How Students Use Texts to Learn and Reason About Historical Uncertainty
Charles A. Perfetti, M. Anne Britt, Jean-François Rouet, Mara C. Georgi, and Robert A. Mason University of Pittsburgh
To learn history is to learn a story: to come to know the major characters, events, and simple causal relations among events. Of course, an historian or history educator may reject the suggestion that story learning is the heart of history learning. Real learning in history entails going beyond simple stories to interpret, construct explanations, and generally to negotiate uncertainty surrounding the events. In effect, learning history requires at least primitive use of some of the text and interpretive skills employed in historical analysis.
The teaching of history, however, because of limitations in time and resources and because of traditions of testing, often emphasizes learning the story to the exclusion of introducing the student to the complexity of historical analysis. The interplay of social forces, for example, is likely to be sacrificed in the classroom for a simple story about dates and names. Carretero, Asensio, and Pozo ( 1991) referred to the European "Discovery" of America to make this contrast. Is it a story about Columbus and his relationship to the Spanish King and Queen? Or a story of how 15th-century social and economic forces promoted explorations with long-term consequences in Europe and America? As Carretero et al. pointed out, the concepts needed to elaborate the social forces story "pose a rather strong cognitive demand" (p. 29) and make for difficult learning. In contrast, learning history as a story takes advantage of the compatibility of story forms with the cognitive dispositions of the learner. We suggest that an educational goal that emphasizes a higher standard of learning must accommodate rather than reject the cognitive advantage of story learning.
There is nothing incompatible about a story approach and the complex explanation approach to understanding history. Stories provide the basic