Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part VI

We continue our series of blog posts on Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past.

In Chapter Three, “On the Reading of Historical Texts: The Breach Between School and Academy,” Wineburg compares the way high school students and historians read texts.

He starts by giving a group of students and a group of historians (in a variety of fields–not just early America) eight documents–secondary and primary–related to the Battle of Lexington. One of the passages came from an American history textbook. Here it is:

In April 1775, General Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, sent out a body of troops to take possession of military stores at Concord, a short distance from Boston. At Lexington, a handful of “embattled farmers,” who had been tipped off by Paul Revere, barred the way. The “rebels” were ordered to disperse. They stood their ground. The English fired a volley of shots that killed eight patriots. It was not long before the swift-riding Paul Revere spread the news of this new atrocity to the neighboring colonies. The patriots of all of New England, although still a handful, were now ready to fight the English. Even in faraway North Carolina, patriots organized to resist them.

When asked to rank the eight documents in terms of trustworthiness, the historians ranked this passage dead last. They pointed out some of the historical inaccuracies, but mostly stressed the pro-patriot/Whiggish dimension of the account. Students, however, rated the textbook as the most trustworthy. “Derek,” a high school honors student, (who we met in a previous post), said that the textbook was just “reporting the facts.” Another student said the textbook offered “straight information.”

Most students, Avon Crismore notes, “expect a document to reveal something which they may regard as ‘the truth.'” They treat their teachers, professors, and textbooks as “divinely inspired.” Researchers Christie Haas and Linda Flowers elaborate further on our students’ natural inclination to do this:

Their representations of text are closely tied to content: they read for information. Our students may believe that if they understand all the words and can paraphrase the propositional content of the text they have successfully read it.

For the students in Wineburg’s experiment, “the locus of authority was in the text; for historians, it was in the questions they formulated about the text.” Wineburg wants our students to move from “ways of reading” to “ways of knowing.” Reading, he argues. “is not merely a way to learn new information but becomes a way to engage in new kinds of thinking.” Traditional measures of “reading comprehension” tell us “a great deal about reading, but little about reading history.”

How do we teach our students to read (and learn) historically? Wineburg will offer illustrations of teachers trying to accomplish this later in the book, but for now he suggests that the schools must “look to the discipline” for answers. The answer is not to diversify pedagogical delivery (powerpoint, lecture, discussion, movies, etc…) or have students meet certain state “standards,” but to create environments where students can ask the right questions when they encounter the past through primary sources. These should be questions about context and bias and authorial intent, to name only a few. This, Wineburg adds, can be accomplished as early as third grade.

He sums up:

If we want students to read historical texts differently from their driver’s education manuals, if we want them to comprehend both text and subtext, I think we will have to change our lesson plans–not to mention our textbooks. If nothing else, we will have to reexamine our notions of what it means to acquire knowledge from text. The traditional view, in which knowledge goes from the page of the text to the head of the reader, is inadequate. But the metacognitive view, in which knowledge is constructed by students questioning themselves about a fixed and friendly text, is equally inadequate.

7 thoughts on “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part VI

  1. Oops, I meant latter not later in my previous post:)It is true- having to teach to the test is very frustrating. I think society believes we need to know facts (particularly when it comes to history). I can’t tell you the number of fathers who want to quiz me on dates (which I am terrible at) and then look at me twice when I can’t tell them the exact answer (as if I shouldn’t have a masters and really shouldn’t be in charge of their child’s education). I want to scream- ANYONE CAN READ A DAMN TIMELINE- you don’t need me for that! So maybe we need to change that idea and people will be less obsessed with tests?


  2. Nicolec: Thanks for “coming over.” I am glad to hear that there are teachers out there teaching historical thinking. Too much history is taught as “one damn thing after another” and as a result we teach our students to be consumers of information rather than mature thinkers. I also realize, however, that so many teachers are forced to “teach to the test.” I have had AP history teachers tell me that they would love to adopt what Lendol Calder calls an “uncoverage” approach to teaching history, but find it impossible because they have to cover so much material in order to prepare their students for the AP exams. I am not sure how we can get around this. Thanks again for commenting!


  3. Historiann suggested I “come over” to this blog and I’m glad I did. I am a high school history teacher with a masters degree in history. I find there are generally two kinds of high school history teachers- the ones who teach “facts” (who rely on a textbook) and the ones who teach students to be historians- that is, to look at the evidence, to evaluate it and to then offer analysis. They are very different approaches clearly and I’m happy to report I know more teachers who use the later approach.


  4. Historiann: Perhaps I am being too hard on teachers. I have done TAH grants and other similar seminars and have met many, in fact most, who “get it.” But it always seems that the most outspoken teachers–the ones I end up arguing with–are the ones who really don’t fully understand how to think historically.


  5. I’ve worked on a Teaching American History grant (with K-8 teachers!) and was incredibly impressed with their commitment to quality teaching and their interest in the new sources, ideas, topics, and materials professional historians could show them. I didn’t observe any problems with them thinking historically, but then, my experience may have been shaped by the fact that these were all elementary and jr. high teachers, so the level of detail they needed was much lower than what high school teachers would need.I think the program is a good one (TAH)–I think K-12 teachers and university faculty come away from it with a renewed appreciation of the other group’s hard work and expertise. I only wish there were more money in Researching American History, if you follow me…!


  6. Historiann: Yes I think Wineburg knows that history education should be left to historians, not the so-called “Social Studies” lobby.I do some work with high school teachers through the Gilder-Lehrman Institute and I find that few of them know how to think historically. If this is the case, then how can we expect them to teach this to their students?History education should be done by historians who are trained by historians. I am with you on this.


  7. Thanks for posting this. In many ways, it reinforces the points I’ve argued about the value of historiography and primary sources as the backbone of history education at (almost) all levels of the curriculum. I’ve never had problems with students “getting” the point of primary sources. They’re very quick to consider point of view, the interests at stake, etc. (Here’s where media literacy courses in secondary schools may be paying off.)


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