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1. Thinking: How Students Learn About the Past
How do students think about the past? For more than a century historians have been pondering this question, both in terms of what facts about the past our students ought to know, and just how it is they make sense—or try to make sense—of historical information. While the study of student thinking about the past has not been one of the major fields of endeavor among historians, that does not mean the issue has been ignored altogether. Toward the end of the last century the teaching of history in both colleges and schools was undergoing a process of professionalization and this process spawned a number of how-to books aimed at the teacher who was now expected to devote the bulk of his or her effort to one subject—history. The great concern of this prescriptive literature was, not surprisingly, how best to teach students about the past so that they might become better citizens of their country—a goal that has not changed much, at least with respect to history teaching in the schools. Most of what we find in these studies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was instruction on how best to teach history rather than any concern with how students learn history, but that does not mean that the authors of such books and articles were unaware of the fact that an understanding of how students learn is essential to any approach to teaching.
For instance, in 1897 Burke Hinsdale opined, “In dealing with the history of a country or nation, the first thing to be done is to fix in the pupil’s mind firmly the main points—an outline—a framework—in which he can dispose and arrange minor facts and details as he requires them . . . ,” and, “A memory that lays hold of subject-matter should be stimulated rather than a mere verbal memory.” Hinsdale also recognized that lecturing at students, especially beginning students, was not the most effective method of teaching: “The lecture is not the proper vehicle for conveying elementary knowledge of history. Experience often shows that courses of lectures that have been taken with interest and are recalled with pleasure, have left little behind them save mistaken notions and vague ideas.” It is a bit disheartening to realize that more than 100 years ago historians were already warning their peers about the problems of lecturing (fig. 1).
In 1906, Charles Homer Haskins, one of the great historians of his day, chaired a committee of the American Historical Association charged with examining how best to teach history to college students. Haskins’s report begins: “The most difficult question which now confronts the college teacher of history seems, by general agreement, to be the first year of the college course.” Haskins and his colleagues came to this conclusion because, in their view, the first year of the college course in history required students to spend too much time in lectures that offered up too much factual information for any student to take in, much less make sense of. Ironically, given the typical university history curriculum in 2011, the Haskins report concluded that freshmen ought to be taught history in small seminars more focused on the close reading of historical evidence, and only in their final year of college should they be expected to take a grand survey of a historical subject, because it was only after they had learned the methods of the historian that they could be expected to successfully synthesize important facts from lectures on topics such as Western Civilization. In 1917, J. Carleton Bell described the ways that students acquired something he called “the historic sense.” According to Bell, only some students were successful in achieving this “sense,” which included “great skill in the orderly arrangement of their historical data, skill in seizing upon essential points of the narrative and keeping these well in the foreground of their thinking, skill in massing minor considerations to support their main positions.” Too many other students, he wrote, “take all statements with equal emphasis, keep all parts of the discussion upon the same level, and become hopelessly confused by the multiplicity of details.” If Bell’s description of his students from 1917 sounds much like descriptions we often hear (or purvey) of our own students, at least some blame should lie in the fact that our teaching methods have not changed much since 1917.
Two distinct areas of concern emerged from those earliest speculations about how best to teach history: content knowledge and procedural knowledge. In the wider public debates about what students ought to know about the past, it is content knowledge that most animates these discussions. Among the best-known American examples of the arguments over what students ought or ought not be taught in history classes came during the controversy that arose over the proposed national standards for the teaching and learning of American history in early 1995. Slade Gorton, a freshman senator from Washington state, asked his colleagues, “Mr. President, what is a more important part of our Nation’s history for our children to study—George Washington or Bart Simpson?” Gorton’s angst over (and oversimplification of) the proposed standards for history education in the United States reflected a profound and widespread concern about what American children ought to know about the past. Without the correct understanding of the nation’s past, the argument goes, our children cannot become the kinds of citizens we want and need for the future of our country (whichever country that might be). But in these debates factual knowledge is often conflated with correct understanding—we assume that if our children know the facts, they will understand the facts. As Stéphane Lévesque points out, such fulminating about what ought to be taught and not taught is really a battle over the contested space of memory—memory that is, as Pierre Nora argues “absolute, [while] history is always relative.” The notion of history as always relative, something historians are quite comfortable with, can have quite the opposite effect on those debating what ought to and ought not to be taught. Perhaps the most straightforward recent statement of the just-the-facts view of history is a law passed by the Florida legislature in 2006.
American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.
It is fashionable among historians to put popular debates over the teaching of content knowledge into an ideological frame. Such claims ignore the fact that all sides in debates over which facts to teach generally proceed from much the same view of history teaching; namely, that students ought to be taught the correct/important/essential facts about the past and that any consideration of historical methods or analysis is secondary to the acquisition of the proper set of the facts. In the debates over content, there is generally little popular disagreement over what history is—the debate is most typically over whether to teach “our” set of facts, or “yours.” The “ours/yours” debate takes on such great urgency because we tend to believe that history serves a very important function in the process of nation building. While all sides in the debate over what ought to be taught generally agree on this point, it is the definition of the nation being built that is at issue. For instance, is the history of the nation the history of all the groups living in the state, or are so-called marginal groups (however such groups might be defined) so marginal that they are of only secondary importance to the narrative of who we are? What great moral lessons can we learn from our past that will guide us in the future? Are those lessons the ones taught to us by the leaders of the nation way back when, or are the more important lessons to be found in the day-to-day struggles of the working classes who built the state through their toil? Whichever side is speaking up about which facts ought to be taught at any particular moment, their spokespeople are fond of wringing their hands and worrying that “kids today” just don’t know much about history because they perform below expectations on standardized tests designed to gauge their retention of facts.
This view of history teaching as the communication of a specific body of factual knowledge to students is one that also resonates with many, if not most, history students. As Robert Bain points out, many students come to the history classroom with the following view of their subject: “The past is filled with facts, historians retrieve those facts, students memorize the facts, and all this somehow improves the present.” Knowing facts about the past so the present can be improved is especially important to many students because they also believe that history regularly repeats itself—so if we just pay close attention to what happened in the past, we will know what to expect in the future and can avoid making some of those same darned mistakes our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents made. Another challenge history teachers face when it comes to what students think history is all about, is students’ tendency to believe that they already know and understand people in the past. This belief in the familiarity of the past, if tested, often leads to some interesting responses in the classroom. For instance, when I teach about the female suffrage movement at the fin-de-siècle, my students are often disbelieving when I give them evidence of anti-suffrage demonstrations at which hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of women attended to express their opposition to being given the vote. “Of course every woman would want the vote,” my students’ thinking goes, and if they are correct, then the logical conclusion is that the sources I give them must be wrong. These sorts of exercises create a tension in students’ minds between the familiar and the strange and are very difficult to get right. We want to destabilize their assumptions about the past without making the past so strange, so other, that they write it off as either too weird or simply impossible to make sense of. Instead, if students are forced to grapple with historical evidence on its own terms, not based on stereotypes they bring to that analysis, they then begin to question the broad generalizations they love to make about “women,” or “Nazis,” or the “Chinese.” Writing about drama rather than history, Bertold Brecht calls this breaking free of deeply held stereotypes “alienating the familiar.” Sam Wineburg demonstrates the difficulties of alienating the familiar very clearly in his essay “Making (Historical) Sense in the New Millennium.” In his interviews with high school history students and their parents, Wineburg found that when it came to the past, his subjects demonstrated signs of both collective memory and what he calls “collective occlusion.” Perhaps the most striking example of collective occlusion that he offers is what happened when he showed a young woman a photograph of construction workers demonstrating in favor of the Vietnam War. When asked what was happening in the photograph, the student replied that she was looking at a photograph of an anti-war demonstration, despite clear evidence in the image to the contrary. Wineburg concludes that the narrative of those Americans who were pro-war has been occluded by the much stronger narrative of the anti-war movement, to the point where students will cling so firmly to their belief in the dominant narrative that they will ignore clear evidence that contradicts what they believe.
Even when we are successful in convincing students that the past is indeed a foreign country that they can peek into, but can’t actually visit, they are still likely to assume that they know people from that foreign country anyway. James Axtell calls this predilection a case of students assuming self-knowledge is akin to historical-knowledge, by which he means that they assume that because they are women or Republicans or whatever, they have unique insights into how women or Republicans 100 years ago thought and acted. Getting them to set aside these assumptions is more than a little difficult and sometimes impossible, because these assumptions are grounded in our basic beliefs about ourselves. As Wineburg says, “The familiar past entices us with the promise that we can locate our own place in the stream of time and solidify our identity in the present.” We want the past to be knowable through the lens of our own experiences. History is not alone in facing this difficulty when it comes to teaching students about that which is unfamiliar, foreign, or seemingly counterintuitive. As Carl Wieman and Kathleen Perkins have found, our students’ reliance on folk wisdom, is just as difficult to break down in physics as it is in history.
A powerful demonstration of the simple solutions students often offer to complex historical problems can be seen in a video clip from an interview with a student named Chuck on the website Historical Thinking Matters. In this example, the student was given two American newspaper stories about the outbreak of the Spanish-American War—one that states unequivocally that the Spanish were responsible for the sinking of the battleship Maine, and one that says the cause of the Maine’s explosion remains unclear. Chuck, however, has almost no uncertainty: “It was blown up by the Spanish because we then had a war with them. So if there was a Spanish-American War and this happened right before it, then this is probably what started [the war].” For whatever reason, Chuck’s existing narratives of the American past, combined with an analytical strategy founded on straightforward common sense, brought him to his firm conclusion about the sinking of the Maine. This sort of analytical strategy is not limited to history students. In Wieman and Perkins’ research, students were given a lecture on the physics of sound and then were given a demonstration of how sounds are created by a violin. Fifteen minutes later, only 10 percent of the students gave the correct answer from a list of four choices, defaulting instead to folk wisdom about how sound is produced. As researchers such as Wineburg and Wieman have shown, breaking through these assumptions and analytical strategies is quite difficult, but as educators it is incumbent upon us to try.
Almost any historian will tell you that the “facts first” view of history is one that is very different from the disciplinary thinking that we hope to inculcate in our students. What then do historians mean when we talk about the study of history, if not the acquisition of a body of factual content? Before we decide, it is probably a good idea to stipulate what historians do not mean; namely, that facts do not matter. Historians, at least every historian I know, care passionately about facts supported by evidence. We know that all good history is built upon a foundation of evidence gleaned from as wide a variety of sources as can be obtained and verified. But facts from the past are not history. History is a way of thinking, a way of knowing, a habit of mind. It is, as Robert Bain argues, an “epistemic activity.”
What then do historians mean by “historical thinking?” In 1971, Paul Ward, the executive secretary of the American Historical Association, described historical thinking.
First accenting and clarifying the separate pieces of evidence; second, seeing how well the assembled evidence tells the story and explains the whole situation; and third, highlighting the human dimension in the evidence. Within the first grouping at least three main requirements are to be singled out: putting proper stress on the evidence, seeking illuminating comparisons, and critically evaluating the sources of information.
While few historians would disagree with Ward that these are all important activities when it comes to thinking about the past, few today would see this list as sufficient to describe the complex activity we call historical thinking. Ward’s definition emphasizes the mastering the evidence by putting it in its proper place in the larger picture of the past and betrays a devotion to the empiricist tradition that demands that historical evidence not be made to say anything more or less than it says. Analysis of the evidence takes a backseat in this definition, and “highlighting the human dimension in the evidence” points to a need for students to attempt to establish an empathetic connection with those in the past—something that is often problematic when we are trying to encourage students to be more analytical. In the decades since, a more positivist view of history has taken hold among a wide swath of the historical community. For example, Stéphane Lévesque offers a definition of historical thinking that is much more focused on history as an epistemology rather than a craft.
Historical thinking is, indeed, far more sophisticated and demanding than mastering substantive (content) knowledge, in that it requires the acquisition of such knowledge to understand the procedures employed to investigate its aspects and conflicting meanings . . . To think historically is thus to understand how knowledge has been constructed and what it means. Without such sophisticated insight into ideas, peoples, and actions, it becomes impossible to adjudicate between competing versions (and visions) of the past.
Wineburg’s view, already discussed in the introduction, is that:
The argument I make pivots on a tension that underlies every encounter with the past: the tension between the familiar and the strange, between feelings of proximity and feelings of distance in relation to the people we seek to understand. Neither of these extremes does justice to history’s complexity, and veering to one side or the other dulls history’s jagged edges and leaves us with cliché and caricature. Achieving mature historical thought depends precisely on our ability to navigate the uneven landscape of history, to traverse the rugged terrain that lies between the poles of familiarity and distance from the past.
As popular as Wineburg’s definition has become, and as appealing as it is, not all historians would agree that it sums up what it means to think historically. For one thing, Wineburg is almost obsessed with the degree to which students need to be able to engage in a meta-discourse with themselves about their own thinking. As important as it is for those attempting to understand the past to realize how their modes of thinking influence the results of that thinking, too much focus on the meta-discourse—whether between and among historians, or in our students’ own heads—can obscure the still very important and fundamental skills that undergird the larger discourse.
What then, do we mean when we say we want students to think historically? A vague definition of historical thinking along the lines of the definition of pornography proposed by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 19 (“I know it when I see it”) is not sufficient for our purposes. If we are going to create rich digital media experiences for our students, if we are going to teach them how to be historians in this digital age—or, at the least we are going to teach them how to think historically using digital media as well as old-fashioned analog resources—then we need to be much more specific about what it is we mean when we say “historical thinking.”
Almost every historian has his or her own personal list of the characteristics of historical thinking, but abilities that come up again and again are:
- The ability to tell the difference between a primary and a secondary source.
- The ability to “source the source”; that is, figure out who created the source, when it was created, and so on.
- The ability to obtain information about the authority of the source and to assess that authority in light of other evidence.
- The ability to set sources in their proper chronological order and to understand why that ordering is important.
- The ability to construct an original argument based upon evidence from various sources.
- The ability to recognize the strangeness of the past without being put off by that strangeness.
- The ability to make comparative judgments about evidence.
- The ability to recognize what one does not or cannot know from the evidence at hand.
- The ability to understand that events are understood differently by different people.
- The ability to triangulate between and among sources.
- The ability to ask probing questions—not just what happened, but why did it happen this way and why didn’t it happen that way?
- The ability to recognize the role of causality.
- The ability to critique evidence both on its own terms and in terms of its value to a larger analytical project.
- The ability to recognize lines of argument in historical thought.
- The ability to present the past in clear ways, whether in writing or in other media, saying what can be said and not saying what cannot.
In contrast to this rather long list, students typically have a much more basic list of what they think historical thinking means. Their thinking about historical thinking is often framed as a set of questions, which the answers will provide them with greater certainty about the past:
- What happened?
- When did it happen?
- Why did it happen?
- Who was responsible?
- And a corollary question: Will that be on the exam?
It should be no surprise that students’ approach to historical thinking is so instrumental. After all, they now live in a world where the measurement of their academic abilities prior to arriving at college was heavily dependent on their ability to select the correct answer from several choices and then fill in a bubble on a scantron sheet. The mania for standardized testing, so evident in the United States at this writing, has had many results—some salutary, some not—but in the history classroom, what it has meant is that students have become very adept at answering questions about the past, but not so adept at asking the kinds of questions we think are important. Where our students want certainty about the past, and to find the correct answer, due to the nature of our training, historians come to the classroom filled with a sense of historical contingency, a belief that the past is almost always equivocal, and that the first order of business for us is to formulate good questions about that past that will lead us in productive directions. The result of the inevitable clash between our students’ desire for certainty and our devotion to uncertainty is that many, if not most, students spend the semester trying to create certainties out of the uncertainties presented by their professor, while the professor often becomes increasingly frustrated by his or her students’ inability or simply unwillingness to dig into the uncertainties. Most students do not want to spend much time on Weinberg’s jagged edges of the past, fearing that they might be injured there. And who can blame them?
It is common among history teachers to complain that too often our students produce versions of the past that are heavy on cliché and caricature. To describe the work product of our students in this way is to do most of them a disservice. The jagged edge of history is an uncomfortable and unsettling place, and because so much of our teaching is predicated upon lecturing at them, it is no wonder they rely so heavily on tropes that they know and the regurgitation of facts we emphasize from the front of the room. For instance, it is a comforting certainty for American students that in the Second World War, Americans were the good guys, and the Germans and Japanese were the bad guys. This notion is reinforced by many years of schooling, television, and other forms of popular media. But if we take our students out onto the jagged edges of the past, they may learn unsettling realities, such as the fact that during “the Good War” U.S. commanders fought long and hard to suppress the practice of mutilating Japanese war dead by American servicemen. Familiar stories about the war reinforce the notion that our servicemen fought in honorable ways. The strange reality of the past is that some of those same men mutilated enemy war dead in ways that the popular imagination almost always attributes to the bad guys on the other side. Coming to grips with this sort of strange reality is central to the development a more mature historical consciousness and is, therefore, one of the more difficult lessons we have to teach our students for them to succeed in our classes.
If we are to take full advantage of the opportunities that digital media offer us to improve the teaching and learning of history, we need to be very clear to ourselves and to our students what we mean when we say “historical thinking,” and then create rich learning opportunities for students that encourage them to see history as we see it. The best way to use digital media to teach them to see history as we see it is to create learning opportunities that make it possible for our students to do history—to practice it as we practice it—to help them make history, using their own creative impulses, rather than simply giving us what they hope is the correct answer to a question we have posed. Archival and library websites are wonderful resources for students, but they do little more than provide access to material previously difficult to gain access to. Unlike the traditional lecture/paper/exam model of history instruction, digital media offers the possibility of creating new, exciting ways for students to be historians as they learn about the past. But it is also important to remember that technology is never the answer to a teaching problem. It can be one of several answers to such a problem, or it can help us find new and better ways to lead students to worthwhile solutions to thorny historical problems. In the end, however, these media are just one more resource for us.