Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Part XI

In Chapter 7 of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past he starts off with a quote from the 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress Report. In that report, Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn describe the “typical history classroom as one in which students…

listen to the teacher explain the day’s lesson, use the textbook, and take tests. Occasionally they watch a movie. Sometimes they memorize information or read stories about events and people. They seldom work with other students, use original documents, write term papers, or discuss the significance of what they are studying.

As most of us know, history teaching is more than mastering factual knowledge. Wineburg introduces us to two teachers who bring the past to life in their classrooms.

Wineburg describes Elizabeth as the “invisible teacher.” And no, this is not an oxymoron. Elizabeth sits in the back of the room taking notes as her students conduct a debate over the legitimacy of British taxation on the American colonies. Her students are passionate. They shout at each other. They are deeply engaged in reconstructing the past. For three days there are no lectures, no quizzes, and no worksheets. There is some chaos in the classroom, but Elizabeth restrains herself from interfering. Elizabeth knows that “the making of history is a dynamic process. What happened in the past wasn’t fated or meant to be. It occurred because human actors shaped their destinies by the choices they made, just as people today shape their futures by the choices they make.”

Elizabeth prepares her class for this debate by having them read primary documents in small groups. She calls these “research days.” She provides guidance as the students engage with these sources in their groups.

This particular debate in Elizabeth’s class ends with a verdict in favor of the Loyalists. Wineburg writes:

Elizabeth’s…classroom is an anomaly. The textbook does not drive instruction; teacher talk does not drown out student talk…Students behave in a powerful intellectual process in which they embrace beliefs not their own and argue them with zest. By re-creating history rather than just reading about it, students learn that Tories were not the villains depicted in textbooks, but ordinary people who saw their world differently from their rebel neighbors.

I hear about these kinds of classrooms all the time and I have always written them off as being too impractical. AP teachers tell me that they would like to do more hands-on history like this, but it takes too much time. And I can’t imagine something like this happening in a college classroom. Nevertheless, after reading about Elizabeth I am convinced that something is going on here. Her students are understanding how to think about the past in the right way. She is a successful teacher.

I wonder about Elizabeth’s students, especially the ones who have been inspired by her to become history majors. They leave their high school classroom–a place where they have been trained to reconstruct and recreate the past–and come to a college lecture hall where they listen to lectures. Something about this does not seems right.

In the next post we will meet John, the “visible teacher.”

One thought on “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Part XI

  1. Elizabeth sounds great, although she probably should assign some of the primary source reading as homework to be done before class. And since she’s delving so deeply into the loyalists and the (British) constitutional issues in the 1760s and 1770s, she’s inevitably sacrificing “coverage!” You’re right: it’s just wrong to subject these students to textbook driven lecture courses after growing up in a history “workshop” like Elizbeth’s class.


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