COST is supported by the EU Framework
Programme Horizon 2020
the History Teaching of
How do we teach the history
of intergroup conicts?
The way recent and old intergroup conicts are
presented around the world1 in curricula, textbooks,
civil society and social representations can be
characterised by four main approaches. In the rst
approach, a moratorium is imposed and any reference
to the conictual past is avoided; the second is a
selective approach where nation-states or groups
keep silent about aspects that involve wrongdoing
of one’s own group, here called “ingroup”, and oer
either a positive presentation of the “ingroup” or
a preservation of the memory of the conict by
reiterating master narratives of one-sided victimisation
of the “ingroup”. Both of these approaches are highly
problematic as they become an obstacle to conict
transformation by peaceful means and the cultivation
of historical thinking2. A third approach attempts to
overcome conict by a simplistic understanding of a
single peaceful narrative of co-existence, which often
follows outdated and unhistorical conceptions of
essentialist identities as a tool for nation- building.
Finally, there is the interdisciplinary approach of
transformative history teaching, which attempts a
critical understanding of the conictual past through
the cultivation of historical thinking, empathy, an
overcoming of ethnocentric narratives and the
promotion of multiperspectivity. The transformative
history teaching approach is the basis on which we
situate the present recommendations.
Given the well-established nding that educators
often nd it dicult to deal with the conictual past
as it is considered a sensitive or controversial topic3,
our aim with the present recommendations is to
contribute to the enhancement of the capacity of
educators to successfully overcome this obstacle.
More particularly, we propose a powerful set of
suggestions for teaching practices that follow inquiry-based
constructivist approaches in history education. These
approaches primarily aim at developing historical literacy 4,
enriched by the ndings of research on history
teaching in post-conict contexts5 and recent social
psychological ndings in the eld of the study of
intergroup conict6. We understand history teaching
as the parallel development of a) substantive know-
ledge (i.e. What has happened in the past, how, and
why?), b) reexive and disciplinary understanding (i.e.
how do we know about the past), and c) mastery of a
‘toolbox’ of social psychological theories of intergroup
conict and how they relate to representations of the
past. This toolbox stimulates reection on causal links
between past and present in the historical conscious-
ness of historical subjects, including the students
themselves. It also allows for a better understanding
of historical culture7, which results from the inter-
actions between academic history, school history,
and popular history.
Teaching in history should provide students with
opportunities to engage in explorations of the past
and its dierent versions in ways that will allow them
to develop an understanding of both the content
and the epistemology of the discipline. Constructivist
inquiry-based approaches of history teaching gravitate
around the development of students’ understandings,
abilities, and dispositions in relation to the following
areas: a) how we think about the past, b) interpretations
of specic events and issues of the past, c) historical
inquiry, and d) organization and communication of
the results of historical enquiry.8
The present history teaching recommendations aim at
showcasing the way social psychological theories and
empirical ndings can contribute to the development
of all four of these abilities and dispositions. These
recommendations are mostly based on work initiated
in the context of the COST Action IS12059. The aim
of this Action was to advance knowledge of the role
played by social representations of history in processes
of ethnic, national, and European identities construction
Recommendations for the History Teaching of Intergroup Conicts I 02
and intergroup conicts. The main areas of interest
of the Action were 1) the psychological antecedents
of lay representations of history; 2) their content and
structure; 3) their transmission through history
textbooks and other media; and 4) their social
psychological eects in shaping intergroup attitudes.
The present recommendations are the outcome of
the work of an interdisciplinary working group that
was tasked to produce history teaching guidelines.
The group comprised academic historians, social
psychologists, history teachers, anthropologists and
curriculum experts from various European countries
and experts in history teaching.
“TEACHING IN HISTORY SHOULD PROVIDE STUDENTS
WITH OPPORTUNITIES TO ENGAGE IN EXPLORATIONS
OF THE PAST AND ITS DIFFERENT VERSIONS IN WAYS
THAT WILL ALLOW THEM TO DEVELOP AN UNDER-
STANDING OF BOTH THE CONTENT AND THE
EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE DISCIPLINE.”
COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology)
is Europe’s longest-running intergovernmental frame-
work for cooperation in science and technology funding
cooperative scientic projects called “COST Actions”.
With a successful history of implementing scientic
networking projects for over 40 years, COST oers
scientists the opportunity to embark upon bottom-up,
multidisciplinary and collaborative networks across all
science and technology domains.
Working Group Members10
Charis Psaltis, Alan McCully, Ayman Agbaria, Chara
Makriyianni, Falk Pingel, Hakan Karahasan, Mario
Carretero, Mete Oguz, Rena Choplarou, Stavroula
Philippou, Wolfgang Wagner, Yiannis Papadakis
Social PSYCHOLOGY and the study
of intergroup relations
Research in social psychology covers a wide range
of areas, like self -regulation, pro- and anti- social
behaviour, attitudes, social inuence and persuasion,
the self, interpersonal relationships, language and
communication, attribution, group processes and
intergroup relations and social representations.
The study of Intergroup relations is currently one
of the most rapidly expanding areas in social
psychology and has made great contributions
during the 20th and 21st centuries in the way we
understand the phenomena of peace and conict.
Recommendations for the History Teaching of Intergroup Conicts I 04
Social Psychological ndings and
their relevance to history teaching
Social psychology and particularly the researchers
of COST IS 1205 have been doing research on many
themes directly or indirectly related to
representations of the past and issues arising during
1. Social and National Identity
2. Ingroup Glorication
7. Collective Memory
8. Intergroup Contact
9. Collective Guilt/Shame/Regret
11. Group Emotions
12. Collective action
13. Moral disengagement
15. Social Representations of the past
Below are some of the social psychological ndings
structured under key concepts suggested by a
disciplinary approach to history education. These
social psychological ndings suggest various ways in
which historical thinking is usually damaged in
Procedural concepts related to how
we think about the past
Procedural concepts refer to: a) time, change and
continuity, b) causes and consequences, and
c) historical empathy.
“Time, change and continuity” describes a process
whereby students construct interpretations of
changes and continuities between and within
historical periods. They construct interpretations of
connections between events and phenomena that
take place within a specic period or in dierent ones.
In contexts in which master narratives of conict
dominate history teaching, it is expected that the
understanding of time, change and continuity will be
negatively inuenced through the use of simplistic
circular, rise-and-fall or linear progression views of history.
Such representations of the past also create a very
problematic interpretation of the relationship
between past and present11, which often takes three
forms: (a) Collapsing past and present; (b) The past
is idealized in a way that the present is viewed as a
decadent version of the past; and (c) Relating the past
to a teleological end.
Causes and consequences
Students construct interpretations of the complex
relations that exist between events, phenomena, and
changes and continuities in history and their causes.
Adherence12 to master narratives of conict lead to
the obstruction of the understanding of causality
through the use of romantic or heroic narrations of
great men, the use of simplistic historical analogies
and deterministic schemes that fail to capture
contingence, randomness and multi-causality13. An
attribution style of causality which is characterised
by its ingroup- serving bias and its pernicious eects
is what has been described as the ultimate attribution
error14. For example, groups often tend to explain
their negative past actions by referring to external
constraints, whereas they invoke their intrinsic
qualities when explaining their past positive achieve-
ment. The reverse is true when judging past actions
of other groups.
A very problematic form of causal thinking in this
context is conspiracy theories, which can be considered
as a form of “lay history15” to the extent that they
involve ascribing causality (and a very specic form of
it: the intention of a malevolent group of people) to
a series of past events that are often fortuitous and
contingent. Conspiracy theories can be caused by the
experience or salience of group victimization,
especially for students who strongly identify with
their group. Additionally, academic historians’
depictions of war events are also sometimes
inuenced by such conspiracy mentalities.
Making sense of behaviours, practices, and institutions
of the past requires taking into consideration the ideas
and beliefs of the historical agents, and the context in
which they lived.
Perspective- taking becomes very dicult in post-
conict settings when this empathy has to do with the
experience of ”outgroupers”. From the perspective
of conict transformation, it is important to be able
to experience feelings of empathy for “outgroup”
suering and regret not only for harm done by the
“outgroup” to the “ingroup”, but also for past wrong-
doings of the “ingroup” towards the “outgroup”. This
historical thinking skill is obstructed by moral disen-
gagement from past wrongdoings of the ”ingroup”16
through either moral justication of the act, denial,
displacement, diusion of responsibility, disregarding,
minimizing the negative consequences of the violent
acts, and attribution of blame to the victim or circum-
stances. This specic form of historical empathy is
also harmed by the feeling of inter-group competitive
victimhood6, which describes the eorts of members
of groups involved in violent conicts to establish that
their group has suered more than their adversarial
group. This mindset not only obstructs historical
empathy, but also reconciliation eorts and the
support for peace processes.
Interpretations of the past
Sources and historical accounts
Students in history classes are expected to compare
dierent representations and interpretations of the
same event, phenomenon, historical gure, etc. They
also have to make distinctions between events and
interpretations in sources, and provide explanations
for dierent interpretations of the phenomenon.
Students, as lay historians, are particularly vulnerable
to framing their interpretations relating to the history
of conict from a position in the representational
eld18 that largely adheres to collective memory,
popular culture, and ocial narratives of conict. This
is due to one-sided contents included in curricula and
textbooks and to inuences from parents and peers.
Master narratives usually have six common features19:
(a) exclusion-inclusion as a logical operation contributing
to the establishment of the historical subject;
(b) identication processes that function as both
cognitive and aective anchors; (c) frequent presence
of mythical and heroic characters and motives,
(d) search for freedom or territory as a main and
common narrative theme, (e) inclusion of a moral
orientation and (f) a romantic and essentialist concept
of both the national or cultural group and the nationals.
Any primary or secondary source that directly or
indirectly relates to national identity, territorial claims,
or the inclusion or exclusion criteria of citizenship
claims will thus be judged against this master
narrative. Any content that challenges the master
narrative is bound to lead to resistance20 and emotional
reactions that could block their fair assessment.
The narratives of conict also support simplistic
accounts premised on a temporal sense of continuity,
especially when students feel collectively threatened
by the “outgroup”21. This sense of continuity is
closely related to self-identication processes. Groups
generally tend to have an understanding of their
Recommendations for the History Teaching of Intergroup Conicts I 06
ethnic and national identities as entities that possess
a past, a present and a future22. However, this sense
of continuity supports accounts that predict a height-
ened sense of threat, distrust and prejudice towards
various “outgroups”23. It is also closely related to
autochthony beliefs of the kind “We were here rst”24
and which, from a historical-thinking perspective, is
highly problematic because it projects an unhistorical,
homogeneous, essentialist and unchanging collectivity
that is claiming an empty space (which is rarely the case)
by choosing an arbitrary point in history as its beginning25.
Students are expected to assess the signicance of
historical events, people, causes and consequences,
changes and continuities, etc. They are required to
provide explanations of dierent judgments of
When we study the history of intergroup conict,
what usually happens is that signicance is distorted
in favour of events and characters relating to what is
perceived as the “ingroup”.26 Moreover, there is a
general tendency for the lay historian to seek to
explain the beginnings of historical events and
conicts rather than the end of these events with
peace agreements. In this way, more emphasis is
placed on negative aspects of intergroup conict than
on positive aspects of transformation and resolution.
Representations of the past are in fact replete with
both ethnocentric and, in the case of European coun-
tries, Eurocentric views of the past. Representations
of old conicts like WW1 and WW2 often share many
of the elements of what was described earlier as
master narratives, therefore ignoring dark pages of
the colonial past of many European countries.
Students are expected, in history classes, to identify,
combine, evaluate and interpret sources to answer
historical questions. They must also suggest, design
and apply their own historical investigations.
In post-conict and divided societies, proper historical
enquiry is often obstructed by the inaccessibility of
crucial sources of information or archives due to
linguistic, physical, legal or mental barriers . This
situation reinforces the mono-perspectival master
narratives in a single community and hinders the
emergence of counter-narratives or alternative
representations of the past. Alternative representations
would otherwise be made possible through intergroup
contact between “ingroup” and “outgroup” members,
or through their perspectives in textbooks and
In such a context, the epistemological understanding
of history also suers from a naïve realist standpoint
where fact and interpretation are collapsed into a
single “truth”. Such naïve epistemologies are
particularly vivid in situations of intractable conicts
not only among students, but also often among teach-
ers themselves27. Directly challenging such naïve
realist views not only facilitates the cultivation of
historical thinking, but it also allows for questioning
master narratives, with their pernicious eects in
terms of prejudice and distrust.
Given that students’ historical consciousness is
inuenced by popular history, it is also important to
understand that other media, beyond textbooks and
curricula, play a fundamental role in the production
and transformation of representations, as well as in
the presentation of competing representations of
the past. To this eect, press coverage of selected
historical events (e.g. WW1 and colonial past), novels,
docuctions, and movies need to be studied and
reected upon through content and narrative analyses28.
Challenge entrenched and unsubstantiated
positions, “myth-bust” and expose the
abuse of history
Children and young people come to classrooms
inuenced by the history absorbed from the family
and the streets. Their historical images and
representations of the past are usually enwrapped
in contemporary attitudes and politics. Students may
express misunderstandings, make unsubstantiated
assertions about historical events, or leave out aspects
of the past that have been deemed inconvenient
within their community. It is the role of the history
teacher to challenge assumptions and myths by
resorting to historical evidence and rational
arguments and to help students recognise when
history is being misused to denigrate the other.
Deconstruct master narratives
The common features of master narratives should
be explicitly discussed in the classroom through a
comparative approach to various other post-conict
settings so that students come to the position of
reecting on master narratives in their own context.
The concepts of “continuity”, “autochthony beliefs”,
“nostalgia”, “realistic threat”, “symbolic threat”,
“nation- building”, “prejudice”, “distrust”, “intergroup
contact” should be discussed both separately and
together in the way they form a coherent whole in
organizing intergroup conicts and forming
representations of the past.
Recognise complexity, initiate informed
individual interpretations, and foster
Frequently, in the interests of accessibility, the teach-
ing of history is simplied to a single narrative or to
presenting perspectives of past divisions, which leads to
stereotypical views of protagonists and group identities.
In divided societies, there is a necessity to demonstrate
that historical knowledge is provisional and discursive.
Teachers have a responsibility to introduce students to
Organization and communication
People communicate their historical knowledge and
the results of their investigations in a variety of ways,
taking into consideration both the topic and the
audience they are addressing. They choose and use
historical and chronological terms and conventions.
And they provide arguments grounded on historical evi-
dence to support their own interpretations of the past.
In the case of historical enquiry concerning past
conicts, both the organization and communication of
historical knowledge suer from censorship by school
authorities, families, peers or politicians who engage
in a process of labelling certain contents as “sensitive”.
In this way, emotionally loaded language from the
eld of political discourse is transferred down to the
level of classroom practices29 that make the commu-
nication of the ndings of historical enquiry problem-
atic. Some adventurous teachers30 or students
sometimes take the risk of engaging with sensitive
issues, but more often they submit to self-censoring,
for fear of marginalisation by the “ingroup”.
In the specic cases where students from the conict-
ing groups are taught in the same classroom31, there is
often an interesting interplay of asymmetries whereby
marginalised voices, counter narratives, and alternative
representations are obstructed from entering classroom
discussion. But the teacher can facilitate their expres-
sion, either through the use of supplementary teaching
material or textbooks that support multiperspectivity32,
or through an instructional design that diminishes the
impact of asymmetries of status on communication
in the classroom. As the literature on intergroup con-
tacts33 and their eect on prejudice reduction suggests,
teaching about the “outgroup” and positive interactions
between “ingroup” and “outgroup” members can both
improve historical knowledge and lead to prejudice
reduction and the building of trust.
Recommendations for the History Teaching of Intergroup Conicts I 08
the full spectrum of past actions, including those of
individuals who acted dierently from the majority
within their communities (for example, “ingroup”
members who can act as moral exemplars although
having rescued the lives of “outgroup” members).
Raise students’ awareness of how their
own backgrounds and allegiances might
inuence the way they interpret the past
In deeply divided societies and post-conict settings,
emotions can inuence how young people (and teach-
ers) encounter sensitive aspects of the past. Thus it
is important that students be given opportunities to
explore their own backgrounds and identities and how
they might shape their historical understanding.
This is a condition for being able to take a critical
stance towards a sensitive history. In order to achieve
this goal, teachers themselves should go through a
similar self-distancing process
Involve students in a constant dialogue
between the events of the past and the
Arguably, the past only becomes contentious when
it is linked to the present. Teachers sometimes wish
to avoid controversy in the classroom by keeping the
investigation rmly contained in the past. However,
relevance is vital to giving meaning to history teach-
ing. Teaching should be designed so that students
are encouraged to make connections between the
past and contemporary attitudes and situations in
the way that it promotes: a) dierentiating the past
from the present, b) de-idealize actions of the past,
c) presenting action of the present as contingent but
not predetermined result of the past. They should
also understand how the past is used and abused for
Engage students in an explicit exploration
of the relationship between national
identity(ies) and history
National identities are constructed partly by drawing
on historical events, real or imagined. Students should
be given opportunity to reect on the social
construction of their own, and their community’s
sense of identity, to understand how history has
contributed to changes that led to the evolution of
identity over time – and that identity is neither xed
nor immutable. Invariable, xed, closed and exclusive
concepts of identities should be deconstructed.
Importantly, students should be taught how to
distinguish, on the one hand, versions of the past that
“CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE COME TO
CLASSROOMS INFLUENCED BY THE HISTORY ABSORBED
IN THE FAMILY AND THE STREETS. THEIR HISTORICAL
IMAGES AND REPRESENTATIONS OF THE PAST ARE
USUALLY ENWRAPPED IN CONTEMPORARY ATTITUDES
merely satisfy identity needs and distort facts and
interpretations to this aim and, on the other hand,
versions that bind their interpretation back to facts
and methodologically controlled, rational
Help students understand the recent,
violent past and critically examining
personal experiences of those events
Avoidance of discussion of the recent violent past
is a familiar characteristic of social interactions in
societies emerging from conict. Students are often
not encouraged to enquire, yet they are often both
curious and confused as to what has occurred and
why. Amongst adults, there is a fear that such
discussion will open up division. Yet, if it is the duty
of educators to break the cycle of violence and move
society forward, then young people must understand
the nature of conict and its consequences. Dealing
with the legacy of conict can be emotionally charged
and uncomfortable, but it can also lead to rich
learning. In a supportive environment, students
should hear the genuinely told personal stories of
those whose lives were aected by violence in one
way or another, but also apply historical critique to
what they hear. Conict is rarely one dimensional,
and there are often cases of intra-ethnic conicts
(that could be inuenced by factors such as class and
gender, among others). But they are often suppressed
in favour of a narrative that favours ingroup
Engage students in a critical discussion
of media reporting on topical political or
Conspiracy theories, as they refer to past events and
conicts, need to be explicitly discussed and reected
upon in the classroom, especially as they appear on
the Internet. Media reporting, even by supposedly
“independent” media, is very often tainted by the
political, economic and ideological interests of media
owners, newsroom culture and journalists, even
Students should be encouraged to compare main-
stream media reporting with alternative media
reporting by engaged individuals on the Internet,
e.g. blogs. This should help them to learn to take a
critical position vis-à-vis broadcast news as well as
other sources, and to weigh the plausible veracity
of news contents.
Place proper emphasis not only on the
content of what is being taught but also
on the processes through which historical
knowledge is organized and communicated
Group work that engages “ingroup” and “outgroup”
members in active dialogue should be encouraged as
a privileged way to promote multiperspectivity and
break the silence on “sensitive” issues. It is never-
theless important that such contexts of intergroup
contact be well planned ahead, preferably by mak-
ing use of the recent empirical ndings of the social
psychological literature on direct and indirect forms
of intergroup contact so that the ground for critical
enquiry is made possible without extreme emotional
Situate the place of teaching the
history of intergroup conict in a
History teaching builds the foundation for contemporary
debate. In this sense, there should also be space elsewhere
in the curriculum for engaging with the history of inter-
group conicts in a way that democratic exchange is
developed and opportunities are given for ideas to be
acted upon, be this through citizenship education or
elsewhere in the curriculum like geography, social sciences,
literature and related elds.
Recommendations for the History Teaching of Intergroup Conicts I 10
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STUDENTS WITH OPPORTUNITIES TO ENGAGE
IN EXPLORATIONS OF THE PAST AND ITS DIFFERENT
VERSIONS IN WAYS THAT WILL ALLOW THEM TO
DEVELOP AN UNDERSTANDING OF BOTH THE CONTENT
AND THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF THE DISCIPLINE
COST is supported by the EU Framework
Programme Horizon 2020
For any inquiries relating to this Guide please contact :
Associate Professor of Social and Developmental Psychology
at the University of Cyprus