Significance in history : students' ideas in England and Spain
Historical learning is affected by cultural features and differences in educational systems.
This is a comparative analysis of the progression of students' ideas in the understanding of
historical significance, between two countries of the European Union, England and Spain.
The research was intended to establish an empirically grounded model of progression in an
area hitherto not investigated, namely significance within accounts. Progression was
evaluated in two aspects: a) the relationship between significance and accounts (the
significance of an event in rival historical narratives); and b) its variability of attributions,
or types of significance (the different assessments of significance). This study was carried
out with a sample of English and Spanish 12 to 17 year-old students. Methods followed
were mainly qualitative, but the scale of the sample also allowed some quantitative
The analysis of the relationship between significance and accounts concentrated on several
notions: intrinsicallitylcontextuality; importance; emplotment and story parameters; point
o/view; and validity and truth. Empirical data allowed the development of level-scales for
each concept. Progression was found in all these areas, both for English and for Spanish
students. However, cross-cultural differences were evident for some concepts, levels and
age, in particular for importance and point 0/ view. English students became aware of these
concepts at earlier ages and in higher numbers than Spanish ones.
Five types of historical significance, contemporary, causal, pattern, symbolic, and
presentljuture were defined. A further model of progression was generated through a
qualitative analysis. This model comprises different levels, from responses that indicate no
awareness of the notion of importance, and make no allusion to any type, or refer to the
contemporary type only, towards responses that establish some kind of criteria to assess
significance in different contexts and mention various types. The comparison of English
and Spanish students' responses indicated several qualitative differences regarding types of
significance and progression: pattern, symbolic and present/future types were more
frequently mentioned amongst English participants in all year groups; and they reached a
higher order of ideas at an earlier age than Spanish ones.