Teaching history in the Netherlands: Teachers' experiences of a plurality of perspectives

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Curriculum Inquiry, Volume 40, Issue 5, p.614-634 (2010)


Globalisation and the re-invention of national identities make history teaching seem more challenging than ever before. In the past decade, the teaching of history in the Netherlands has been at the center of public debate. During a period of political turmoil, the history curriculum was subjected to two somewhat competing revisions. One aimed at restoring chronology, the other at making history teaching contribute to a sense of community. This last call for a reformulation of the national historical narrative has met with resistance from those who claim a need for a plurality of perspectives in history education. Within this context an exploratory study with five history teachers was undertaken to gain insight into their goals and beliefs about teaching history. They all have an academic background and teach in multicultural classrooms. Two interview instruments were designed to stimulate the teachers to approach the subject from different angles. Conclusions are that the history teachers share a critical approach to (national) history and an understanding of their students as having multiple identities. The teachers show differences when reflecting on how they create usable pasts with their students for future purposes.


Research question
What are the goals and pedagogical strategies of academic history teachers in the Netherlands? How are these related to their teacher knowledge?

Klein chose to do a small qualitative study with five history teachers using interviews as the research instrument. This method has its limitations, as teachers’ often talk about “idealized versions of practice” rather than what actually goes on in their classrooms. To soften this effect, Klein designed two different instruments that would allow the teachers to retrieve from their past practices as much as possible (instrument 1), but also to think about an ideal practice (instrument 2). The interviewed teachers taught in multicultural classrooms. Within this environment teachers would be provoked to think about a plurality of perspectives. All five teachers had a master’s degree in history. They taught children between the ages of 12–18 years old. They work in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, two major immigrant cities in the Netherlands. Three female and two male teachers participated. All five teachers are White, European born and raised in the Netherlands. Four teachers worked in Rotterdam at four different schools: one Catholic school, one Protestant school and two public schools . These schools have students from a variety of cultural backgrounds (European and Asian) and have a relatively large group of Islamic students from Morocco and Turkey. The fifth teacher worked at a public school in Amsterdam with a relatively large and diverse group of students from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.
Teachers were interviewed twice between May and October 2007.  The space between the two interviews ranged from 1 week to 1 month. This was done to allow teachers to take a fresh look at the historical case, both physically and for the purpose of not being worried about the (in)consistencies with their earlier answers.

Results / conclusion
The five Dutch history teachers in this study, who all have a master’s degree in history, do not present themselves as transmitters of a closed narrative. They all work in multicultural classrooms and share a belief about their students as having multiple identities. These teachers displayed a predilection for teaching history critically, using strategies that invite students to learn about other perspectives in the past and the present. Klein surmises that they may resemble teachers in the United Kingdom (Husbands, Kitson, & Pendry, 2003; Cunningham, 2009), where the history curriculum is also taught through second-order concepts, more than those in, for example, France (Tutiaux- Guillon, 2007) or the United States (VanSledright, 2008).

Klein concludes that all five teachers aim at developing historical thinking. They all say that empathy and contextualisation are important and that history is always the object of debate from many perspectives. They all have the ambition to teach history as a subject that essentially is a continuous debate about the meaning of events and processes. They are also aware of their teaching as an identity issue in the present, partly because they have knowledge about their students as having multiple identities. Through their teaching they hope to achieve two general goals: to contribute to their students’ ability to think outside a group perspective and to help them develop a commitment to Dutch society. This does not mean that they were equally successful or that their practices are  similar.
All five teachers work in multicultural classrooms and as such cannot be seen as representative of the variety of schools and teachers in the Netherlands. For example, many schools still have all-White classrooms, and not all teachers share the liberal views of these five.
In regard to the research method Klein comments that it is unclear whether the actual practices of these teachers may be different from what they say. The data retrieved from the interviews may reveal the highs and lows of teacher practice rather than the daily routine. Also the teachers may be confronted with moral issues more often than they remembered or were aware of. Finally, it remains difficult to assess the depth of pedagogical strategies in retrospective interviews, and from the teachers’ perspective only.