Teaching Social Studies = Overcoming Barriers

Not surprisingly, the BIG emphasis this year in social studies is on inquiry using primary sources with students which involves teaching them skills and practices to analyze and evaluate those sources and use them as evidence in creating claims and arguments. The Social Studies Framework is based on the Inquiry Arc of the C3 Framework which is all about this process. The Frameworks themselves promote a balance of content and skill and the Toolkit Inquires are built on investigating sets of primary sources related to a compelling question. It’s the rainbow, folks!

In talking and working with teachers, this emphasis elicits both excitement and concern. I think teachers are excited to use an inquiry process with authentic materials to help their students explore the past. The concerns range from “How am I going to find the time to put this all together?” to “How are my students going to do this and how can I help them?” I read an article this week that speaks to the second question of the difficulties that students have with historical inquiry and primary sources. In his article “Recognizing and Addressing the Barriers to Adolescents’ ‘Reading Like Historians’”, Jeffery Nokes synthesizes the research on students’ efforts to read like historians and makes an argument for four barriers to student success with historical inquiry and some ideas for what we can do about it in the classroom. Nokes says that:

  1. analyzing historical documents taxes students’ cognitive resources beyond their bounds;
  2. students have limited historical background knowledge and misapply the background knowledge they have;
  3. students tend to hold unsophisticated views of the world; and
  4. students have a false sense of what it means to study history.

We’ll explore each of these ideas over the next few weeks.

The first barrier is the idea that analyzing historical documents outstrips students’ cognitive resources. Research has shown that all of us have a finite amount of brain power to apply to a given task at a given time. In application, this idea of working memory means that students have limited cognitive budgets for hard thinking and historical thinking is definitely hard thinking! Their cognitive budgets just won’t stretch far enough to struggle to decode and comprehend difficult texts, and apply new historical thinking strategies like sourcing and contextualizing, and synthesize ideas from multiple texts. All of the parts of the process are cognitively expensive, so there just isn’t enough in the budget. Until some of these processes become automatic and don’t use up students’ cognitive resources, historical inquiry will be problematic for our students.

Nokes suggests three categories of intervention to help free up some money in students’ cognitive budgets.

  1. Reduce comprehension problems.
    • Long texts can be excerpted to maintain the ideas but reduce the amount of text that students have to struggle with. Texts can also be chunked so that students are reading shorter amounts of text before processing.
    • Texts can also be modified. Transcribe difficult to read fonts. Simplify syntax and conventionalize spelling. Preteach vocabulary or provide a word bank with crucial words. Provide an annotation that gives students a bit of source information and context. Recopy with larger fonts and lots of white space. (These ideas are also covered well in “Tampering with History” by Sam Wineburg and Daisy Martin.) See the curriculum materials at the Stanford History Education Group for good examples of modified documents.
    • Have students use a group process for reading and comprehending texts. A process such as reciprocal teaching helps students work together to understand text.
  2. Help students become familiar with the strategies of historical thinking.
    • Give explicit instruction on historical thinking strategies and model, model, model!!
    • Give students reminders of the strategies with anchor charts, bookmarks or notebook inserts.
    • Provide study guides or graphic organizers that give students a place to record their thinking.
    • Practice, practice, practice!!
  3. Provide explicit scaffolding for students when they work with multiple texts.
    • Again, model, model, model!
    • Provide a graphic organizer that helps students process ideas across multiple texts, such as the Inquiry Chart (I-Chart), the Multiple Text Discussion Web or the Multiple Text GIST.
    • Give students a chance to interact with each document individually and in connection with other texts.
    • Give students the opportunity to interact with their classmates to construct their understanding.

All of these ideas are on a continuum from more teacher-directed support and scaffolding to more student-centered independence, what we call the gradual release of responsibility in the literacy biz. The idea is to build up students’ capacities for doing the hard work of historical thinking by making some of the underlying processes more automatic and less cognitively expensive. With less of their working memory budgets going to these skills, students will be able to devote more time to more complex thinking about documents and using evidence in support of arguments about the past.

How do you deal with your students limited cognitive budgets in the classroom? Send along your thoughts!

Next month we’ll learn some ideas to deal with students’ limited and misapplied historical background knowledge. Stay tuned!




Nokes, Jeffery. “Recognizing and Addressing the Barriers to Adolescents’ “Reading Like Historians”.” The History Teacher (Society for History Education) 44, no. 3 (May 2011): 379-404.

Wineburg, Sam, and Daisy Martin. “Tampering with History: Adapting Primary Sources for Stuggling Readers.” Social Education (National Council for History Education) 73, no. 5 (2009): 212-216.

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