The problem of ‘perspective’ in the History classroom: we cannot seem to agree on what it means

Both students and teachers are confused about ‘perspective’

Out of all of the pages on the History Skills website, the one that I receive the most emails about is the one about historical perspective. Some of these emails are from students, but most are from fellow History teachers.

 

Those from high school students usually say the same thing: they are deeply confused when trying to understand what ‘historical perspective’ means when completing an assessment task. They explain that they are frustrated that the definition of ‘perspective’ given by their teacher differs with the definitions they find online or in their textbooks.

 

However, the most common emails I get on the matter are from teachers, from all around the world, who vehemently disagree with the explanation of ‘perspective’ offered on the webpage. These emails usually conclude with a passionate demand for me to alter the advice on the page to match how they are personally teaching it in class.

 

Since the History Skills website was created primarily to support both students and teachers in their study of History, I am always very happy to modify my resources to cater for the needs of students and teachers.

 

Unfortunately, this has led me to a deeply concerning conclusion when it comes to the perspective page. The advice that different teachers have given me about what the page should say is in direct contradiction to what other teachers want the page to say.

 

It is not simply that their variety of explanations of perspective is slightly different, they are, in reality, not at all the same things. There is no possible way for the website to provide all of the different definitions of historical perspective suggested by teachers without the page devolving into an incoherent mess.

 

But why do competing definitions of perspective exist? Historical perspective is one of the foundational concepts in the study of history and it is meant to be engaged with in every assessment piece. So, why can’t we, as History teachers, reach a consensus on what the definition should be? 

 


This is a problem that needs an urgent resolution. 

 

A note on the examples used:

While the examples I use below are drawn from various Australian education systems, they are similar to definitions used by education systems all around the world. The same difficulties have been identified by teachers in countries like US, Canada, Britain, South Africa and many others.

 

The different explanations of ‘perspective’

Let’s explore the various ways that perspective is understood.

 

On the surface, there appears to be an agreement across various syllabus documents. One of the most common definitions provided is that ‘perspective’ is ‘someone’s point of view’. For example, the new Senior Modern and Ancient History syllabuses in Queensland state that, perspective is “points of view of people, groups or institutions”. Similarly, the Senior Ancient and Modern History syllabuses in New South Wales state that perspective is “a point of view from which historical events, problems and issues can be analysed”. 

 

While that sounds like an easy enough definition, it turns out that teachers don’t agree on what this looks like in practice, or how students should demonstrate it in their work.

 

Here is a summary of the five most common definitions presented to me about perspective.

 

Explanation 1: Perspective is... the ideas expressed in a source

This understanding of historical perspective focuses on the words used in a source. It requires students to carefully read what has been written by a source creator and to provide an explanation about what those words mean. In some cases, students are then expected to make an educated guess about the beliefs of the author based upon the words in a quote.

 

For example, Victorian teachers are told that students are expected to do “close reading of … historical sources and making inferences about the ideas, values and beliefs of historical actors”. This understanding also underpins the resources provided by the Stanford History Education Group, where they identify ‘perspective’ with students’ ability to surmise what the “author probably believes”.

 

Explanation 2: Perspective is... the background of the source creator

This version of perspective highlights the need to know background information about the author of the source, rather than focusing on the words that they said. Stating the nationality, profession, political affiliation and/or ideological background is the central part of this version of perspective.

 

For example, in the Queensland syllabuses, it explains that “age, gender, social position and their beliefs and values” are identifiers of perspective. In a similar way, the Australian National History Curriculum lists “age, gender experiences, cultural or religious background, ideologies and/or intellectual contexts” as examples.

 

Incidentally, this is the version of perspective that students most often encounter when reading the work of professional historians. For example, Mary Beard comments that the authors of the surviving sources about Alexander the Great all wrote “through a Roman filter”. Likewise, universities identify “Marxist”, “conservative” and “feminist” as examples of perspective.

 


Explanation 3: Perspective is... acknowledging that people in the past thought differently to us

This definition focuses more on the attitude students should have when reading primary sources. It emphasises the fact that sources contain ideas, words or expressions that are foreign, or even downright offensive, to us today. This understanding of perspective aims to teach people to judge the beliefs of the people in the past by the standards of their own day, not by our own.

 

This version of perspective is most commonly associated with Peter Seixas who says that “perspective means understanding the social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional settings that shaped people’s lives and actions in the past... Indeed, taking historical perspective demands comprehension of the vast differences between us in the present and those in the past”.

 

Explanation 4: Perspective is... the elements that contributed to the creation of a source

A fourth understanding of historical perspective teaches students that it is all of the things that lead to the creation of a source. This includes the historical origins, context, intended audience and purpose of its creation.

 

This version seems to be popular in educational jurisdictions where perspective is the central element in exam questions that focus heavily on evaluating a source’s usefulness and/or reliability. In this understanding ‘perspective’ is the ability for students to justify the strengths and limitations of a historical source.

 

Explanation 5: Perspective is... “all of the above”

A final version of historical perspective is that it is a combination of the four options set out above. The exact combination is not consistent between teachers: each educator who promotes this version seems to have their own personal combination that they favour, so it is difficult to give a fuller explanation of it here.

 


But the confusion doesn’t end there...

The existence of up to five competing definitions of historical perspective is only the start of the problem. Things get worse when we look at how different educational jurisdictions use the term. On some occasions, individual curriculum or syllabus documents interchange meanings without warning or explanation.

 

Firstly, the Australian National Curriculum states that “in studying history, two types of perspective are important. First, there are the perspectives of people in the past and... Second, there are the perspectives on the past… particularly [by] historians…”. So, to clarify the distinction made, it states that the perspective of primary sources is distinct from the perspective of a modern historian. In comparison, however, the Victorian syllabus disagrees with that explanation. In its advice to teachers, it says that only primary sources "include historical perspectives", while the term "interpretations" should be used when discussion the point of view of secondary sources .

  


However, one of the most confusing uses of the term can be found in the new Queensland syllabuses. At the start of both the Modern and Ancient History documents, it provides two lists of separate skill types that students are expected to master. The first list is entitled ‘historical concepts’, which focuses on how students understand historical knowledge. The second list is called ‘historical skills’ which focuses on source analysis and evaluation skills. Confusingly, the term ‘perspectives’ appears in both lists. In the first list, it appears that it means Explanation 3 from the list above, while in the second list it means Explanation 2. However, this distinction is not clearly explained anywhere.

 

historical concepts in the QLD syllabuses: Historical skills in the QLD syllabuses:

 • evidence

• continuity and change

• cause and effect

• significance

perspectives

• empathy

• Contestability

 • chronology, terms and concepts

• historical questions and research

• analysis and use of sources

perspectives and interpretations

• explanation and communication

What is even more confusing is that on the trial exams provided to teachers and students in Queensland, the exam questions that ask students to identify ‘perspective’ actually requires them to use Explanation 1 from the list above, rather than either of the two mentioned in the two lists. Again, the difference between the three versions of the term is not explained anywhere.

 


When looking at past exam questions in New South Wales, students face a similarly confusing situation. In response to one question which asked the students to “outline how the perspectives of leaders differed at the Paris Peace Conference”, students were awarded marks for quoting or explaining specific words from the sources, while in another question on the same exam, which asked students to “consider the perspectives provided by the two sources”, they were awarded marks for the interpretation of words, the elements that contributed to the source's creation, as well as identifying the nationality and profession of the authors (e.g. “American Government Perspective” and “German Army Chief”).  The distinction between when a student was expected to use Explanation 1, Explanation 2 or a combination of the two is never explicitly stated.

 

How have teachers tried to deal with this?

I am not the only teacher who has struggled with this situation. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t read a social media comment on the frustration teachers experience when trying to teach perspective effectively to their students. 

 

As educators, we have a deep desire to successfully teach our students and have confidence in our explanations to them. As a result, most teachers have felt the need to choose just one of options above. Over time, they come to believe that their chosen position is the only correct interpretation and fiercely defend it.

 

This is the origin of the passionate emails that I have received: educators, who want to ensure that their students are receiving consistent messages about what the term means, want me to modify what is said on the History Skills website to match their preferred definition.

 


However, since I have received emails defending all five of the options listed above, all defended with equal tenacity and conviction, it is impossible to please everyone. This only highlights how problematic the current situation is.

 

Can we split up 'perspective' and 'point of view'?

Still other teachers have sought to provide clarity by, unfortunately, introducing more complexity to the definition of ‘perspective’. To do this, they try to explain that ‘perspective’ means something entirely different to 'point of view’. In justifying this separation of terms, they refer to explanatory materials developed for textual criticism studies in English literature and Film Studies

 

Unfortunately, this only makes matters worse, because creates a circular definition in the History classroom. As a result, when a teacher explains that ‘perspective’ IS ‘point of view’ are different things, when students read that “perspective” means “point of view” in syllabus glossaries and in the Oxford Dictionary, it only confuses them more.

 

While we should acknowledge that teachers are doing this in order to help, it only compounds the problem.

 

A desperate need for a solution

It should be abundantly clear by now that the discipline of History is in dire need of clarity on what historical perspective is and how students should demonstrate it.

 

The first thing we all need to recognise is that any change can only happen at the level of each educational jurisdiction. Classroom teachers do not have the power to do it and are at the mercy of the documents and exam papers produced by their education departments. 

 

However, if teachers can raise a mass call for change, it just may create the necessary impetus required to affect it.

 

The second thing to recognise is that any decision about how to more precisely define perspective is inevitably going to frustrate those teachers who are personally invested in their preferred interpretation of this skill, some of which have taught it that way for decades. 

 

Therefore, we need teachers to know that moving to a more clear definition is not a personal judgement on their capabilities as an educator.

 

Yet, we must all admit that there are significant, tangible benefits in getting all educators, syllabus documents and teaching materials on the same page regarding perspective so that we can effectively serve the needs of our students.

 

In order to create a viable solution to the perspective problem, we need to start with understanding how this situation developed in the first place.

 


What caused the confusion?

To quickly review the four dominant interpretations identified so far, here is a summary table:

 Interpretations  Historical perspective is explained as... How students are asked to demonstrate this interpretation of perspective
Option 1 ...the ideas expressed in a source Comprehend and interpret the opinion expressed in a quote and to surmise from this what the author may have believed

Option 2

...the background of the source creator Identification of the cultural, professional and ideological background of the source creator
Option 3 ... acknowledging that people in the past thought differently to us Demonstrate an empathetic reading of how people in the past expressed their ideas, even when they are in conflict with our own
Option 4 ...the elements that contributed to the creation of a source Explain the origins, context, intended audience and purpose of a source’s creation

The confusion has arisen due to the fact that the four interpretations listed above are all closely related to each other

 

For example, by identifying the cultural background of an author (Option 2) and the elements that contributed to its creation (Option 4), it helps makes sense of the ideas they write down (Option 1), and that by understanding the differences between their time and our own (Option 3), we are better placed to comprehend and explain the message they are trying to convey (Option 1). You cannot really have one without the other. All elements are important when reading source.

 

However, since the four elements are closely related, common usage has unfortunately applied “perspective” to all of them. However, in doing so, it makes it unclear what a student needs to do when asked to demonstrate an understanding of this skill.

 

An example of student difficulties

The problem for students is best demonstrated with an example. Suppose that a student is asked about the historical perspective of the following source:

 

Source 5

 Contextual statement: 

The following quote was written by Herodotus, an ancient Greek historian from Asia Minor, writing to explain the events around the Persian Wars during the 5th century BC.

 

“It seems to me that Megabyzus spoke well concerning democracy but not concerning oligarchy. For if the three are proposed and all are at their best for the sake of argument, the best democracy and oligarchy and monarchy, I hold that monarchy is by far the most excellent. One could describe nothing better than the rule of the one best man; using the best judgment, he will govern the multitude with perfect wisdom, and best conceal plans made for the defeat of enemies.”

 

Reference:

Herodotus. The Histories. III.82.

Now, what should a student’s response look like? Depending on what their own teacher taught them, it could be any of the four options above. Unfortunately, each one will produce a very different response, and in an exam scenario, it can be the difference between passing and failing.

 

Here are what the four interpretations will lead a student to say:

 

Student response according to interpretation 1:

Source 5 demonstrates a point of view regarding the concept of monarchy. In particular, Herodotus has the perspective that monarchy is a superior system of government. This is evident when he says that “I hold that monarchy is by far the most excellent” when he compares the three systems of government. This is further supported when he states that “One could describe nothing better than the rule of the one best man”. Therefore, it can be concluded that Herodotus believed that a monarchy was the best form of government for counties to operate under.

 

Student response according to interpretation 2:

Source 5 is written from the perspective of Herodotus, who as a Greek historian from Asian Minor. Therefore, his work contains a Greek historian’s point of view on the events he describes.

 

Student response according to interpretation 3:

Source 5 provides an opinion on preferred governmental structures that may have been popular in the ancient world at the time that it was written. It talks positively about the rule of kings and that they are the best form of government available. Today, however, most people do not hold this point of view, as western liberal democracies are far more popular. It must be remembered however, that monarchies were overwhelmingly the norm for most of human history and, as such, this opinion would have been more accepted at the time it was written.

 

Student response according to interpretation 4:

Source 5 is written by Herodotus, who was a living during the 5th century BC. His work, The Histories, sought to explain the events around the Persian Wars, which occurred during the Greek city-states and the Persian empire in the first half of the century. As his audience would have been predominantly Greek speaking, he would have contained a perspective that catered to their concerns.

 


Student response according to interpretation 5:

For teachers who tend to hedge their bets regarding the meaning of ‘perspective’, they may ask their students to demonstrate all four of the above interpretations in their own answer. Unfortunately, this quadruples a student’s workload under strict exam time limits. This is, what is in effect, a ‘shotgun approach’ to cover as many bases as possible because neither the student nor their teacher really knows what definition of perspective is being ask, and as a result, don’t know what the exam marker is looking for.

 

There is an easy and effective solution

There is a surprisingly simple solution to the problem of conflicting uses of the word ‘perspective’. It is based upon the realisation that three out of the four options are actually referred to by other terms, which better describe what students need to demonstrate.

 

In fact, the alternative names for these options are already being used by the same syllabuses we’ve mentioned so far, so there is no need to introduce new terminology to resolve the issue. Instead, all we need to do is to be precise about what term we use instead of ‘perspective’ so that students have no doubt about what is being asked of them.

 


 

The most important thing to change is to stop using ‘perspective’ when talking about these three skills and only use ‘perspective’ for the option that does not have a better designation.

 

Here are the better explanations for three of the four options.

 

Explanation 1, “The ideas expressed in a source”, is better described as ‘comprehension’ and ‘interpretation’

When students are asked to read a text and provide an explanation of the ideas expressed in it, they are really being asked to demonstrate the ability to comprehend and interpret something. These skills are used outside of the History discipline as well, so it isn't new to students. The fact that this is not really a historical skill is highlighted by the fact that a student can successfully demonstrate the meaning of a source without any knowledge of history. 

 

So, instead of using this as a definition of ‘perspective’, we should refer to it as ‘comprehending’ and ‘interpreting’ the message of a source.

 

Explanation 3, "acknowledging that people in the past thought differently to us”, is better described as ‘historical empathy’

Peter Seixas himself admits that what he has called ‘perspective’ is actually known as “historical empathy”.  This is a historical knowledge skill that is used in most educational districts around the world and usually does not appear as an exam question. Instead, being able to appreciate an opinion that differs from your own is a life skill that aids in the study of history.

 

So, instead of using this as a definition of ‘perspective’, we should use it as an explanation of ‘historical empathy’.

 

Explanation 4, "the elements that contributed to the creation of a source”, is better described as ‘source analysis’

The Australian National Curriculum states that “identification of the origin, purpose and context of historical sources" is referred to as “analysis of sources”. Likewise, the QLD syllabus states that ”when students analyse evidence from historical sources ... they identify the features, which may include origin, motive, audience, perspective, [and] context”. Similar explanations appear in most other syllabuses, and they list perspective as one of several source analysis skills. Unfortunately, some teachers have used 'perspective' as a shorthand way of referring to all analysis skills combined, in which case they forget that perspective is only one of the skills.

 

So, instead of using this as a definition of ‘perspective’, we should use it as an explanation of 'source analysis', of which 'perspective' is one of the skills included.

 

Therefore, Explanation 2 is the most accurate definition of ‘historical perspective’

This leaves the second interpretation, which asks students to identify the background of the source creator as the best definition of what historical perspective is. 

 

In fact, this is the definition that most educators have the least objection to. If a student identified that a source was written from a “German soldier’s perspective” or the "point of view of an American conservative politician”, very few teachers would say that they were wrong. It is also worth noting that this definition of perspective is the only one of the four that does not have an alternative designation.

 

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, this is the definition that professional historians use most often in their own works, and the one that students will encounter most frequently when reading academic sources. 

 

Therefore, the most obvious solution to solve the confusion around the term is to reserve this definition as the one that teachers and students use when referring to ‘historical perspective’.

 

If we do this, and if it is widely agreed upon, this would make a teacher’s job in explaining this skill much easier and help students genuinely understand what is required in order to demonstrate this skill in their work.

 


A visual summary of the proposed solution:

   This definition... ...is best referred to as:
Option 1 The ideas expressed in a source Comprehension and interpretation

Option 2

The background of the source creator Perspective
Option 3 Acknowledging that people in the past thought differently to us Historical empathy
Option 4 The elements that contributed to the creation of a source Source analysis

How this solution would look in exam questions

To show how this proposed solution could help students better understand what is required on an individual exam question, I will show how questions could be re-written in order to produce the answers provided in the earlier example.

 

Question 1: What does Source 5 appear to believe about monarchy?

Source 5 appears to believe that monarchy is a superior system of government. This is evident when he says that “I hold that monarchy is by far the most excellent” when he compares the three systems of government. This is further supported when he states that “One could describe nothing better than the rule of the one best man”. Therefore, it can be concluded that Herodotus believed that a monarchy was the best form of government for counties to operate under.

 

Question 2: From what perspective is Source 5 created?

Source 5 is written from the perspective of Herodotus, who as a Greek historian from Asian Minor. Therefore, his work contains a Greek historian’s point of view on the events he describes.

 

Question 3: How does understanding the beliefs of the ancient world help make sense of the ideas expressed in Source 5?

Source 5 provides an opinion on preferred governmental structures that may have been popular in the ancient world at the time that it was written. It talks positively about the rule of kings and that they are the best form of government available. Today, however, most people do not hold this point of view, as western liberal democracies are far more popular. It must be remembered however, that monarchies were overwhelmingly the norm for most of human history and, as such, this opinion would have been more accepted at the time it was written.

 

Question 4: What was the historical context, audience and purpose of Source 5?

Source 5 is written by Herodotus, who was a living during the 5th century BC. His work, The Histories, which was intended for a Greek speaking audience, sought to explain the events around the Persian Wars, which occurred during the Greek city-states and the Persian empire in the first half of the century. 

 

But is it realistic to expect people to make this change?

I must admit that even though this is a very simple and effective solution to the problem, I am sceptical about the chances of its widespread adoption. 

 

There are two major reasons that I fear that people will choose to maintain the pre-existent confusion, despite the overwhelming levels of frustration we’re experiencing:

  1. Educators face the pressure to teach to the specific requirements of their own jurisdiction, no matter how confusing they currently are
  2. Teachers are emotionally invested in the definition they have used for many years

Therefore, I fully expect to continue to receive impassioned emails and social media comments disagreeing with the solution offered here and that I should change the wording of the website to suit their preference.

 


However, it doesn’t change the fact that the current situation is an unworkable mess for everyone. We need a practical solution that can be universally applied, across both state and national boundaries, that makes the lives of teachers and students better.

 

At the very least, I hope that this blog post sparks a larger discussion that leads to a solution in the future.

 

Blog post update

After posting this article, I have received a lot of feedback, both via email and on social media. 

 

I want to thank all of my fellow teachers who provided constructive criticism which allowed me to refine the terminology and reference material to ensure that I provided a balanced and fair representation of all views on this topic. It is encouraging that so many people are willing to contribute to this discussion in order to find a workable solution.

 

In the process of further discussion, an additional interpretation of what 'perspective' is has also arisen. To provide a fair representation of this option, I have added it as a sixth interpretation below:

 

Interpretation 6: Perspective is... is the angle from which historians look at a present-day phenomenon

This understanding appears to be used mostly when undertaking research on a specific event, idea or development in the present. It focuses on understanding how past events evolved through various phases in order to develop an explanation about how contemporary events came to exist. The intention is to provide a detailed assessment of the present rather than focusing on the past. This explanation is set out in more detail by Barbara S. Lawrence and John Tosh.

 

This is an interpretation that I have the least exposure to, so cannot offer an 'alternative' clarification upon it at this stage. However, I note that much of the language echoes other terminology already used in syllabuses around the world, including the terms change and continuity and the 'applicability' criteria as found in historical significance.

What are your thoughts? Please leave them in the comments below.

Write a comment

Comments: 3
  • #1

    Stephen Keightley (Tuesday, 21 April 2020 18:55)

    I wholeheartedly agree with you on this topic, Michael. By using the terms outlined above: comprehension, interpretation, empathy and analysis; as well as reserving perspective for Option 2, marking work becomes a much clearer exercise with the ability to be more fine-grained in providing specific feedback.

  • #2

    Wendy Buttsworth (Tuesday, 21 April 2020 19:44)

    I am with you on this Michael I have always referred to perspective according to your Option 2. As I am firstly an English teacher we have always taught that the Ideology of the writer affects a text and how ideas are represented - hence it was always natural for me to assume the perspective was "the writer's perspective". I think your choice of language around the other options is excellent and helps to clarify it beautifully. It will also assist younger students to understand.

  • #3

    Kim Brett (Thursday, 14 May 2020 01:00)

    Thank you so much Michael for addressing this issue so clearly and logically. I am with you as an Option 2 advocate. Your article has made a very valuable contribution to hopefully resolving the mess that has engulfed 'perspective', especially as we draw closer to the Qld external exam.