While history education is often used to provide a context to the legacies of slavery, the historical connection to contemporary slavery is frequently overlooked in classroom practice.
Based on a review of the literature of slavery education in history, we found that history lessons on the subject are often chronologically, geographically and thematically limited and predominantly focus on the factual aspects of the transatlantic slave trade.
This bounded focus can lead to the exclusion or omission of other time spans and locations and this kind of narrow coverage can also contribute to forming misconceptions about slavery.
Two of the biggest of these misconceptions are that slavery only occurred within the transatlantic triangle in the continents of Africa and North America and, perhaps more worryingly, a belief that slavery ended with the abolition of slavery centuries ago.
Historical enquiry, when framed through the lens of Critical Development Education (CDE), can help students make connections between past and present forms of slavery, as well as its ongoing global legacies.
Additionally, this framing also allows for connections to be made to the didactic, affective and active domains that we argue must be stimulated in the teaching of such issues.
Comprised of four interrelated dimensions, the framework for Critical Development Education (CDE) identifies a series of key concepts to underpin an enquiry in this area.
These are the conceptual, didactic, affective and active dimensions (see the Figure 1: Framework below). In the following section, we explain each of these dimensions in further detail.
A number of studies show that students often have a weak understanding of the conceptual ideas they are dealing with.
While they may be familiar with examples of colonialism or racism in history, rarely are these concepts fully explored or understood, and they may still operate with weak definitions that have been learned off, poorly conceptualised or swiftly forgotten.
To address this, concepts must be carefully selected by the teacher and actively taught.
The affective aspect asks us to consider issues such as historical consciousness, which can be generally defined as the process by which people orient themselves in time; this orientation allows the individual to situate and direct themselves within a historical and temporal continuum in order to understand the past.
Understanding how the decisions people made in the past can impact on society today, and understanding that present actions will have implications for future generations is, as we argue, one of history education’s essential contributions to society.
‘Active engagement’ requires teachers to think about the end product of the enquiry.
This may simply be providing space for dialogic discussions on the topic, or perhaps an awareness raising campaign or some sort of action, be that individual or collective.
Similarly, the teacher needs to think about the pedagogical approaches that will be used to teach about these issues.
Rather than passive textbook exercises, students need active engagement. A key pedagogy in history education is historical enquiry.
Enquiry begins with asking a question, interrogating the evidence to answer that question, creating interpretations based on that interrogation, and connecting this interpretation to wider concerns (see figure 2 on historical inquiry for more).
Bartolomé de las Casas’ life story is fascinating. He went to the Americas as a conqueror, had slaves and land, but gave them up because of what he saw; became an activist and even tried to form a nicer kind of colony in Venezuela, then entered the Dominican order and later was the driving force behind the limitation of the encomienda system that treated indigenous people as property.
So his life encompasses huge learnings and transformations, but also some missteps (for example, he called for indigenous slavery to be replaced by African slavery, a statement he later regretted and recanted, but worth considering in the exploration of the legacy of the man and slavery itself).
Students could use a pros and cons list throughout the series of lessons as they explore the evidence selected by the teacher to decide if de las Casas should be remembered (also developing historical interpretations and multiple perspectives).
What does slavery look like?
Main Enquiry Question: From Conquistador to Champion: Should we remember Bartolomé de las Casas?
Using an image of a statue of Bartolomé de las Casas as a stimulus (Resource 3), students create a list of questions which will form part of their enquiry into slavey. Teacher gathers evidence to help students answer these questions, for example:
Resource 3: From Conquistador to Champion: Should we remember Bartolomé de las Casas?
Create a list of questions.
From Conquistador to Champion: Should we remember Bartolomé de las Casas?
Make a list of:
Connecting statement: In one of his correspondences with the Emperor of Spain, De las Casas argued that laws alone would never be enough to end exploitation.
Students discuss this statement, what did he mean by this, why are laws not enough? What are the other issues that need to be addressed?
Enquiry Question: Are laws enough to end exploitation?
Although slavery has been legally abolished at international level as well as by almost all countries, how is it that an estimated 50 million people are considered to be in conditions of modern slavery today?
Resource 6: Card Sort
Note: This piece provides an overview of the methodology developed by the authors in collaboration with DCU colleagues, and published open access in the journal Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review in 2021, which considers how the issue of modern slavery and the concepts of inequality, power and exploitation can be explored in a classroom.
The Method series features pedagogies and methods for the teacher & trainer’s toolbox.