Developing understanding of historical perspectives

The story of the past can be understood from multiple perspectives. Therefore, when teaching about multiple perspectives in history, teachers must consider the following:

  • relevant sources that can be used to investigate multiple perspectives and where to locate these,
  • the context, or historical background, of a key individual, event or issue that students will be investigating,
  • values and beliefs that were commonly held in the period under investigation,
  • appropriate instructional strategies to guide students in their investigation (Cameron, 2011, p. 68)

The following strategy supports students to explore different historical perspectives:

  • Fishbowl discussion as a historical figure

Fishbowl discussion as a historical figure

This strategy gives students the experience of taking a perspective as they represent an individual's point of view in a discussion-based activity. It provides students with an opportunity to explore how factors in a person's background, context or experiences can shape the way they think and feel about a historical event.

Preparation for Fishbowl discussion

Select 5–6 'historical persons' that represent different backgrounds, attitudes and experiences for the period that you are focusing on.  These historical persons can be based on actual individuals or hypothetical ones.

Locate historical sources that illustrate each historical person's perspective. These could include

  • a letter written in the period
  • a speech delivered
  • a newspaper article about an individual.

Alternatively, create a short biography for each historical person based on secondary sources.

Select an event/problem/controversy/issue that is specific to the period in which the historical person lived, for example, the changing roles of women in Australian society during and immediately after World War 2 or the impact of the Spanish arrival in the Americas on the indigenous people, or on Spain's economy. (Note: The number of historical persons used for this activity may depend on the event/problem/controversy/issue chosen.) 

Make up a label for each historical person, which will be placed on the back of a chair when the class is set up for the fishbowl discussion.

  1. Select a focus for the activity. This might be a historical event/problem/controversy/issue. Pose a statement or question concerning the historical event/problem/controversy/issue. For example:

    'How was the Spanish arrival in the Americas, and the actions that they took whilst there, perceived?'

  2. Assign each student to represent a historical person. There will be more than one student representing each historical person.
    • At this stage, it is important to explicitly teach students that people in the past might have held beliefs, values and attitudes different from what is considered acceptable today.
    • Students might need to set aside their own values to avoid 'presentism', that is, 'judging the views and actions of those in the past according to attitudes and values of the present' (Cameron, 2011, pp. 68–69). For example

      Cortes, Dona Marina, a conquistador, Moctezuma, Atahuallpa, native of South America, King Ferdinand/Queen Isabella of Spain.

  3. Give students the relevant source (or created biography) to read, for example, a letter written by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, or the created biography of an Aztec ruler. Ask students to highlight key information about the historical person that they are representing which might influence their perspective. For example:
    • age
    • gender
    • social class
    • family status
    • occupation
    • level of education
    • significant experiences they've had in their life.
  4. Ask students to individually consider how their historical person would respond to the historical event/problem/controversy/issue posed. Ask students to write down 2 to 3 points for each of the following prompts:
  5. They might feel…
    They might say…
    They might do…
    They might react by…
    They might believe that…

  6. Allocate students into groups based on the historical person that they represent. All the students with the same historical person form a group.
    • In their groups, ask students to share the points that they wrote down in Step 4.
    • Encourage students to add to their notes based on discussions with their peers.
    • Check-in with each group to see how they are representing the viewpoints of their chosen historical person.
  7. Set up the room for a fishbowl discussion by making a circle of chairs facing each other.
    • The number of chairs in the circle should be the same as the number of historical persons in the activity.
    • Stick a label for each historical person on different chairs and ask students to line up behind the chair whose label states their historical person.
  8. One person from each group is nominated (either by students or the teacher) to take a seat and begin a discussion about the event/problem/controversy/issue.
  9. Provide a conversation starter if needed. For example:
  10. 'I was told that (event) was happening. What do you think about it? or 'I can't believe this (problem) that is affecting (a particular place). How do you think it will affect you?'

  11. To change students sitting in the chairs, either instruct students to volunteer another person to take their place during the discussion or, as the teacher, select different students to swap with others.
  12. At the end of the fishbowl discussion, ask students to characterise the divergent perspectives that were highlighted during the discussion.

    For example, a conquistador's view might be that the journey to the Americas was a great adventure with great prospects for getting treasure.

    Whereas a South American native individual's view might be that the Spanish brought only misery by enslaving them to work in mines and bringing death through diseases from Europe.

  13. As a reflection, ask students what historical skills they used in the activity and how this helped them to construct new knowledge. For example:

    'When you analysed this as a historian, what did you notice?' and 'As a historian, how did you put this [source] into perspective?' (Rainey et al., 2017, p. 374).

    • This step promotes self-questioning by students which is a metacognitive strategy to support deeper thinking. [HITS Strategy 9]

Links to the curriculum: VCHHK116, VCHHK117, VCHHK118, VCHHK119, VCHHK120, VCHHC124.