Teaching Social Studies = Overcoming Barriers, Part 4

We have arrived at the fourth and final installment in a series of four about the challenges that students have with using primary sources for historical inquiry as presented in the Jeffery Nokes’ article “Recognizing and Addressing the Barriers to Adolescents’ ‘Reading Like Historians’” (Nokes 2011). After a review of the research on historical thinking in the classroom, Nokes identifies four barriers to student success and presents some ideas for what teachers can do about it in the classroom. Nokes says that analyzing historical documents taxes students’ cognitive resources beyond their bounds; students have limited historical background knowledge and misapply the background knowledge they have; and students tend to hold unsophisticated views of the world. Our final barrier to successful historical thinking is that students have a false sense of what it means to study history.

Nokes says that traditional ways of teaching and thinking about history in school have given students the wrong idea of what the discipline is all about. They have misconceptions about history that get in the way of the kinds of learning and thinking that are truly part of the discipline. Students have tended to experience history in the classroom as a matter of listening, reading and memorizing with little interpretation of the facts. Students see textbooks as authorities that present a “factual” version of history that they do not question. Nokes says that these misconceptions cause a big gap between how students and historians “do” history.

  1. Students think of historians as collectors of information rather than interpreters of historical meaning. They fail to understand that historians don’t just report the past.
  2. Students think that historical understanding is “transmitted rather than constructed.” They think of history is “the past” instead of someone’s interpretation of the past.
  3. Students think that learning history is a passive process of memorizing rather than an active process of inquiry, analysis and interpretation.
  4. Students do not see that multiple historical perspectives and interpretations are even possible.

So what can teachers think about doing in the classroom to help students understand what the discipline of history is really about?

  1. Use activities that engage students in building their own interpretations of the past. Strategies such as questioning the author, pop-up debate and fishbowl give students the opportunity to discuss, disagree and use evidence to support their arguments. We’ve seen before that by looking at and issues which can lead to differences of perspective and opinion, students will have to confront and adjust their ideas that there is one “correct” authority on the past.
  2. Engage students in authentic historical inquiry. Students can pursue their own historical questions. This doesn’t necessarily mean a research “paper” or participating in National History Day (although it can). Students need to become comfortable with asking historical questions and finding out what they can, beyond the first Wikipedia answer.
  3. Instruction on the strategies that historians use. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but the introductory materials developed by the Stanford History Education Group are excellent for getting students to understand what historical thinking is and how to use sourcing, contextualizing and corroborating when reading sources.
  4. Use multiple historical texts regularly. I’m not saying that the text book can’t be used as a valuable and effective tool in instruction. However, it shouldn’t be the only source for learning about history. The textbook should be given the same critical analysis as any other source. Textbooks are interpretations of the past, too, even if those interpretations are less obvious.

How do you confront your students’ misconceptions about the discipline of history? Please send along your ideas!

This brings us to the end of our exploration of the barriers for adolescents in reading and thinking like a historian. Nokes included a nifty summary chart in his article that summarizes the obstacles and the possible interventions. How I love a good graphic organizer!!

(Nokes, 2011)

Jenny Fanelli



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.

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