Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

A Cognitive Rationale for a Problem-Based U.S. History Survey

Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

A Cognitive Rationale for a Problem-Based U.S. History Survey

Article excerpt

In recent years, calls for reform of the coverage-based history survey course have been numerous, (1) as have suggestions for new instructional approaches designed to promote more active, meaningful, and applicable learning among students. Much of the "Scholarship on the Teaching and Learning" of history (often called SoTL) within a survey course context comes through a focused disciplinary lens. Illustrative of the discussion is David Pace's call for a cognitive frame of reference within this focus through two broad questions: "What do students bring to the history classroom that might have a major impact on their learning?" and "What mental operations and procedures must [students] master in order to think historically?" (2) Questions of this type, as well as the fundamental belief that historical thinking is crucial in the teaching and learning of history in a survey course context, have guided SoTL scholars such as David Pace, Sam Wineburg, Lendol Calder, and Robert Bain to apply cognitive learning dynamics to help explain how students may acquire "habits of mind" of the historian. (3) Historical thinking is broadly defined as the reading, analysis, and writing that is necessary to develop an understanding of the past. (4) Developing these skills among survey students calls for domain-specific scaffolds within the context of historical inquiry, (5) under the assumption that the knowledge and analytical skills gained from such practice will be useful in a broader general education context as students continue their educational careers, and as they take their place as adult participatory citizens. Peter Steams framed this connection between the interpretive and analytical skills gained through the practice of historical thinking and effective citizenship when he addressed the question--"Why study history?" Steams wrote:

   Historical study, in sum, is crucial to the promotion of that
   elusive creature, the well-informed citizen. It provides basic
   factual information about the background of our political
   institutions and about the values and problems that affect our
   social well-being. It also contributes to our capacity to use
   evidence, assess interpretations, and analyze change and
   continuities. No one can ever quite deal with the present as the
   historian deals with the past--we lack the perspective for this
   feat; but we can move in this direction by applying historical
   habits of mind, and we will function as better citizens in the
   process. (6)

Given the above assertion, the development of historical thinking skills becomes critical in a general education context, considering a majority of students who populate survey history courses are not, nor will be, history majors. Assuming these students develop historical thinking skills to some competent degree over a semester or two, the question arises to what extent will they be able to maintain and apply domain-specific knowledge and reasoning skills beyond the context of the survey course? Robert Bain posed a similar question:

   While I have been arguing that an environment rich in historically
   grounded scaffolds enables deeper thinking, I have no idea what
   happens when students move into other settings. Does any of this
   have staying power, or is it merely contextualized to "that is how
   we studied history in our freshman year?" (7)

Christian Laville summarized this challenge in regards to the application of historical thinking to the broader real-world problem-solving inherent in participatory citizenship when he stated:

   First, our students as adults will rarely be called upon to bring
   these faculties to bear upon versions of prefabricated history, but
   more often upon the great variety of issues, most of them
   unforeseeable, that will constitute their social reality. And second
   the conceptual and methodological tools they acquire or develop in
   our schools must be as durable as possible, preferably for lifelong
   use. … 
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