A University of New Brunswick professor says Canada's schools are teaching history all wrong, which has consequences for ensuring engaged and thoughtful civic participation.

Alan Sears

Alan Sears is an education professor at the University of New Brunswick. (University of New Brunswick)

Alan Sears is a professor of education at UNB and a fellow at the Gregg Centre who will be delivering this year's Eaton Lecture at the University of Toronto on the subject this week. 

Sears argues that the space for history has diminished in school curricula over the years, and what is taught is too simplistic.

What happens as a result, he argues, is that people's understanding of history is one-sided.

For example, the debate over Canada 150 and whether Canada's history should be celebrated seemed to split into two sides: Canada is a heroic nation. Or it is one with a history of racism and exclusion.

Students can handle complexity

But history tells a much more complicated story, he said.

"History matters to people, from Charlottesville to debates over whether John A. Macdonald's name should be on elementary schools, to the Cornwallis statue in Nova Scotia. People are debating the public history aspects of our lives, and we don't do those debates very well. We don't do nuance," he said.

"Evidence shows if we teach history well, if we teach students well, they can learn to handle complexity."

To do this, Sears says teachers need to teach history in a way that demonstrates to students that it is complex and contested, immersing students in primary sources and introducing them to important historic ethical questions.

He says there is evidence that this can be done, even with very young students.

"Since the 1980s, there is growing body of evidence that shows children can learn this, they can learn to think in complex ways," he said.

"And if they do history this way, they are more inclined to engaged civically, and show respect for things like gender rights, immigrants rights and other kinds of factors."

Sears will deliver his lecture, titled "Retaking the Ground: War, Memory, and National History in Canadian Schools", at the University of Toronto on Monday evening.

With files from Shift