Academic journal article Social Education

Why Don't More History Teachers Engage Students in Interpretation?

Academic journal article Social Education

Why Don't More History Teachers Engage Students in Interpretation?

Article excerpt

Over the past fifteen years, a great deal of attention has been devoted to the reform of history teaching. Although advocates of reform come from a variety of backgrounds, most share a belief that students' encounters with history should center on the process of historical interpretation. From this perspective, there is little point in simply transmitting a story of the past to students in hopes they will remember and repeat it. Instead, students should learn how such stories are developed in the first place: They should be involved in historical investigations, they should analyze and interpret primary sources, and they should understand the relationship between historical evidence and the construction of accounts--both their own and those of others. This process necessarily involves consideration of multiple perspectives, not only so that students understand how the same evidence can lead to divergent interpretations, but also so they recognize that people in the past held different outlooks than we do today and may have perceived events differently than we do. (1)

Many history teachers adhere closely to this vision: Their students develop questions about the past, consult a variety of primary and secondary sources to answer those questions, compare perspectives, and share conclusions through discussion, debate, presentations, artwork, and essays. One need only read works such as James Percocco's A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of US. History and Divided We Stand: Teaching about Conflict in U.S. History, or David Kobrin's Beyond the Textbook: Teaching History Using Documents and Primary Sources to see stimulating examples of this approach in secondary classrooms. At the elementary and middle school levels, we have portrayed students and teachers engaged in interpretive, evidence-based inquiry in our own Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools. (2)

But we also know that many experienced teachers remain unfazed by these concerns, and that many new teachers have no intention of giving their students the chance to analyze sources or develop interpretations. Instead, they require students to read textbook chapters, listen to lectures (which they often refer to as "discussion"), locate answers to questions at the end of chapters, and then repeat the information on tests or in essays. At times, these teachers may introduce more engaging or hands-on activities (videos, field trips, games), but they still do not focus on the key characteristics of history as advocated by reformers--investigation, interpretation, and perspective.

A critical issue for those of us concerned with history education is why these differences exist: Why do some teachers engage students in historical investigations, while others expect them to reproduce a story of the past? It would be misleading to think that some teachers are simply "better" than others, or that they care more about their students. Many teachers in our second category are excellent lecturers, and many develop exciting games or activities to help students learn historical content. They may also care deeply about students and devote a great deal of time to helping them develop into mature and responsible adults. What we need to know is why some good, caring teachers follow one approach, and other good, caring teachers follow another.

Conveying the Process of Historical Knowledge

The most widely accepted answer is that some teachers know more about teaching history; they have more pedagogical content knowledge, as it is usually called. (3) This does not just mean that they know more about the past (more facts, dates, and sources) or that they are more familiar with effective teaching techniques (using wait time, advance organizers, and so on). Rather, it means that they have a deep and accurate understanding of how historical knowledge is constructed, and they know how to represent that process to students. …

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