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Thinking Historically

Teaching history is very different from learning it.

…or so I thought. When I think back to some of my favorite history teachers, or when I read a book about Cold War nuclear weapon policy, for instance,  or a biography of Arthur Koestler, or an interpretation of King Phillip’s War, I immersed myself in the story. I listened to the teacher in class as a powerful story-teller. I wander in and out of the chapters and pages of books, following the arc. In between all of that learning, my mind is forming questions. Back when I was in school, mostly because I was a shy student, I didn’t ask these questions out loud. I would write them in the margins of my notebook, like a secret diary of the past, with no one to look at them. But I was beginning to think historically.

As I grew older, and discovered my love for teaching, I began a journey of trying to figure out how to teach the past so that questions would be more important than answers. I wanted my students to have a place and a voice for asking the same questions I tucked away into margins and kept to myself when reading a book. I wanted them to challenge the past to a fight, rather than eat their daily nutritional helpings of ‘textbook’ for breakfast and ‘handout’ for lunch. (Tests were always what’s for dinner.)

Within the last decade or so, more an more teachers have refined the research and practice surrounding the ‘historical thinking skills’ movement. The College Board began to redesign the AP US History exam (their bread and butter money-maker). They published a framework for identifying historical thinking skills. Stanford University freely published their Reading Like a Historian lesson plans online as well as assessments that measure historical thinking, Beyond the Bubble. Professor Sam Wineburg has written extensively on why historical thinking matters. Teachers like Bruce Lesh published books based on his experiences teaching historical thinking skills in US History. Others have blogged about the different between teaching facts and teaching historical thinking. Universities began to create historical thinking projects, standardize historical thinking skills, as well as develop and share lessons on teaching historical investigations. The American Historical Association published articles on what it means to think historically. So to did TeachingHistory.org, a site of resources and strategies from actual teachers and historians. The Wisconsin Historical Society wrote a book, created posters, and developed strategies for thinking historically. The National Council for Social Studies also published a report on how thinking historically can be supported in an inquiry model for college, career and civic success. Dozens of teachers have had discussions about thinking like a historian on Twitter.

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There has also been some opposition. Florida in 2006 passed a bill that included a passage, according to an article by the American Historical Association, that states, “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.” Textbooks still have a huge hold on schools across  the country, making billions. Others, like education researcher Diane Ravitch, has called some of the Common Core lessons with historical content a travesty. Concern for compliance with the CCSS has also been a concern for many history teachers, as there are no nationally required history standards. On the other hand, some have woven historical thinking skills with Common Core standards. The debate continues, but with more support for the vertical articulation and measurement of historical thinking skills. Stephen Lazar points out that there is no more false dichotomy with the adoption of the C3 Framework. Grant Wiggins writes that standards are not incompatible with creativity. Overall, I believe the tide is turning to support teaching historical thinking, but the work continues.

For me, thinking historically is the way in which teaching history is different from the way I learned it. This is the direction I’d like to continue to move. It’s something that energizes me and gives purpose to my practice. Give me a deep question over a quick answer any day. I’ll dig out my historical thinking tools and get to work!

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