Page 41 - University of Pretoria RESEARCH REVIEW 2016
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Teaching history in schools is often a sensitive and contested matter, particularly in divided and post-war societies where the past typically remains at the heart of intergroup conflict. In such contexts, dealing with the past is both a challenge and an opportunity for intergroup reconciliation processes.
Dr Denise Bentrovato, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Humanities Education at UP, has shed further light on the distinct role of history education in contexts of conflict and peace. Her research builds on the premise that teaching history can play both a negative role by exacerbating division, and a positive role by helping divided societies
heal wounds and reconcile. Based on this premise, her work aims to provide insights into approaches adopted in schools to teach about violent pasts, the challenges and opportunities involved, and the implications of current practices for peace-building.
In 2016, her research culminated in the publication, History can bite: History education in divided and postwar societies (Eckert. Die Schriftenreihe), a
book co-edited with Karina Korostelina and Martina Schulze, with 15 contributions on cases from around the world, including an own chapter that examines the experiences of teaching contested histories in Rwanda and Burundi.
Key findings of this collaborative work can be summarised as follows: The volume illustrates
the role of history education as a tool for nation- building, and as a mechanism of societal inclusion and exclusion and a (potential) source of conflict.
The book sheds light on the widespread cultures of silence promoted through schools around the world in the aftermath of violence, to the effect of depriving younger generations of a chance to make sense of their country’s history and the legacies of the past. The examination of everyday classroom practices demonstrates the key role of teachers in enacting curricula and textbooks, and again calls attention
to the pervasive silence and discomfort found in many classrooms in postwar societies. Importantly, the research reveals the large failure of schools to function as safe spaces for open dialogue and critical inquiry, and reflection on the past and the present in postwar societies, and warns against the threats to social cohesion and stability posed by this failure.
Together with Johan Wasserman, Professor of Humanities Education in the Faculty of Education, Denise Bentrovato is
the co-founder and co-director of the African Association for History Education (AHE-Afrika), a non-profit organisation located in the Faculty of Education at UP.
      South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world, and it is therefore perhaps unsurprising that there seems to be an increased incidence of violence at schools.
Drs Miemsie Steyn and Melanie Moen in the Department of Early Childhood in the Faculty of Education at UP undertook a study of young children, aged between six and nine years, to identify dominant themes that prevail in children’s experiences in the early school years. The study included 224 children from 30 private and government schools in Gauteng, which were randomly selected to participate in the study.
Teachers were asked to get learners to draw pictures of ‘things that make them sad’. Since young children are often unable to express their emotions adequately, drawing provides a safe way for revealing emotions that they cannot (or do not want to) express in words. Teachers discussed the drawings with the children to ensure that they interpreted the drawings correctly. Although the participating schools varied greatly with respect to the profile of children, two themes dominated: that of violence and of loss.
The key findings emphasise the importance of addressing the issues of violence and loss in the teacher training curricula at institutions of higher education. They stress that it is imperative that student teachers be made aware of the factors that affect children’s emotional wellbeing, while simultaneously equipping them with the skills and knowledge needed to support children in dealing with adversities before problems escalate and psychological damage becomes difficult to reverse.
As a result of the outcomes of this study, UP’s Faculty of Education has incorporated specific sections in the Life Skills curriculum on addressing the issues of violence and loss; it also plans to develop training material for other universities in South Africa.
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Guy Stubbs, Africa Media Online

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