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History Maker

With History Maker, a  digital instrument, students make their own history stories. Each story consists of a text, mutiple images or movies, and links to relevant websites.

Albert van der Kaap, Enschede, a.vanderkaap@slo.nl

Website: http://historymaker.slo.nl

The history curriculum

In the nineties a political and public debate started concerning the primary objectives of history education. In 1997 the Dutch government installed a commission which was given the task of making an inquiry into the needs and expectations of society regarding history education. The commission reported that modern history education did no longer respond to the needs and expectations of society: the curriculum was characterized by a general lack of factual knowledge and too much emphasis on teaching of skills. The commission advised 'a new balance' between the teaching of facts and the teaching of skills.

A second commission was installed to develop the commission's proposals into concrete descriptions of new curricula and exams for Dutch history education. This second commission, which was called the 'De Rooy'-commission after its president, Amsterdam University Professor Piet de Rooy, reported the findings in February 2001. The report 'Past, present and future' met with general approval in politics and society because it seemed to have closed the apparently unbridgeable gap between 'facts' and 'skills' in history education.

Historical consciousness

The commission concluded that knowledge about the past should serve the purpose of developing and promoting historical consciousness in the way this has been defined by Jörn Rüsen and other German scholars. Rüsen's definition implies that historical consciousness is not the equivalent of the simple demonstration of knowledge of historical facts. Historical consciousness is demonstrated in attitudes towards the present and the future, using history as a background.

These considerations led to the conclusion by the De Rooy-commission that history education should provide students with the necessary instruments to demonstrate an educated historical consciousness; in other words: to show competent behaviour using their history education. These instruments were described in two categories:

Frame of reference

The creation of a frame of reference is not the more or less automatic result of teaching periods in a chronological order. More often than not, dealing with topics and periods implies such a large quantity of factual knowledge which is easily forgotten as soon as the next topic or period comes into consideration. The sheer vastness of historical knowledge available to us is largely responsible for this situation. To create a usable general frame of reference, it is necessary to disregard a lot of this detailed knowledge and to concentrate on general outlines. Vague notions of time, such as ‘dark middle ages’ or ‘victorian age’ should be utilized to create a coherent chronological system in the hearts and minds of students.

Ten eras

Based on these considerations, the De Rooy-commission created a system of ten periods which is meant to be used as a common frame of reference throughout Dutch history education for pupils from the age group of 8 year olds to the age group of 18 year olds. The ten periods were given associative, easy to remember, imaginary names, such as: the period of knights and monks (= early middle ages, ca 500 tot 1000 AD), the period of discoverers and reformers (= 16th century), the period of citizens and steam engines (= 19th century) or the period of the world wars (= first half of the 20th century).

The system of periods should be taught in a concentric curriculum throughout the school career of a student. In this way, the system of periods will be gradually ‘filled up’ with notions which can give more and more meaning and significance to the general historical frame of reference. Factual knowledge of the periods is not a purpose in itself; it is a necessary tool to be able to judge new historical phenomena in the right perspective.

In this system teaching is, like before, much more about European and World history than about the history of the Netherlands.

The canon

More or less at the same time there was a public debate on the Dutch identity. History should contribute, at least partially towards answering the question 'who are we'. In January 2005  the Education Council, the most important advisory body to the Ministry of Education stated that too little attention had been paid to a ‘canon’ that expressed the Dutch identity. According to the Education Council essential elements in this respect are ‘those valuable components of our culture and history that we wish to pass on to later generations by means of education. The canon is of importance to the whole of society, not just to an elite group’. Such a canon might undermine education’s socializing task, especially considering the existing integration problems. With so many children of foreign descent, the Council argued, one had better see to it that Dutch culture and history were transferred properly. These recommendations were, of course, not to be dissociated from the social unrest resulting from two prominent Dutchmen being murdered, the politician Pim Fortuyn in May 2002 and the film director Theo van Gogh in November 2004. The Dutch nation was at risk of polarising at a fast rate: social tensions were running high.

The Minister of Education at the time was convinced that ‘if young people in the Netherlands at least share the core of the canon, this will further integration and good citizenship’. With broad political and social approval, the Minister decided to set up a committee which was to look into the contents of the Dutch canon and to develop a point of view on how to put it into educational practice. The Minister’s decision was also prompted by her conviction that young people today lacked a proper knowledge of Dutch history and culture. Not only had factual knowledge decreased;  what was also found lacking more often than not, was a knowledge of chronology as mentioned before.

The Van Oostrom Commission – so called after its president Professor Frits van Oostrom of Utrecht University finished its report with the 'Dutch canon' in September 2006. Probably in September 2009 , the canon will become obligatory in both primary education and in lower secondary education.

So, two committees have recently dealt with the future of history education. The outcome is different. For the De Rooy Commission historical awareness is the key issue whereas for the Van Oostrom Committee it is ‘canonical’ knowledge.

Recently SLO, the Dutch National Center for Curriculum Development, has developed a curricular instrument combining both concepts: the concept of ten eras, with the characteristic aspects on one hand and the canon on the other hand.


History Maker

Will the concept of the ten eras and the canon solve the seemingly endless problem of students knowing nothing at all about history? A problem that is, by the way, not a typical Dutch problem. Not long ago an Australian newspaper headed: they don't even no what Gallipoli is.

Perhaps is it not the curriculum or the content of the textbooks that in the end determines whether history education is effective in the long term, but rather the way history is taught.

Of course, a teacher (or text book) can tell students about the canon, about characteristic aspects. He or she can tell them which are the most important events, persons or developments in an era of history. But wouldn't it be nice,or  wouldn't it be even better, when students could decide for themselves what is of historical significance? Wouldn't it be ideal when students could make their own history stories, illustrated with pictures and movies?

That was why I developed History Maker. History Maker is a digital instrument for students to create their own history stories. They can - on their own or in small groups -create items of historical events, persons or developments, which they think are most important for an era. So with History Maker students can create, as a class, a World, European or Dutch canon of history, but even so a local or regional canon.

How does History Maker work?

History topics

Every history story, made by a student, consists of:

Multiple items

Although there is no limit to the number of topics per era, only ten of them will be visible for visitors of the website. At first, the teacher can decide which topics will be visible; by ordering them. After that, it is up to the visitors, who may be
fellow students, friends or relatives, of the website to be the judges of the importance of each topic. They can rate every story from 1 tot 5.The topics with the highest scores will be placed at the top of the list. 


History Maker allows students to collaborate on their history stories. They can, for example, work in small groups on the same story (as in a wiki). This collaboration will even be more intense and in depth when students are asked to write reactions on topics submitted by other students. With these reactions, they can make analytical remarks or ask critical questions.

Students make their own canon of history

A great variety of assignments is possible. Some examples


A canon

Step 1

Each student (or group of students) makes a story about a development, an event or a person he thinks is characteristic for that era. The story consists not only of a text, but also of relevant pictures, short movies and links. In the end, the teacher chooses the best ten items to be displayed on the website. 

Alternative version 

The teacher discusses with the class which events and/or persons are most characteristic for an era. Students (or group of students) will make stories of the ten most mentioned events or persons.

Step 2

After finishing his story each student writes a reaction on two stories of fellow students. Possible reactions:

Step 3

Every student enhances his story using the comments of his fellow students

Step 4

Students rate every story. The story with the highest average score will be at the top of the list.

Students picture an era

Students write stories characterising an era in history. Such an assignment might look like this:

The teacher will hand out/distribute every characteristic of an era to a group of students with the following assignment: 

The instrument in International projects

Margarita Limon, a Spanish history teacher, once asked her students whether they thought students in Latin-America would judge the travels of Colombus the same way they did. So she asked them for example: 'Do you think students in Latin America are taught the same things about the discovery of America as you are? The students answered: 'Yes, because it is an important subject, or 'Yes, because although it happened a long time ago, history doesn't change' or 'Yes, because they have to pass the same exam and if they succeed, they know what's in the book'. Therefore, students think history is taught the same way all around the world and the subjects studied are the same everywhere.

When students from different countries make a canon of their own country's history or a canon of history in a certain era, they can compare the choices they've made with those from other students in other countries. They will be challenged to discuss, online, the different possible interpretations of history. 


Wilschut, A., Historical consciousness as an objective in Dutch history education, http://www.ivgd.nl/Engels/consciousness.htm
Kurstjens, Huub, The Dutch history canon: a never-ending debate?!, http://histoforum.net/history/historycanon.htm

 tien tijdvakken

 ten eras

1. Era of hunters and
/ Prehistory

2. Era of Greeks and
Romans / Antiquity

3. Era of monks and
 knights / Early Middle

4. Era of cities and
states / High and
Late Middle Ages

5. Era of discoverers
and reformers)/16th

6. Era of regents and
princes/17th century

7. Era of wigs and
revolutions/ 18th

8. Era of citizens and
steam engines /
19th century

9. Era of world wars/
first half of the 20th

10. Era of television
and computer) /
second half of 20th

 History Maker

Website: http://historymaker.slo.nl

Copyright:  Albert van der Kaap, 2009