Teaching Historical Analysis and Thinking Using the Internet

By Risinger, C. Frederick | Social Education, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Teaching Historical Analysis and Thinking Using the Internet


Risinger, C. Frederick, Social Education


In 1962, I began my first year of teaching history and social studies in the Chicago suburban area. I had five classes of world history. When I walked into my classroom, there were several stacks of textbooks. The primary text was Across the Ages, written by Louise Capen. Our copies were at least 9 to 12 years old. (Illinois is one of the states that does not have statewide textbook adoption; there was no requirement at that time to regularly replace textbooks.) I took the book home and browsed through it, when I noticed an interesting point. In discussing early humans, it included a lengthy description of Piltdown Man. You may have heard of the Piltdown Man Hoax. In 1912, Piltdown Man was considered the "missing link" between apes and humans. A fragment of an orangutan jawbone and a human skull were found in a gravel pit in the small village of Piltdown, England. Before the finding was exposed as fraud in 1953, it led scientists down a blind alley, was used by Clarence Darrow as evidence in the Scopes Trial, and was even included as a major ancestor of humans in L. Ron Hubbard's book on Scientology. (Unfortunately for L. Ron, the fraud came to light just a few months after the book's publication.)

There were more recent textbooks in my classroom in which Piltdown Man was discredited as a hoax. An idea hit me ... and my first lesson plan for historical thinking was created. I gave half of my students copies of Across the Ages and the other half copies of the more recent books. On the second day of classes, I asked the students to find the section on Piltdown Man in the index, read it, and write a paragraph about him.

Next, I asked several Across the Ages students to read their paragraphs. Students with the newer texts looked at each other quizzically. Then, I asked several of the students with newer textbooks to read their paragraphs. This time, the Across the Ages students were confused. I then told them that the Piltdown Man hoax had been discovered in 1953, and I asked the students to check their books' publication date. Finally, I asked the students why I had used that lesson. After some discussion, the students understood the message of seeking multiple sources of historical information and checking the publication dates on books. The lesson worked. Even after we bought new textbooks, I kept 15 to 20 Across the Ages books and used that same lesson for several more years. A few years later, a graduating valedictorian mentioned that lesson as an important event in her life. She later was elected to the Georgia legislature.

In 2001, Samuel Wineburg published his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. It made an immediate impact on the way the study of history is viewed by historians, history professors, social studies methods instructors, and, hopefully, history teaching in the schools. Groups such as the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians adopted the concept, held conferences for classroom teachers, and published lesson plans that incorporate aspects of historical thinking. Fred Drake and his colleagues at Illinois State University received grants to provide professional development workshops on Wineburg's philosophy.

Today, historical thinking and historical analysis are significant themes within the ranks of social studies educators. While looking through the NCSS annual conference Preview, I counted more than a dozen sessions or workshops related to these concepts.

I've received a lot of e-mail regarding my recent "Aligning Elections" column. So, I thought another "concept-based" column might be in order. An article, "Revisiting the Idea of Progress in History," by Wilfred McClay in the September/October issue of Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society, emphasized the importance of historical analysis and historical thinking. This column is based on these twin concepts. I've selected websites that both explain the concepts and also provide lesson plans, activities, and other resources for classroom teachers, supervisors, and social studies methods instructors. …

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