Critical thinking: hundreds of Czech primary schools to phase out fact-based, rote learning of modern history

Several hundred primary schools across the country will introduce a new approach to teaching 20th century history starting in September. As part of a Ministry of Education-backed pilot project, teachers should begin implementing research-based learning and emphasizing critical thinking, rather than memorizing historical facts.

Nearly 300 primary schools have signed up for the History Plus (Dějepis Plus) pilot project, for which the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR) and various educators have long been preparing materials and multimedia lesson plans, drawing in part on the Czech Radio sound archives.

The idea is to develop students’ historical literary by using more primary sources, open to interpretation. To help teachers craft interactive, multimedia lesson plans, ÚSTR and various universities’ pedagogical faculties, along with textbook publishers, developed an interactive digital app called HistoryLab.

Kamil Činátl, a historian at ÚSTR specialising in didactic methodology and sites of memory, explained the concept when primary school teachers began experimenting with the HistoryLab beta version, two years ahead of the History Plus launch.

“History is not just about knowledge; it’s about asking questions. The real asset that a historically literate person has is not a collection of facts they have amassed. It’s having a historical overview and conceptual framework, allowing them to pose relevant questions, understand that history is open to interpretation, and respect others’ views.”

Kamil Činátl | Photo: Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes

Historians and teachers from across the country recently convened in Olomouc for a three-day Summer School to try out some of the multimedia lesson plans that some 300 primary schools will draw upon starting in September.

Among them was one based in part on oral histories by people interned during the war in the garrison town of Terezín, which Nazi Germany turned into a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp. The primary students’ task will be to argue whether Czech gendarmes who worked at Terezín were complicit in the prisoners’ suffering.

There is no single correct answer. And that’s an approach that David Lopaur, a history teacher at the Svatoplukova Olomouc primary school who took part in the Summer School, greatly appreciates, he told Czech Radio.

“Through this project, we are learning ways to help students understand that there are different perspectives on history. That it is not possible to settle on one single correct version. History is variable, and pupils should be able to interpret it.”

Mr Lopaur and a number of other Summer School participants plan to share their experiences with colleagues and consult with them regularly on the effectiveness of the History Plus method.

Among them is Aleš Sedlmayer from ZŠ Strossmayerovo náměstí primary school in Prague.

“Sharing with other history teachers at nearby schools seems crucial to me. It is unusual for teachers from different schools to meet – in fact, they often do not meet in their own schools. We will create a group that will prepare lessons together, teach them and reflect on how they were actually received and conducted.”

Many history teachers already work with multimedia and primary sources to encourage critical thinking. And there have been other projects that aimed to change the approach to teaching the subject.

History Plus – or more formally the Experimental Verification of Teaching the History of the 20th Century project – is different, its developers say, in that it is fully supported by the Ministry of Education.