May 25

Thinking about Historical Thinking

As Sam Wineburg, Stephane Levesque, and Lendol Calder all point out, historical thinking needs to be modeled for individuals to understand how to do it for themselves.  Teaching history, whether in a museum, archive, library, or classroom, needs to involve individuals thinking historically and not just regurgitating a narrative of events.  History is more than just the timeline of events that has been taught, but it has individual stories and offshoots and connections that are all part of the complicated world we live in.  There isn’t just one straight x+y=z.  Many different perspectives and answers exist and help to form that all-encompassing story that we know to be history.  Individuals also must be able to form their own thoughts and opinions on historical events, people, etc. by thinking historically for themselves, using evidence and historical empathy to build it.

The questions this brings up, especially for me as a teacher, include how to get the students engaged in historical thinking.  How do I get the students to “buy in” to this method of thinking, especially when I can barely separate them from the thought that I’m supposed to feed them the answers?  Focusing on student-based inquiry is definitely the answer, but how to get from the question to the answer is the grey area I’m struggling with currently.

I am also curious how to apply this historical thinking method with the constraints of state-mandated standardized testing with its requirements on what bullet points students need to know or not know.  History is certainly about more than George Washington being the first president of the United States and that the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor.  How do the time constraints imposed by a school year in addition to the required facts allow me to teach the necessary processes for historical thinking to my students and not just teach them to regurgitate the “facts”?

Also, having listened to Sam Wineburg’s interview, how can I get students, who lack a lot of empathic thought to begin with, to think empathetically about events and people and places of the past?  How do I get them to care?  (Which I suppose ties back into my first question of how to get them to buy in.)  Part of my job as an educator nowadays is to help model empathetic thought, so how can I apply that to the historical inquiry methods, all while ensuring the state-mandated knowledge is imparted?

I hope these questions will find their answers as this course progresses, but I have a feeling that some of them are a bit too big for most teachers to conquer in a single semester, and that they really are the big questions that the teaching profession is grappling with in our current state of affairs.

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