Historicalthinkingmatters.org: Using the Web to Teach Historical Thinking

By Martin, Daisy; Wineburg, Sam et al. | Social Education, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Historicalthinkingmatters.org: Using the Web to Teach Historical Thinking


Martin, Daisy, Wineburg, Sam, Rosenzweig, Roy, Leon, Sharon, Social Education


On Constitution Day, September 17, 2002, the National Archives and Records Administration and its partners launched OurDocuments.Gov, a website that put the most important documents of American history into the hands of anyone with an Internet connection.

OurDocuments.Gov is only one drop in a vast sea of digital historical archives that has flooded the Internet. The Library of Congress's American Memory presents more than 8 million historical documents, including 61,000 pages from the Abraham Lincoln Papers, 341 early motion pictures and 81 disc sound recordings from the Edison Companies, and 160,000 photographs from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection. Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, foundation, and corporate funds--$60 million just for American Memory--have gone into digitizing a startlingly large proportion of our national heritage.

What was once beyond imagination is now commonplace: a student sitting in his or her own home or classroom in Nome, Alaska, or Key West, Florida, can access a vast, dispersed "national archive." Access to archives was once barred except to those with specialized credentials and training. Today, any novice can wander into a digitized wonderland, reviewing materials formerly kept under lock and key. The goal of making historical evidence available to the masses has been met with incredible energy in the hope that students would have the experience of encountering history as historians do, rather than in predigested textbook narratives. But the corollary hope--that digitized material would be used to reenergize and transform history instruction--remains unfulfilled. We have democratized access to historical materials but not to the kind of instruction that would give meaning to these materials. Our classrooms now have an abundance of Internet connections and online historical documents. The question is, how can we use these resources to bring about significant educational improvement?

The Internet presents countless opportunities to transform history education) Using it to teach history in the old familiar way where students pull and memorize information from sources with little if any analysis betrays that potential. Understanding history requires understanding the processes integral to constructing historical narratives--the ways that historians analyze and compare fragmented, sometimes contradictory sources to create evidence-based narratives and conclusions. At the heart of these processes is reading--but reading informed by the ways of knowing in the discipline.

Yet, in many of our history and social studies classes the teaching of reading is mostly absent, as teachers manage multiple instructional goals and curricular topics. Social studies teachers need to respond to the sorry fact that too many of our students are reading below grade level and lack the skills needed to decipher and comprehend varied texts. (2) Additionally, students often view the written word, whether from a conventional textbook or a website yielded by a Google search, as undiluted truth. (3) Asking questions about authors of historical accounts--their purposes, their audience, their choice of words, and the circumstances leading to the creation of their texts--is not a part of most young readers' routines. Conversely, their peers may take the opposite approach, viewing the written word as pure falsehood, standing ready to discard it without analyzing whether there is something to be learned from it. But historical texts, writ large, defy the simplistic categories of pristine or corrupt. They are human creations, and this means that readers must actively question them--to mine truth from falsehood and gain access to worlds that have passed and that can never be fully retrieved.

Historical Thinking Matters

Historical Thinking Matters addresses the problem of an abundance of historical texts and a dearth of students able to read them with sophistication. …

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