The diversity of how teachers understand conflict leads to multiple questions about how that translates into the classroom on a personal level and in learning about geo-political / historical conflicts. Kristina, a student at the American University of Armenia, says: “I would have preferred it if different sides’ interests were explained to me as a student. During my years of schooling, we always had a “black-and-white” and “good-and-bad” outlook on conflicts, and carrying that with me outside of school when I was researching history hindered me. I now know that things are much more nuanced, which helps me understand conflicts better: that’s very important”. While this seems like an argument for both multiperspectivity and a more critical perspective on history, one of the teachers of the dialogue interpreted this by focusing on teachers’ affective influences in the classroom: “This happens because when teaching history, we don’t realize that we might say something that will limit the student coming to their conclusions. We often give them the real picture and do not let them think about it - we should be impartial”.
This idea of neutrality seems to resonate with other participants as well. One of the teachers noted, "Sometimes we present something as a fact and do not allow students to think about it, thus limiting their opportunities to think critically. We guide them in their thinking, which is wrong. We as teachers should be neutral and give opportunities for students to think”. Similarly when talking about conflicts, Lia mentions the importance of taking into account the age-specific characteristics of students: “Teenagers are so emotional, any wrong word can cause serious problems”. An example she brings is the use of the word enemy, one she believes should not be used with small kids, as it’s a difficult word to understand.
Interestingly, all of these response can be viewed, to an extent, as part of the “good-and-bad” dynamic that Kristina was talking about (the second less so than the first); if there is a real picture, then what is the point of giving space for students to come to their own conclusions? Presumably, according to this teacher, there might be value in students going through that process themselves, even if there is only one endpoint. Likewise, the second teacher assumes that teachers should be neutral and not “guide” students’ thinking, and the third teacher prefers bypassing certain issues / opinions / words, assuming that children’s age limits the scope of what can be discussed. In actuality, while teachers should not force their opinions on students, many pedagogical approaches assume that an authentic opinion, open conversations around hard topics and a genuine opportunity for children to develop their thinking and come to their own conclusions is better than unauthentic neutrality.
After all, going beyond the “black-and-white” dynamic does not only mean giving space for students to think in pre-defined ways, but assumes the actuality of multiple possible narratives, and implies giving space for students to construct their own narratives, based in historical thinking. Within that, the role of the teacher would be to help the student develop their historical thinking, and help them work with evidence and construct historical narratives, even and especially, in cases when that is emotionally difficult. For example, Martha, a teacher from Vayots Dzor, opens up about her attempts at doing so. She tells about how she agrees with those ideas and presents multiple perspectives in the classroom when talking about different conflicts, like the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. However, honestly admits that she cannot “keep her neutrality” when it comes to the Karabakh conflict, because ‘it’s ours and there is pain in it’, while also admitting that she presents the facts related to the Karabakh conflict that do not speak from our interest, as a teacher should do that and allow kids to draw conclusions themselves.
This article is based on dialogue between history teachers and students within the scope of the “Intergenerational Dialogue” project led by Paradigma Educational Foundation in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. The real names of dialogue participants have been changed to protect their privacy.