The science of history turns – even in school?

Die Geschichtswissenschaft “turned” – auch in der Schule?


Abstract: In the historical sciences, one turn follows another: from the rather old linguistic turn to the postcolonial or global turn, the visual or iconic turn to the spatial, acoustic, and material turn. But how does history teaching respond to these turns? At first glance, hardly at all. But, we may ask, does history teaching need to respond at all? And if so, how might it respond? Or are there good reasons not to respond?
Languages: English, Deutsch

In the historical sciences, one turn follows another: from the rather old linguistic turn to the postcolonial or global turn, the visual or iconic turn to the spatial, acoustic, and material turn. But how does history teaching respond to these turns? At first glance, hardly at all. But, we may ask, does history teaching need to respond at all? And if so, how might it respond? Or are there good reasons not to respond?

When is a turn a turn?

The historical sciences have often ridiculed for their “turneritis”. One may indeed ask whether the trendiness of certain research approaches and raising their distinctiveness to generate third-party funds are linked. Does such linkage always imply a paradigm shift in research, or should one much rather speak about new, additional perspectives?
The aforementioned turns do not coexist in isolation. Instead, they are part of a major, secular process. They are all cultural turns, sharing a shift of interest from particular research subjects to the methods for acquiring and consolidating knowledge (which then put a new complexion on the subjects researched). It is, then, a matter of more closely considering both the processes involved in the construction of history and the conceptual foundations for generating specialist knowledge.

Innovations in history teaching

Neither the topics of nor the trends in the historical sciences can be transferred one-to-one to the history classroom. Straight “copycat didactics” are obsolete. Generating and rendering distinct topics for history lessons are discrete processes based on specific criteria: the social relevance of historical knowledge and the insights to be gained by students; the personal relevance of such insights for the students themselves; and the opportunity to learn, apply, and practise specialist skills. That aside, it is also self-evident that research must hold the – referring to Koselleck – “right of veto”. In history lessons, nothing should be presented that conflicts with the current state of research – although in some cases, this may be rather difficult to determine.
“History teaching” (the term here comprises various aspects, ranging from the curriculum to everyday teaching) should acknowledge innovations in research. Whereas it should not be obliged to adopt such insights without hesitation, it ought to question their relevance. After all, it is by no means the case that history lessons have not incorporated various new approaches since the gradual implementation of the resource paradigm began (at academic high schools). As opposed to the former dominance of political history, contemporary history lessons now deal with social history and consider different emphases depending on the topic under discussion. Approaches such as everyday history, environmental history or – at the time – “women’s history” were adopted comparatively early in the didactic literature and in textbooks. But the example of “women’s history” also reveals implementation problems and limitations: textbooks still regard “women’s history” as a form of compensatory supplementary history; the implementation of gender history is by far more difficult and, as I see it, has so far not been implemented convincingly.

Is it all a question of the medium?

But what about the reception of recent historical science turns? The linguistic turn plays a major role in these developments, as the bedrock of the narrative paradigm of history didactics. Furthermore, global history has received intense attention, although the current concepts prove elusive. However, the diagnosis of most turns is ambivalent: on the one hand, there is a long, successfully applied practice in history lessons; on the other, however, from the perspective of the turn theories, this practice takes place rather subconceptually. This applies equally to the iconic turn, acoustic turn, material turn, and spatial turn. From a narrow point of view, these turns can be applied to the media used in history teaching – pictorial, audio, and material sources (including maps). These turns have therefore occupied a traditional place in the classroom or have at least been present there for some time. However, once again, in practice history teaching is conceptually less elaborated and pragmatically limited: educational work with pictorial sources lags behind Bredekamp’s concept of a “pictorial act”; moreover, a history of listening or of sounds and noises using material resources to generate scientific findings is not much help in school – where we need demonstrable sounds.

The general direction

If one looks not at individual turns but at the general tendency, a connection with the development of history teaching can of course be identified. Already during the broad implementation of source work, it was a matter of orienting teaching toward the building of specialist knowledge. Over time, the sources available have broadened and diversified (pictorial resources, segmentation of the major resource categories). Since the 1990s, moreover, the learning of methods has become a compulsory element of textbooks. Several new research approaches have been embraced over time. Since the 1980s, for instance, the central concept of “historical consciousness” has been established in didactic literature and curricula; subsequently, the concept of “historical culture” was added – mind you, the concept is being engaged with only hesistantly in the history classroom. The current competence orientation can be regarded as a grouping of all these steps toward fostering a conscious, reflected, and critical way of dealing with the meaning of one’s own history and that of other cultures – whatever the respective skills terminology. Thus, it is on this meta-level that the various turns in the historical sciences and the interests of good modern history teaching meet.


Further Reading

  • Doris Bachmann-Medick, Cultural Turns. Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaften, (Reinbek 4th. Ed. 2010).
  • Ute Daniel, Kompendium Kulturgeschichte. Theorien, Praxis, Schlüsselwörter, (Frankfurt a. M. 2001, 5th., rev. a. add. Ed. 2006).
  • Silvia Serena Tschopp / Wolfgang E.J. Weber, Grundfragen der Kulturgeschichte, (Darmstadt 2007).

Web Resources


Image Credits

© Guenter Hamich /

Recommended Citation

Sauer, Michael: The science of history turns – even in school? In: Public History Weekly 2 (2014) 38, DOI:

In der Geschichtswissenschaft jagt ein Turn den anderen: vom schon älteren Linguistic Turn über den Postcolonial oder Global Turn, den Visual oder Iconic Turn bis hin zum Spatial, Acoustic und Material Turn. Wie reagiert der Geschichtsunterricht darauf? Auf den ersten Blick so gut wie gar nicht. Müsste er reagieren? Wie könnte er reagieren? Oder gibt es gute Gründe, nicht zu reagieren?

Wann ist ein Turn ein Turn?

Die “Turneritis” in der Geschichtswissenschaft ist schon des Öfteren bespöttelt worden. Man mag in der Tat kritisch fragen, ob eine gewisse Modenhaftigkeit der Forschungsansätze nicht auch etwas mit Profilierung zwecks Drittmittelgewinnung zu tun hat. Ist damit immer gleich ein Paradigmawechsel der Forschung verbunden, oder sollte man nicht vielleicht bescheidener von neuen, ergänzenden Perspektiven sprechen?
Freilich stehen die genannten Turns ja nicht isoliert nebeneinander. Sie sind Teil eines größeren, gleichsam säkularen Prozesses, sie alle sind Cultural Turns: Ihre Gemeinsamkeit liegt in einer Verlagerung des Interesses von den Forschungsgegenständen hin zu den Erkenntnismethoden (die dann die Forschungsgegenstände in einem neuen Licht erscheinen lassen). Es geht um eine verstärkte Reflexion über Prozesse der Konstruktion von Geschichte und konzeptionelle Grundlagen fachspezifischer Wissensgenerierung.

Innovationen im Geschichtsunterricht

Dass Themen und Trends der Geschichtswissenschaft nicht einfach eins zu eins in den Geschichtsunterricht übernommen werden, versteht sich von selbst. Wir betreiben keine “Abbilddidaktik” mehr. Die Generierung und Profilierung von Themen für den Geschichtsunterricht ist ein eigenständiger Akt, Grundlage dafür sind spezifische Kriterien: die gesellschaftliche Relevanz von historischen Kenntnissen und Erkenntnissen, die SchülerInnen gewinnen sollen; die persönliche Relevanz für sie selbst; und die Gelegenheit zum Lernen, Anwenden und Üben fachspezifischer Kompetenzen. Genauso selbstverständlich ist es allerdings, dass es – in Anlehnung an Koselleck – ein “Vetorecht der Forschung” geben muss. Im Geschichtsunterricht sollte nichts dargeboten werden, was ausdrücklich dem Forschungsstand widerspricht, was freilich im Einzelfall nicht gerade leicht zu bestimmen ist.
“Geschichtsunterricht” (das meint hier Unterschiedliches vom Curriculum bis zum Unterrichtsalltag) sollte also Innovationen der Forschung zur Kenntnis nehmen, muss sie aber nicht unbesehen übernehmen, sondern im Hinblick auf seine Belange kritisch mustern. Es ist ja auch keineswegs so, dass der Geschichtsunterricht seit der allmählichen Durchsetzung des Quellenparadigmas (im Gymnasium) nicht diverse neue Ansätze aufgegriffen hätte. Statt der ehemaligen Dominanz der Politikgeschichte betreiben wir heute im Unterricht eine Gesellschaftsgeschichte mit je nach Thema unterschiedlichen Akzentsetzungen. Ansätze wie Alltagsgeschichte, Umweltgeschichte oder – damals – “Frauengeschichte” sind in der didaktischen Literatur und in Schulbüchern vergleichsweise früh aufgegriffen worden. Das Beispiel “Frauengeschichte” zeigt aber auch die Umsetzungsprobleme und Begrenzungen: Noch immer finden wir im Schulbuch “Frauengeschichte” als eine Art kompensatorische Ergänzungsgeschichte; die Realisierung von “Geschlechter-” oder gar “Gendergeschichte” ist weitaus schwieriger und bislang, so weit ich sehe, nicht überzeugend realisiert worden.

Alles eine Frage des Mediums?

Wie steht es aber nun mit der Rezeption der neueren geschichtswissenschaftlichen Turns? Eine große Rolle spielt der Linguistic Turn als Grundlage für das Narrativitätsparadigma der Geschichtsdidaktik. Eine intensive Beschäftigung mit Globalgeschichte hat stattgefunden, wenngleich die vorliegenden Konzepte nur schwer realisierbar sind. Bei den meisten Turns ist die Diagnose ambivalent: Einerseits gibt es eine lang geübte Praxis im Geschichtsunterricht, andererseits findet diese aus der Sicht der Turn-Theorien gewissermaßen subkonzeptionell statt. Dies gilt für den Iconic Turn, Acoustic Turn, Material Turn, Spatial Turn. Sie lassen sich, eng betrachtet, auf Medien des Geschichtsunterrichts – Bild-, Ton-, Sachquellen und Karten – beziehen und sind insofern dort traditionell oder jedenfalls schon länger präsent. Allerdings ist die Praxis des Geschichtsunterrichts auch hier wieder konzeptionell weniger elaboriert und pragmatisch begrenzt: Unterrichtliche Bildquellenarbeit etwa bleibt zurück hinter dem von Bredekamp propagierten Konzept des „Bildakts“; und eine Geschichte des Hörens oder der Töne und Geräusche, die ihre wissenschaftlichen Befunde zu früheren Zeiten im Wesentlichen wieder aus Textquellen gewinnt, hilft in der Schule wenig – hier braucht man vorführbare Töne.

Die Generalrichtung

Blickt man jenseits der einzelnen Turns auf den generellen Trend, lassen sich freilich sehr wohl Verbindungen mit der Entwicklung des Geschichtsunterrichts ausmachen. Schon bei der breiten Durchsetzung der Quellenarbeit ging es um die Orientierung an den Verfahren fachspezifischer Erkenntnisgewinnung. Die Quellenbasis dafür hat sich im Laufe der Zeit verbreitert und differenziert (Bildquellen, Untergliederung der Quellengroßgattungen). Seit den 90er Jahren ist das Methodenlernen in den Schulbüchern obligatorisch geworden. Einzelne neue Forschungsansätze sind aufgegriffen worden. Seit den 80er Jahren schon hat sich der Leitbegriff “Geschichtsbewusstsein” in der didaktischen Literatur und in den Curricula etabliert, später hinzugekommen ist der Begriff “Geschichtskultur” – erst zögerlich beginnt die tatsächliche Beschäftigung mit ihr im Unterricht. Die aktuelle Kompetenzorientierung kann man als Bündelung aller dieser Entwicklungsschritte auffassen: Es geht um die Generalrichtung hin zu einem bewussten, reflektierten und kritischen Umgang mit eigener und fremder historischer Sinnbildung – wie auch immer die jeweiligen Kompetenzbegrifflichkeiten dafür lauten mögen. Und auf dieser Metaebene treffen sich nun doch geschichtswissenschaftliche Turns und die Belange eines modernen, guten Geschichtsunterrichts.



  • Bachmann-Medick, Doris: Cultural Turns. Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaften, Reinbek 4. Aufl. 2010.
  • Daniel, Ute: Kompendium Kulturgeschichte. Theorien, Praxis, Schlüsselwörter, Frankfurt a. M. 2001, 5., durchges. u. erg. Aufl. 2006.
  • Tschopp, Silvia Serena / Weber, Wolfgang E.J.: Grundfragen der Kulturgeschichte, Darmstadt 2007.




© Guenter Hamich /

Empfohlene Zitierweise

Sauer, Michael: Die Geschichtswissenschaft “turned” – auch in der Schule? In: Public History Weekly 2 (2014) 38, DOI:

Copyright (c) 2014 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.

The assessments in this article reflect only the perspective of the author. PHW considers itself as a pluralistic debate journal, contributions to discussions are very welcome. Please note our commentary guidelines (

Categories: 2 (2014) 38

Tags: , ,

1 reply »

  1. Michael Sauer’s about the Cultural turn and history education

    The other day I read with interest on what Professor Michael Sauer has to say on History as a science that’s characterised by its “turns” and if educators of History do consider or are influenced by research trends of the time. He argued that: If not the cultural turn, it was the linguistic turn or the spatial turn and others. I cannot agree more with Professor Sauer that these phases through time portrayed different ways of approaching research and that they are closely linked to national and international trends in research and the ways of the day in communities. New “turns” in modes of research, and ways of writing about historical research, should provide opportunities for reflecting past ways of disseminating research in order to progress towards a more informed and hopefully more advanced level in thought about research and meaning. Unfortunately this “trendiness” may be linked to ideological or political stands of the day and so secondary issues like finding a way to third-party funds very well may be at the back of some researcher’s mind (Sauer’s concern). This certainly was not my personal experience in South Africa but maybe it is because I did not follow a particular “turneritis” that perhaps aimed at achieving more secondary intentions than serving History as science. By saying this, I must also add that educators of History should not confuse general research paradigms of History with the historian’s choice of doing research in a particular field or sub-branch of History and perhaps following a specific general research paradigm in a field.

    Yet, when it comes to teaching History at lower levels, it’s much more about the past packaged in eras or themes and the ways of methodologically and skilfully transfers that knowledge from approved school textbooks. On a higher level it may entail an exposure to a diverse compendium of scientific reading on a topic. To me a diversity of perspectives in knowledge transfer features highly on the agenda when teaching History. In this regard the “critical way of dealing with the meaning of one’s own history and that of other cultures” (thus Michael Sauer) should always be the one aim high on the educator of History’s method-of-teaching-agenda. Teaching History to students at a University level about the discipline of History (Method and historiography) and how to teach History (also with its own didactical methods and historiography) are to an extent worlds apart.

    I don’t think that educators of teaching History should be too concerned that they must necessarily always be in the bidding of every research turn of the day. It may be for example that Koselleck became known for his saying “that research must hold the ‘right to veto’” (to reference Sauer’s observation), but the actual context in which Koselleck has made this observation is in the “veto-right of the personal experience”. Koselleck did and does not want to see his memory collectivized.

    The nurturing of one research approach in gaining a historical perspective is not encouraged when teaching History (like for example Koselleck’s memory on his personal life experiences during the Second World War which forms part of social history but certainly cannot be viewed in isolation in a History class). In History teaching a preparedness to actually trying to focus on providing insight on “what actually happened” (the view of Ranke still applies) requires (and will still in future require) means of diversity in presenting historical knowledge. Therefore key innovations that the educator of History should be concerned about in the didactics of teaching History certainly are not to be found in the occasional research mode turns but are mostly focussed on ways of best practice in transferring a country’s or world’s diverse past, as outlined in a curriculum (Michael Sauer nicely refers to this way as “the interests of good modern history” that meet with the “turns of the historical sciences”).

    Whatever “turn” comes around must be weighed against the best practice criteria for teaching History. Other means such as nation-building, or teaching History to compliment democracy or gender history or woman’s history etcetera (and particularly in a curriculum where the timeframe and focus are much broader) should not be the focus or dominate but rather the strive to find a balance of perspectives on what happened (and certainly some debate on the why also could serve intellectual value). In this regard it seems that the educator of History, with an efficient training background, will be central in the process of assisting learners through means of “good history teaching” in making sense of it all.

Pin It on Pinterest