Historical Significance in Canadian History - Part II

Published on February 23, 2021

By Lindsay Gibson, Catherine Duquette, and Jacqueline Leighton

In our April 30, 2020 Active History article “Why am I teaching about this? Historical significance in Canadian history” we described a French and English online survey entitled Significant Events in Canadian History/Événements importants de l’histoire du Canada that asked Canadian history teachers in K-12 schools, CEGEP (Québec), or colleges and universities to rate the historical significance of 100 events in the history of Canada using a 1-10 scale and suggest up to five additional events. Participants were also asked to select three factors that most influenced their decisions about which events are most significant, and answer ten demographic questions.

Three research questions guided our study: (1) Which events in Canadian history do teachers rate as most historically significant? (2) What criteria do teachers use to assess the historical significance of historical events, (3) What demographic factors influence teachers’ historical significance ratings?

In this three-part series on the CHA/SHC Teaching | Learning Blog we share the survey results and discuss possible implications for history education. In Part 1, we discussed participants’ historical significance ratings of 100 events in Canadian history. In Part 2, we examine the criteria that history teachers selected as most influencing their decisions about which events in Canadian history are most significant.

Part 2: Historical Significance Criteria

What are historical significance criteria?

One of the major developments in the conceptualization of historical thinking in the last 50 years is the notion of “second-order concepts.” Lee and Ashby (2000) distinguished between first-order substantive concepts “what history is about” (e.g., enslavement, freedom, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Underground Railroad) and second-order procedural concepts (e.g., historical significance, evidence, cause, consequence, perspective taking, historical significance, continuity and change) that shape “the way we go about doing history” (p. 199).

Numerous scholars have conceptualized the key aspects of historical significance (Cercadillo, 2001; Counsell, 2004; Lomas, 1990; Martineau, 1999; Partington, 1980; Philips, 2002; Seixas, 1994). One of the foundational aspects is that, "History, to be meaningful, depends on selection and this, in turn, depends on establishing criteria of significance to select the more relevant and to dismiss the less relevant" (Lomas, 1990, p. 41). These criteria move beyond personal interest or feelings about an event, towards disciplinary criteria that can be used to assess or justify the historical significance of events, people, or developments. Although the specific wording and number of criteria included in various models of historical significance differ, the following criteria are common to most conceptualizations.

·      Importance/remarkable: the event, person, or development was important to people at the time it occurred.

·      Resulted in change: the changes caused by the event, person, or development had deep consequences, for many people, over a long period of time.

·      Revealing: the event, person, or development reveals something important about the past.

·      Relevance: the event, person, or development highlights an enduring or emerging issue relevant to present life.

Despite delineating seemingly objective disciplinary criteria for evaluating historical significance, Lomas (1990) recognizes that that the process of assessing the significance of an event, person, or development involves subjective judgment (p. 40). Research has illustrated how students utilize different criteria to assess who, where, and what are historically significant, and even if common criteria are utilized, numerous factors including ethnicity, language, family history, gender, and others influence their judgments.

The third section of the survey asked participants to select three factors that most influenced their decisions about which events in Canadian history are most significant from a list of thirteen possible factors, and participants had the option to write additional factors not included in the list. In generating the list of thirteen factors, we included two personal factors, seven educational factors, and four historical factors. Scholars generally agree that historical criteria (e.g., the event impacted many people over a long period of time) are preferable to personal criteria (e.g., the historical event is important to me). However, no studies have considered how educational criteria (e.g., mandated curriculum, or how interested students are in the event) impact teachers’ decisions.


Table 4 shows the criteria participants chose as most influencing their decisions about which events in Canadian history were most significant. Teachers also recorded seventeen “other” factors that influenced their decisions about historical significance, some of which were similar to educational and historical factors included on the survey. There were five statements about selecting events that invited students to think critically and challenge master narratives in Canadian history (e.g. I emphasize events that counter the "Canada the Good" national narrative), four statements about the historical relevance of the past to the present (e.g. The events explain Canadian society today), and two statements about selecting events that represent the diversity of students in the class (e.g. To better reflect the diverse histories of the students in my class).

Table 4: Factors that Influence Teachers’ Historical Significance Ratings

23 February Table 


Participants selected three historical criteria as most influencing their decisions about which events in Canadian history are most significant substantially more than educational or personal factors. There are several possible reasons why this is the case. Most participants have taken at least some post-secondary history courses, and it is plausible that their understanding of what makes an event historically significant has been shaped by their disciplinary training. The historical criteria used in the survey are similar to the criteria articulated by Peter Seixas (2006) in his influential historical thinking framework that has been adopted in Canadian curricula, textbooks and learning resources, and professional development workshops. It is also possible that participants’ understanding of historical significance has been shaped by Seixas’ conceptualization.

Some participants selected educational factors, but these criteria were not nearly as influential as historical criteria. Previous studies on history teachers’ understanding of historical significance did not consider educational factors, but this study suggests that factors such as curriculum, student interest, and the likelihood the event will stimulate discussion have some impact on teachers’ historical significance ratings. It is interesting to note that few participants selected personal criteria like knowledge of the event and personal importance of the event, which suggests that for most participants these criteria are less justifiable than others.

Although this research highlights the criteria participants think are most important for rating the historical significance of events, we do not know if or how participants use the criteria when rating the significance of historical events, or whether they are aware of the influence that the criteria have on their ratings. Furthermore, when we compared the influence of historical criteria on participants’ historical significance ratings with demographic factors like language, gender, teaching experience, and highest degree obtained, we found that demographic factors were more influential.

In Part 3 of this three-part series, we will discuss how demographic factors influenced participants’ historical significance ratings.


Cercadillo, L. (2001). Significance in history: Students’ ideas in England and Spain. In A. K. Dickinson, P. Gordon, & P. Lee (Eds.), International review of history education: Vol. 3. Raising standards in history education (pp. 116–145). Woburn Press.

Counsell, C. (2004). Looking through a Josephine-Butler-shaped window: Focusing pupils’ thinking on historical significance. Teaching History, 114, 30–33.

Lee, P., & Ashby, R. (2000). Progression in historical understanding among students ages 7-14. In P. N. Stearns, P. Seixas, & S. S. Wineburg (Eds.), Knowing, teaching, and learning history (pp. 199–222). New York University Press.

Lomas, T. (1990). Teaching and assessing historical understanding. Historical Association.

Martineau, R. (1999). L’histoire à l’ école: Matière à penser. L’Harmattan.

Partington, G. (1980). The idea of an historical education. National Foundation for Educational Research.

Philips, R. (2002). Historical significance—The Forgotten “Key Element”? Teaching History (London), 106, 14–19.

Seixas, P. (1994). Students’ Understanding of Historical Significance. Theory & Research in Social Education, 22(3), 281–304. https://doi.org/10.1080/00933104.1994.10505726

Seixas, P. (2006). Benchmarks of Historical Thinking: A Framework for Assessment in Canada (pp. 1–12). Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness, University of British Columbia. http://historicalthinking.ca/sites/default/files/files/docs/Framework_EN.pdf


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