Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Learning to Open Up History for Students: Preservice Teachers' Emerging Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Learning to Open Up History for Students: Preservice Teachers' Emerging Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Article excerpt

Plainly put, [students] conceive of history as the ordering of already known facts into agreed-upon chronologies. They think of history as sealed off both from the lives of ordinary people and from questions about how the particulars of everyday life become the generalizations of historical knowledge. For many students, only a fiction writer shapes and interprets--not a historian. And above all, they think they are the consumers, not the makers, of history. It is there: fixed, final, and waiting to be read.

Dr. Thomas C. Holt, 1990

Students typically enter middle and high school history classrooms believing that history is a static set of names and dates that they are to memorize (e.g., Lee, 2005). Surely, schooling has something to do with this conception. Routine instruction involves lecture, textbook work, and multiple-choice assessments--all tools and strategies that preserve a notion of history as fixed information and obscure traces of how such knowledge was produced (e.g., Lapp, Grigg, & Tay-Lim, 2002). Yet, reformers in history education call for teaching history in a way that is more consistent with the discipline (e.g., Bain, 2005; VanSledright, 2002; Wineburg, 2001). At its core, a disciplinary approach to history embraces interpretation and evidence-based reasoning. Before they can engage in disciplinary ways of thinking, students must understand that historical knowledge is constructed through inquiry and analysis. But if students and conventional instruction convey that history is fixed, how can new teachers learn to open up their students' conceptions of history and foster historical thinking? This article reports on three preservice teachers' efforts to open up their students' conceptions of history while taking methods courses focused on teaching history as an interpretive, evidentiary discipline.


Research on Historical Thinking and Students' Thinking in History

Researchers agree that experts and novices think differently about history and that addressing this divide is key to advancing students' historical understanding (Bain, 2005; VanSledright, 2002; Wineburg, 2001). Many of the differences in thinking between experts and novices stem from their epistemic beliefs about history. Historians approach history as an interpretive discipline in which one asks questions and constructs accounts based on the interrogation of historical artifacts. Because the goal of history is to understand the past, historical reasoning involves reading evidence from the perspective of those who created it and placing it into context (i.e., sourcing and contextualization; Wineburg, 2001). Historical interpretations rely on the public display of evidence to substantiate claims; that is, a claim cannot stand without evidence to support it (Collingwood, 1943). Because accounts of the past are interpretations, there can be multiple, contrasting accounts of the past. Historians are expected to alter their interpretations to account for available evidence; rather than ignore counterevidence, challenging evidence should lead to a revision of claims. All of this work is possible, in part, because experts have a fundamental view of history as interpretive and evidentiary.

In contrast, novices tend to see history as what happened, as a given set of fixed facts rather than as interpretation (Shemilt, 1983; VanSledright, 2002; Wineburg, 2001). When faced with contrasting accounts, students tend to view one version of the past as "right" and another as "wrong." They do not see accounts as interpretations created by people with particular biases at a given point in time (cf. Lee, 2005). In reading, students often focus on the literal meaning of historical documents and lack intertextual reading strategies that might promote interpretive work (Afflerbach & VanSledright, 2001; Wineburg, 2001).

If students believe that history is a set of facts, evidence and interpretation have no place. …

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