What makes a testimony believable? Spanish students’ conceptions about historical interpretation and the aims of history in secondary education

Author

Diego Miguel-Revilla

Abstract

Epistemic beliefs about history can have a profound impact on the way students understand and approach this discipline in the classroom. During the last decades, significant efforts have been made in order to conceptualise different epistemic stances, which can be linked with historical thinking concepts such as the use of evidence. Recent research indicates that epistemic beliefs in history are not only connected to an understanding about the nature of the discipline and the debate about objectivity, but also to the conception of evidence and interpretation in history. This study makes use of a qualitative design in order to examine the conceptions and ideas regarding history of 107 fourth-year secondary education students from three different regions in Spain. Participants were asked to discuss and analyse recent and contrasting interpretations of sources linked to the Spanish transition to democracy (1975-1982), a recent and controversial period. Information was obtained using a structured questionnaire, and responses were transcribed, codified and qualitatively analysed using emerging categories with ATLAS.ti. Results indicate that a majority of students argued that all testimonies can be equally valid in history, even if they show different interpretations or contradictory visions. Only a reduced number of participants focused on the notion of evidence as a determining factor that can indicate whether a testimony is believable, in line with a criterialist epistemic stance. Spontaneous and implicit references to the notions of objectivity and subjectivity in history were also analysed. Results also show diverse conceptions about the aims of history: many secondary education students explicitly indicated that history can be a useful tool to avoid the mistakes of the past, and argued that it should not be imitated. Some participants argued that history can help understand our present, while only a minority of students explicitly argued that each particular historical context should always be taken into account before drawing any lesson from the past. Finally, a discussion is provided about the possibility of examining students’ epistemic beliefs by allowing them to address history first-hand. The study concludes that some of the conceptual shortfalls that were detected in secondary education students could be addressed by fostering historical thinking and understanding, and by allowing students to work with sources and testimonies.

Keywords

Epistemic beliefs, history education, historical thinking, use of evidence, epistemic cognition

How to Cite:

Miguel-Revilla, D. (2022). What makes a testimony believable? Spanish students’ conceptions about historical interpretation and the aims of history in secondary education. Historical Encounters, 9(1), 101-115. https://doi.org/10.52289/hej9.106

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  • Published 15 April 2022

  • Double Blind Peer Reviewed

  • Author Retains Copyright

  • Distributed under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 License