Monday, October 28, 2013

Purpose of the Blog

"For the narcissist sees the world-both the past and the present-in his own image. Mature historical knowing teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our own brief life, and to go beyond the fleeing moment in human history into which we have been born." - Sam Wineburg. (24)

This blog is designed to generate discussion on Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Each of the four posts are designed to coincide with one of the four Parts presented in Wineburg's book. By laying out the basics of each section, the blog can be used to share issues, controversies and ideas in connection with Wineburg's ideas of teaching history.

Historical Thinking was written in 2001 by Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford University. He has been widely published and praised for his pragmatic and systematic approach to teaching history to younger students. He is also the director of the Stanford History Education Group, a website devoted to helping teachers work with historical source material in the classroom.

Sam Wineburg is a professor of  history and education at Stanford University. Wineburg is also a  psychologist. This background allows him to  analyze the cognitive aspect of historical knowing and interpretation. In his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Wineburg presents case studies which compare various methods of historical thinking and teaching. He does so in a manner that does not numerate the ways in which history is incorrectly taught, but compares various methods in the form of case studies.

For more information on Sam Wineburg and the Historical Thinking Matters Project, visit

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Part I - Why Study History?

By distancing himself from the current arguments over which history to teach, Wineburg, in part I, offers instead to focus on "Why teach/study history"? By examining the gap between thoughtful readers and history readers, Wineburg relays how critical it is to have students use greater meta-cognition in their reading and understanding of history. By illustrating the way students encounter source material, he is able to construct how good students interact with source material versus how historians interact with that material. Additionally in chapter 2, Wineburg traces the history and literature of teaching and learning, which provide a broad context for they way history is often taught.

Questions to consider for discussion:
1. Wineburg makes this case for teaching history in school: "history holds the potential, only partly realized, of humanizing us in ways offered by few other areas in the school curriculum" (5).  Do you agree with Wineburg's rationale for history education?

2. Wineburg spends time discussing the important questions that students and historians ask themselves when reading documents. What questions do you think are most significant when reading historical documents, by themselves, and in conjunction with other documents?

3. Consider Wineburg's argument on unicorns and the rhinoceros. 

Perspective matters: When thinking historically one must simultaneously acknowledge the familiarity and strangeness of the past. Studying history requires us to view the past in its own context. Other wise it is as if looking at a rhinoceros and describing how it is unlike the unicorn you imagined in your mind. Do you agree with this notion of historical perspective?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Part II - Challenges for the Student

In Part II, Chapters 3 - 5, Wineburg addresses the various issues students have when analyzing historical texts. In chapter 3, he uses high school students as case studies to illustrate the various issues students have when accurately analyzing sources. While many of these students may be "good readers" they have some characteristically poor notions of good history. For example, many of the students considered the textbook to be the most reliable source, because they thought it contained the least bias. Chapter 4, in discussing a "think-aloud" activity concerning Abraham Lincoln among two prospective teachers, is able to first of all describe the process by which two people use documents and their historical knowledge, or lack thereof, to formulate a perspective on the past. Chapter 5 is an analysis of an activity on gender and stereotypes of figures in history. The findings demonstrate, on some level, a lack of understanding of women and certain groups in history. When prompted, students tend to think about men in history as opposed to women, which creates a gender bias on our understanding and meanings in history.

Questions to consider:
1. Chapter 3 talks about the problems of students' reading in history. What do you think are the biggest obstacles to students understanding source material at a better level? Why are they keen to believe a textbook over a primary source? What strategies can be implemented to overcome these problems?

2. Wineburg points out at the end of chapter 4 that it is often clear that students who want to become history teachers are woefully unprepared in their content knowledge and skills. Do you agree with this statement? If so, why and how does this come about? Do you think it is incumbent upon graduate teachers to continue to emphasize content knowledge and skills beyond just pedagogical skills and practice?

3. Wineburg's source material for Chapter 5 is from very young students. Do you think conclusions about history and education can properly be drawn from students that young? Do you think students assumptions about the past are relevant for historical student based on cognition levels and development? If so, what can they tell us, and how can we proceed cautiously when using them?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Part III - Challenges for the Teacher

Part III of Historical Thinking deals with problems teachers face in the history classroom and how they deal with them. Chapter 6 focuses on several high school history teachers with different personal social studies training and how they plays out in their classroom. One of the challenges for teachers, is simply understanding what history is, and what training does a historian have? This presents a problem as many history teachers do not have history backgrounds and makes teaching the past problematic when it is through the lens of some other discipline, such as anthropology or political science. Chapter 7 focuses on two different teachers, with different styles, one more teacher-centric and the other more student-centric, but both with effective styles. Both Price and Jensen's examples demonstrate how effective history teaching can be when it is engaging, meaningful and interesting to students, regardless of style, as long as it is part of the teacher's strength as a practitioner. Chapter 8 focuses on two different history teachers and the way they approach history in their classrooms. One more practical and experienced sees history as something to learn and the other, more enthusiastic and inexperienced who wanted the students to be able to do more history. Wineburg's analysis was designed to show how we assess not only student efficacy in a history class, but how we assess teacher efficacy. While the conclusions are left general, Wineburg is clearly pushing for a more nuanced, student-centered focus of thinking about history in new ways, rather than fact based regurgitation of information.

Questions to consider:
1. In considering the various backgrounds of history teachers, what professional development would be most appropriate for teachers new to history? How could teachers of history be better prepared to teach historical thinking? Does majoring in history in undergraduate or graduate studies make it easier or more difficult to teach history in high school?

2. What is the appropriate balance between teacher and student focused approaches? Is there a single answer that can fit all? If a teacher is exemplary as teacher centered approaches, do they have an obligation to develop more student-centered approaches, or should they just play to their strengths? What are the advantages and drawbacks of each?

3. What are the different ways that history should be assessed? If historical writing the most important product by students? How can other forms of assessment gauge a student's understanding of history, in the form of making claims and providing historical evidence to substantiate those claims?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Part IV - History as National Memory

In the final section of Historical Thinking, Wineburg poses the larger questions of history in education and society. In Chapter 9, Wineburg traces a class discussion over violence, war and authority. In getting students to understand the period after the Revolutionary War, the students drew on their knowledge about Vietnam, World War II, the Great Depression and current events. Discussions, like any topic in history, can take on a life of their own, and students values, ideas and knowledge get thrown in the mix. Teachers, while trying to be facilitators often get caught in the middle between their personal values and trying to let students express theirs. In Chapter 10, Wineburg deals with how history is seen in our national, collective memory. Whether this is through popular media or familiar connections, many times these events add clarity to our understanding, but they also provide their own bias and incomplete pictures of the past.

Questions to consider:
1. What moral and judgement role do teachers in the social studies class room have? Are there times when it is appropriate to insert your own opinion? What about in the face of horrible racism or the promotion of violence towards groups or individuals?

2. How can teachers and historians go about increasing the sophistication and understanding of the national collective history memory? Are museum trips and thorough reading enough, and leave people to their own devices, or is there some greater responsibility of history teachers beyond their classroom? Should history teacher, and social studies teacher in general, be more politically, socially and economically involved in order to make sure that more critical voices are heard?