Perspectives | Education

Kosovar history education needs a change

By - 09.04.2019

Why we need a multiperspective methodology to override the primacy of the textbook.

Education is on the brink of being revolutionized by digital means. This encourages us to believe that Kosovar education might be on the path toward needed reform, hopefully starting with abandoning our reliance on problematic textbooks and adopting a new approach to history teaching as well as to other subjects.

“Thanks to software, the standalone textbook is becoming a thing of the past,” Bill Gates writes in his 2019 annual letter. “Instead of just reading a chapter on solving equations, you can look at the text online, watch a super-engaging video that shows you how it’s done, and play a game that reinforces the concepts. Then you solve a few problems online, and the software creates new quiz questions to zero in on the ideas you’re not quite getting.”

When I read his words, I immediately thought that this is exactly what we at New Perspektiva believe. We had pipped Gates to the post, and more importantly, with our new multiperspective Kosovar history website, we were doing something about it.

History teaching has long been an issue within the Kosovar education system, but has often been a debate solely structured around the quality of textbooks. It is also one that has previously been written about on the pages of Kosovo 2.0.

It’s a problem that has a particular resonance in a post-conflict context, in particular one in which the two warring sides have their own segregated schooling systems within the borders of one country; systems that at present are so segregated that they cannot be reconciled.

There are two reasons for which New Perspektiva has focused its energy on history teaching. Firstly, because it is accepted that using the multiperspective methodology of teaching history is not just about an approach aiming to understand history more widely, but is a methodology that educates students in vital critical analysis skills, helping to develop responsible citizens who live and function in a democratic culture and environment. This is the generally accepted methodology of teaching history in European schools.

In the last half of the twentieth century, European historians and teachers came to understand that changes in history teaching needed to be made. History should not be seen as just a succession of facts to be memorized, but as a subject to be researched and interpreted, and being much more of a social science.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 removed the barriers restricting the open teaching of history in former communist countries. After 1989, multiperspectivity began to be used more widely as history was rewritten and taught differently, and many European states became more ethnically diverse — in addition to other social developments. The new political discourse acknowledged that students should learn the skills of analysing, interpreting and synthesizing evidence obtained from a variety of sources.

Young people are learning history in a manner that estranges them, with no attempt being made at building any joint understanding of their mutual past or of building community integration.

There was a growing recognition that history had been taught from a mono-cultural perspective, that teaching methods were ethnocentric and exclusive rather than inclusive. This was based on the assumption that the national historical narrative coincided with the history of the largest national, linguistic or cultural group. However, schools would do better to prepare young people for a life in a world of ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious diversity.

The break-up of Yugoslavia and the creation of new independent states in its place, states claiming to call themselves democracies, led to the creation of new walls instead of the abolishment of old ones, shutting out similar historical experiences and the common historical destiny of former co-citizens. New textbooks were written, developing national historical narratives serving political purposes rather than being based on real research, sources and facts — history became highly politicized.

Teaching history is not just about textbooks. The discourse around it should acknowledge that. The debate should not be about textbooks alone. This is particularly valid of the times we live in, as digital resources transform the way people acquire information and learn. Digitalization greatly enables a transition to better and more correct history teaching — and teaching in general — and most importantly, helps developing students’ critical analysis skills.

This is an imperative. These IT instruments should enable a more multiperspective understanding of historical events and narratives.

The second reason we have focused on the multiperspective methodology of history teaching is because a segregated system of education exists in Kosovo. Young people of different ethnic backgrounds go to separate schools, follow different curricula and, in the case of history, learn a largely different singular-perspective historical narrative.

Not only are young Kosovars of varying ethnic backgrounds learning a mono-perspectival narrative, but they are usually learning it as something to be memorized and recited. In Kosovo’s post-conflict environment, young people are learning history in a manner that estranges them, with no attempt being made at building any joint understanding of their mutual past or of building community integration. This risks fuelling new conflicts.

When speaking with teachers from communities in Kosovo, in particular the Kosovar Albanian and Kosovo Serb ones, the dissatisfaction with the manner in which they have to teach history, with the narrative they are given in school textbooks, quickly becomes apparent. They hold colorless textbooks with dense text and photos of old men, presenting a single perspective of their respective histories.

I still feel goosebumps when I remember the words of one of the teachers we met, who said: “The people who do not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them. Unfortunately, we are poisoning the children. We should stop poisoning the children with hatred. It is not strange that politicians incite wars, but it is strange that the academicians [i.e. text book authors] do so.”  

Other teachers also spoke about the hate speech they find in textbooks they are told to work from.

It is not only wise teachers who convey these messages. Wise institutions have also made this point very succinctly.

Teaching a single perspective is disrespectful toward students, our children, toward Kosovo’s future citizens, as it is counterintuitive to human behavior and knowledge.

As long ago as the 1990s, when Yugoslavia was breaking up in conflicts and war, during which horrendous war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly was already adopting relevant resolutions. Its 1996 Recommendations on History and the Learning of History clearly stated: “history has a key role to play in Europe … it could be a force for division, violence and intolerance if not taught carefully.”  

In 2018 Nils Muižnieks — the Council of Europe human rights commissioner — visited Kosovo, and in his report on that visit, he told the Kosovar government that it should review the teaching methods being practiced in Kosovar schools. He in particular mentioned the prejudice and nationalism in textbooks used in Kosovo.

Another problem with the single perspective is that it disrespects both teachers and their students. Teachers are shackled regarding the methodology they have to use. This is mainly because of the textbooks they hold in their hands, although some teachers do take the initiative and use wider sources and illustrations. One teacher told us that he did not use the official textbooks at all, since they were so bad.

Teaching a single perspective is disrespectful toward students, our children, toward Kosovo’s future citizens, as it is counterintuitive to human behavior and knowledge. Most kids today are very streetwise, and use the shifting sands of social media to learn and augment their knowledge.

That is good, but they have not been taught the skills to distinguish interpretation from facts, to understand other perspectives, to know how to decipher and check and they are therefore unprepared to deal with what they read. They have not been provided with critical thinking skills through an open multiperspective methodology.

Most kids know that there are two sides to a conflict, and that fatalities are rarely only suffered by one side. Teaching the history of war as it is taught in Kosovo will not provide students with the skills and civic awareness to understand such situations in the future.

When learning about the League of Prizren, students are not told that its first resolution was originally written in Arabic and that it stressed the fundamental role of the Islamic faith. They do not learn of historical events in their time and environment, contexts that are always changing and that is a lesson in itself.

Let’s go back to the words of Bill Gates. Textbooks are just one source and need to be augmented by many other sources. Finding these is greatly facilitated by using the internet and digital sources — but students should know how to use and question digital information.

Gates should stress this and remind his listeners that teachers and students need to be respected and given the space to teach and learn widely and openly, to see history as a narrative of wide human behavior; to see open historical understanding as a contribution to democratic development and conflict prevention. These recommendations require robust engagement and work, but this work has started.

New Perspektiva’s new trilingual Kosovo history website can be found at www.multi-perspektiva.com.

Feature image: Besnik Bajrami

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