Teaching and Learning Historical Thinking Skills: Ideal vs. Reality

Sam Wineburg’s “Thinking Like a Historian,” and “Seeing Thinking on the Web,” by Daisy Martin and Sam Wineburg both showed important historical skills that should be taught to high school and undergraduate students. These include sourcing, contextualizing, using background knowledge, close reading, reading the silences, and corroborating. They show that students should realize that history is really asking interesting questions and trying to answer those questions using credible primary sources. This makes history more complex than just reading a predefined interpretation of events in a history textbook. An unmentioned struggle in all of these readings is the reality vs. the ideal. Yes it would be great to teach all these things but do teachers actually have the time and the willing students to accomplish this? Or do undergraduate history teachers have a hard time just to teach the basic historical events to students who may not even be history majors? The Michael Coventry, et. al., article “Ways of Seeing: Evidence and Learning in the History Classroom,” has an interesting solution. They give a case study where students use these skills on a history project that is related to their own lives. For example, a girl did a project on a protest her father was involved in. This enables students to use historical thinking skills on events that they already have a basic understanding about. On the other hand, after completing the practicum, I think students also need to learn how to pick out primary source material. Choosing the best primary source material for your paper, project, or website is probably one of the most difficult parts of the whole exercise. So teachers should find creative ways to incorporate this exercise into their classrooms.  These articles made great arguments for teaching and learning history in new ways but I don’t think they made as convincing a case that digital tools should be involved.  It seemed like all the skills could be taught without the use of digital tools.  The only benefit was the ease of access to primary source material compared to the past.

Mills Kelly’s blog posts (edwired.org) related to historical hoaxes show that students can learn historical thinking skills even when they are not studying historical events. Kelly’s students started a historical hoax online and watched how it spread through social media, blogs, Wikipedia, etc. I disagree that they should have actually spread these hoaxes because it is basically lying. However, I do see the value in showing students that they have to think critically about the text that they read online and off.


1 Comment

Filed under US History

One response to “Teaching and Learning Historical Thinking Skills: Ideal vs. Reality

  1. Good point about reality vs. the ideal. This seems to be a problem across the board in education, especially for those that are passionate about their subjects. Your idea about having students engage history within their own lives is a good one; I’m actually grading undergrad papers at the moment in which they relate one of the larger themes in Western history to their life (or the history of their family). So far, so good, and I think it’s because they are more personally engaged than if they were to analyze “straight history.”

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