.” [20]

23Grading work that has been written in several stages during this kind of writing workshop is an ideal opportunity to rectify gaps in the students’ grammatical capabilities. In one of the texts submitted, a student wrote: “In 1429, Joan of Arc left Dom Remy because she said she heard many saints ordering her to drive the english out of France [sic.].” The proposed correction—“In 1429, Joan of Arc left Domrémy because, as she would go on to say during her trial, she had heard the voices of many saints who ordered her to drive the English out of France”—helped the student better understand the chronology of events and their documentary status (particularly the role of the trial, an episode occurring in the past but at a different time to Joan’s departure from Domrémy), while at the same time getting him to work on the sequence of narrative tenses. As this example shows, a history teacher’s failure to take the linguistic dimension into account, leaving grammar to the French department, can be detrimental to students: the expression of time is Bloch’s “plasma,” the sustaining element that nourishes historical intelligibility. [21] This is all the more true given that since the 1970s questions of narrative have proved one of the most fertile fields of historiographical reflection—a fact that is reflected in our classrooms on a quite different scale.

Implementing the New Curricula

24Introducing and justifying a change in practice is always ambitious and requires a great deal of support: the June 2003 report on curricula indicated that the problem with the history curriculum was due to “inadequate teaching practices linked to a lack of training.” [22] Once the updated curricula had been designed, they had to be implemented in middle schools, encouraging teachers to incorporate historical narrative into their teaching and to create learning situations that develop this skill in their students. However, the reform was not self-evident, and the proposal to introduce “narration” as a skill was rejected by 74 percent in a study conducted by the National Union of Secondary-School Teachers. [23] Over and above the risk of opposition, it remains rare to integrate writing workshops into learning modules in history. To implement this required levels of support and training equal to the task, which was far from being the case. [24]

25The development of a competency-based approach to learning represents a significant challenge for teacher training. The new curriculum’s introduction of historical narration as a “skill” for students to develop highlights the importance of reciprocal communication between historical research and secondary education. If we begin to see the narratives created by students as intermediate forms of the narratives written by historians, then we can envisage historical learning situations that teachers might develop with their classes. However, the reforms are so disconnected from what most teachers have experienced (including as students themselves), that the introduction of competency-based learning into history and geography curricula will only become a reality on a large scale when there is an ambitious program providing support from the moment that teachers embark on their initial training. Only in this way will classrooms start to enjoy a better balance between teaching and apprenticeship-style learning, between that which is transmitted and that which is constructed.


  • [*]
    This article was translated by Joanna Stephens and edited by Hollyann Nelson, Chloe Morgan, and Steven Sawyer.
  • [1]
    Patricia Legris, “L’écriture des programmes d’histoire en France (1944–2010). Sociologie historique de la production d’un instrument d’une politique éducative” (PhD diss., Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2010), 537,
  • [2]
    “Middle-school curricula favor an inquiry-based approach for science and technology.” “Programmes de l’enseignement de physique-chimie,” Bulletin officiel spécial 6 (2008): chimie_33527.pdf, p. 4.
  • [3]
    This is also a question of interest in the United States, as shown by the Stanford University website, Founded in 2002, the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has notably put in place the program “Reading Like a Historian,” which develops skills linked to inquiry-based learning from historical documents.
  • [4]
    Robert Martineau, L’histoire à l’école, matière à penser (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1999).
  • [5]
    In other words, “understanding the present through the past and most of all the past through the present.” Lucien Febvre, Combats pour l’histoire (Paris: Armand Colin, 1953), 425.
  • [6]
    Paul Ricœur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). This concept was developed by Michel de Certeau in The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). De Certeau defines it as the interweaving of the connections between the fabrication of history and the society for which it is produced, the techniques historians use to produce their work, and the forms of writing they use in their discourse.
  • [7]
    Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archive, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
  • [8]
    Testimony of Betty Harris, miner, according to a British parliamentary report of 1842, cited in E. Royston Pike, Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution in Britain (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1966).
  • [9]
    Paul Ricœur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
  • [10]
    Histoire, géographie, éducation civique. Aide à la mise en œuvre des programmes pour la 6e (Versailles: Centre de Recherche et de développement pédagogiques, 2008).
  • [11]
    “Programmes de l’enseignement d’histoire-géographie-éducation civique,” Bulletin officiel spécial 6 (2008): civique_6eme_33516.pdf, p. 17.
  • [12]
    Following the suggestion made in autumn 2008 by Danielle Champigny, who had been following our work on the competency-based approach. A member of the expert group that developed the new curricula, Champigny was an inspector in the Créteil school district at the time.
  • [13]
    Legris, “L’écriture des programmes d’histoire,” 529.
  • [14]
    Introduction to “Programmes de l’enseignement d’histoire-géographie-éducation civique,” Bulletin officiel spécial 6 (2008): 2,, p. 2.
  • [15]
    Nicole Lautier, À la rencontre de l’histoire (Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 1997), 213–22.
  • [16]
    Marc Deleplace, Le récit comme accès à la connaissance historique. Réflexions didactiques sur le récit historique, Le_recit_comme_acces_a_la_connaissance_historique-2.pdf.
  • [17]
    “Historians tell of true events in which man is the actor.” Paul Veyne, Writing History: Essay on Epistemology, trans. Mina Moore-Rinvolucri (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), x. “Layered text” (texte feuilleté) is the expression used in de Certeau’s Writing of History; “full text” (texte plein) is that of Antoine Prost, Douze leçons sur l’histoire (Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 1996).
  • [18]
    See the works of Didier Cariou, Jacques Sérandour, and Marc Deleplace.
  • [19]
    Prost, Douze leçons sur l’histoire, 158, cited by Didier Cariou, “Récit historique et construction du savoir en classe d’histoire au lycée,” Le cartable de Clio. Revue romande et tessinoise sur les didactiques de l’histoire 6 (2006): 174–84.
  • [20]
    Didier Cariou, Une recherche sur le récit historique et son utilisation en formation,, p. 2.
  • [21]
    Historical time “is the very plasma in which events are immersed, and the field within which they become intelligible.” Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), 23.
  • [22]
    “Groupe de relecture des programmes du pôle des humanités au collège,” progress report, April 4, 2003, Archives nationales, Centre des archives contemporaines, 2007 0019, article 39.
  • [23]
    Cited by Legris, “L’écriture des programmes d’histoire,” 529.
  • [24]
    Our work was conceived as a support for the implementation of the new programs. The proposal I developed with my colleague Vanessa Dottelonde-Rivoallan (étences) was presented to the working group on the new curricula. The reception of the inspectors and educators present that day was very positive, although I felt from the beginning that they were distancing themselves from an idea they claimed was very “exciting” but that was still inaccessible to most teachers. I left the presentation feeling that I had emphasized the importance of support for teachers through initial training and continuing professional education that would minimize the imbalance between the “prescribed” curriculum (where the teacher gives students opportunities to develop historical narrative as a skill) and the actual curriculum that is implemented by teachers. How could we get teachers to incorporate writing workshops into their learning sessions? The support system proposed by the Department of Education to deal with the major challenge of implementing the new curricula seemed insufficient for the 2009–10 school year. The training offered by our school district thus devoted little space to historical narrative as a skill to be developed by students. The supporting resources play an essential role, but are no substitute for training when it comes to important innovations such as the introduction of a competency-based approach. There was also a delay in making these resources available on the Éduscol website, which led to dissatisfaction among teachers. The impression of a lack of foresight in the implementation of the most innovative aspects of the curricula was confirmed by a member of the group of experts I met at one of the four inter-school-district meetings organized in 2009.

A skills-based approach encourages us to see learning as a journey between the simplest and the most elaborate level of competence, which can be developed over a whole lifetime. Teachers in a middle school in Vitry-sur-Seine (to the south of Paris) have developed a competency-based approach to history that focuses on the key techniques of professional historians, including developing hypotheses by analyzing sets of documents and writing historical narratives. The link between “academic history” and “school history” strengthens students’ learning.

Alexandre Berthon-Dumurgier
Institut européen de coopération et de développement (IECD)
Translated from the French by
Joanna Stephens
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