Thinking Historically: Critical Engagement with the Past

By Symcox, Linda | Social Studies Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Thinking Historically: Critical Engagement with the Past


Symcox, Linda, Social Studies Review


For more than two decades now there has been intense debate about the teaching of history in the nation's elementary and secondary schools. Initially the debate focused almost exclusively on what students should learn, not on the equally important question of how they should learn it. Critics of humanities education during the 1980s tried to demonstrate that students lacked a basic knowledge about American and world history and demonstrated minimal interest in those subjects. In 1987, for example, no less than three major books on the topic were published: Chester Finn's and Diane Ravitch's What Do Our 17-YearOlds Know?, Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, and E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy} However, as the debate over history education progressed during the 1990s, its focus broadened. Many scholars and educators across the country proposed reforms that went beyond the issue of what facts students should learn to the pedagogical issue of how best to advance students' critical thinking skills and engagement with the past. Tom Holt's Thinking Historically (1994), Peter Stern's, Peter Seixa's, and Sam Wineburg's Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History (2000), Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001), Linda Levstick's and Keith Barton's Doing History (2001), and Bruce Van Sledright's In Search of America 's Past (2002), are just a few of the books that have been published on historical thinking and cognition2.

As a result of these debates the teaching and learning of history has changed dramatically in recent years. Today most social studies teachers in California take for granted the need to teach historical analysis and research skills, which are currently embedded in 25% of the state assessment items for History-Social Science in grades 8, 10, and II.3 In addition, the National Coalition of History's publication, "Benchmarks for Professional Development in Teaching History as a Discipline," (2002), includes a section devoted to the development of historical thinking skills. This document was designed jointly by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for the Social Studies to support the Teaching American History grants that have sprung up all over the country with lavish congressional funding. This is a great time for history education and a rare opportunity to promote critical thinking skills through professional development.4

A landmark document in the current process of reforming historical pedagogy was the California History-Social Science Framework, originally published in 1987 and reprinted in 1997. It requires teachers to present controversial issues honestly and accurately within their historical context. The Framework requires that students be given the opportunity to view historical controversies through multiple perspectives representing conflicting viewpoints. It envisages students using a variety of original documents such as personal letters, diaries, government records, photographs, maps, artifacts, buildings, etc., to decide for themselves the strength of the various arguments and interpretations. In this way they will quickly learn that a single source is only part of the puzzle, that it must be analyzed for bias, that secondary accounts written by historians represent interpretations based on the evidence available, which is inevitably incomplete, and that the same set of documents can be interpreted in many different ways. Working with primary sources brings home to students, in direct contrast to a textbook, that there can be no single, final interpretation of the past. Students soon discover that they too are free to formulate their own interpretations of the past, as long as they support their arguments with sound evidence.

Historian Tom Holt, in Thinking Historically: Narrative, Imagination, and Understanding, (1994), makes an eloquent case for the analysis of primary source documents in K-12 classrooms. …

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