Historical Thinking: Facts ≠ History

My 7th grade Social Studies teacher was the estimable Mr. Weckel.  Mr. Weckel’s job was to teach American History to a group of less-than-motivated 12 and 13 year olds, but his mission was to make his passion for history come alive in our minds and hearts.  He yelled, sang, told stupid jokes, wore costumes, ranted, and put on one-man skits. He intimidated us, entertained us, scared us one minute and made us laugh the next.  He was also the advisor of the High School History club, of which I was President for two years, in large part to help plan and participate in the club’s trips to Boston and Philadelphia.  I remember Mr. Weckel, walking the Freedom Trail through the streets of Boston with a scruffy group of high school students, carrying a rather large American flag and singing I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy at the top of lungs!

Mr. Weckel image

Me and Mr. Weckel.

I loved his class and he remains on my list of all -time favorite teachers.  Throughout junior high and high school, I was an exemplary social studies student.  I liked the study of history (if not the teachers, who had trouble living up to the high standard set by Mr. Weckel); I was at the top of the class and performed very well on exams, including the Regents.  My future in history was bright.

In college, however, I very carefully avoided any course that was even remotely connected to the History Department.  What happened?  By any standard assessment of history knowledge, I was a shoo-in as a budding historian, except for one thing: I had never been taught to think historically and on some level, I knew it.  I knew that the study of history was beyond what I could handle as a freshman in college.  Until then, I had been told what to memorize, what happened when and who did what to whom, and I memorized it.  I could answer almost all of the questions correctly.  I had been much less confident when asked to write an essay exploring historical issues, but luckily for me, this was not an emphasis of either teaching or learning when I was in high school.  I never had to dig in to primary sources to discover what their messages were and fit them together to create my own perspective of an event based on evidence.  It just wasn’t something we did in history class.  We were required to learn the historical content presented in the textbook and prove that we had learned it.  Any historical thinking process was at best invisible, or more likely, unknown by the students and perhaps even by the teachers.  I figured history in college would be different and I was having none of it!

Now, in my role as Project Director of the Teaching American History Grant, I am immersed in the ideas and scholarship of historical thinking and I am beginning to see what I missed as a student in those classes back in the day.  The scholarship on the teaching and learning of history and what it means to think historically is a fairly recent development in education with such works as The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal, and Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, by Sam Wineburg.  I am beginning to understand that historical learning is not and should not be passive.  It is not the memorizing and the sequencing of facts in the correct order as ordained by some committee of textbook authors.  Doing history involves inquiry and analysis.  To read and think like a historian, I need to ask questions, analyze primary and secondary sources, interpret the evidence and construct an understanding of what may have happened based on that evidence.  When I look at the Common Core Learning Standards for History, here is what I find:

Word Image

Coincidence?  I don’t think so.  The new standards, our concepts of 21st Century learning and the scholarship on the teaching and learning of history are all about constructing understanding, not memorizing stuff.  As Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone assert in their book, Book ImageThinking Like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction, “There is a fundamental difference between looking for answers in the sources and constructing answers from the sources.” [emphasis in the original]  The challenge for teachers is how to do this in the classroom with so many competing (and often contradictory) priorities – demands on teachers’ time, new standards, required curriculum and textbooks, and high stakes tests that may not match new ways of teaching and learning.  It isn’t easy, and I don’t have all the answers like I used to in Mr. Weckel’s class, but I’m open to thinking about history in new ways so that I can help teachers change how their students learn about our past. .  Maybe you’ll even hear me singing I’m a Yankee Doddle Dandy in a school near you!

Teaching American History: First Person America

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