This week we read several essays related to the History of History Teaching. Dr. Kelly posed several questions for us to answer, and I’ll attempt to combine two of these questions in my response.
- What elements of historical thinking have remained at the heart of history teaching over the decades?
- How have history teachers responded to technological change in the 20th and 21st centuries?
Over the decades, a sincere concern with both the procedural and structural aspects of teaching history have remained at the heart of instruction in the discipline. While interest in the procedural question has remained constant, the question of what content “should” be taught in history courses is one thing which has changed.
The American Historical Association was founded in 1884, and historians soon went to work to spread the word of the discipline’s importance. As Orill & Shapiro explain about The AHA Committee of Seven in the mid to late 1890s: “In undertaking their work, the Seven’s chief task had been to demonstrate that history had an “educational value” comparable to or greater than that of other subjects. The outcome hung on the committee’s success in answering two interrelated questions. One concerned how the study of history led to mental development or “intellectual power” in student learning, and the other asked whether the subject was based on an organized body of knowledge substantial enough to produce the desired habits of mind.”(732). This concern with the habits of mind which learning history brings, and the ways that students can learn history, has been constant up to Dr. Kelly’s recent work.
Also during the late 1890s, Burke Hinsdale wrote How to Study and Teach History, in which he stressed that lecturing was not the most effective way to teach history.
As Sam Wineburg notes, J. Carleton Bell and David F. McCollum were concerned with “The Historic Sense” as early as 1917. They listed this historic sense as:
1. “The ability to understand present events in light of the past.”
2. The ability to sift through the documentary record—newspaper articles, hearsay, partisan attacks, contemporary accounts—and construct “from this confused tangle a straightforward
and probable account” of what happened.
3. The ability to appreciate a historical narrative.
4. “Reflective and discriminating replies to ‘thought questions’ on a given historical situation.”
5. The ability to answer factual questions about historical personalities and events.3
In his 1931 essay, Becker is clear about the difference between the historian and “Everyman.” I applaud Becker’s realization that “Everyman’s” views must be heeded in “the memory of things said and done.” I also admire his realization that what historians study changes over time. He seemed Emersonian in his comments that “the history of history is a record of the ‘new history’ that in every age rises to confound and supplant the old. It should be a relief to us to renounce omniscience, to recognize that every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.” Over time, the content which historians deem crucial for inclusion in history courses has changed, and it will change in the future.
As more types of people become historians, and as the ability to learn more about history has changed, the content of textbooks, noted in several of the pieces we read to be problematic for teaching history, has changed as well.
Many historians have used new textbooks and have embraced new ways to teach history. Ross Beales, a dedicated and innovative historian at The College of the Holy Cross, brought my history course to learn the VAX, almost as soon as it was introduced at the institution in the 1980s.
During the last decade of the twentieth century, as more and more schools and homes had personal computers, historians began to have new primary sources at their disposal, both for their own research and for teaching. For example, HarpWeek, a project which I worked on, had, in addition to its subscription database, a free site which included materials for teaching history. Some of the HarpWeek historians created simulation games such as The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, created at the time of the Clinton scandal, to engage students in historical thinking. I later used many of the primary source materials available on HarpWeek’s free site to teach content and historical research methods in history, legal studies, and political science courses.
In 2006, early in the new century, John McClymer was writing The AHA Guide to Teaching and Learning with New Media. Speaking of a new culture of “abundance” in historical resources, and how helpful they are for researchers, McClymer noted that “The meaning of the new abundance for teaching and learning history is more complex. We are only beginning to think through how to make use of it. And pitfalls are already apparent.” He went on to lament the frequent use of Google by students for historical research and also explained that teachers need to teach students how to utilize pop culture materials and how to become active learners. Dealing with this new culture of abundance has been a challenge for history teachers, and McClymer wrote a lengthy piece discussing ways that he engages his students and encourages historical thinking. McClymer’s idea of recursive learning is an important one, and we are fortunate that we now have so many primary sources available for students to consult.
Dr. Kelly has written a whole book, Teaching History in the Digital Age, which is available online. Our professor lists fifteen characteristics of historical thinking, which he contrasts with five basic questions, including “Will that be on the exam?”, which students typically ask. After reading this week’s essays, I’ve learned that some of the elements of historical thinking he lists which have remained at the heart of history teaching are: The ability to construct an original argument based upon evidence from various sources, The ability to understand that events are understood differently by different people. The ability to ask probing questions—not just what happened, but why did it happen this way and why didn’t it happen that way?, and The ability to present the past in clear ways, whether in writing or in other media, saying what can be said and not saying what cannot.
As other historians have lamented, being able to answer questions on tests, instead of historical thinking, is what many students consider important. Dr.Kelly notes: “If we are to take full advantage of the opportunities that digital media offer us to improve the teaching and learning of history, we need to be very clear to ourselves and to our students what we mean when we say “historical thinking,” and then create rich learning opportunities for students that encourage them to see history as we see it. The best way to use digital media to teach them to see history as we see it is to create learning opportunities that make it possible for our students to do history—to practice it as we practice it—to help them make history, using their own creative impulses, rather than simply giving us what they hope is the correct answer to a question we have posed.”
In a different piece, “The History Curriculum in 2023,” Dr. Kelly presents Making, Mining, Marking, and Mashing, four ways that students can learn to engage in historical thinking during this digital age. Dr. Kelly is encouraging us to think deeply about historical thinking and how we can be innovative in teaching it. I have learned a lot in short period of time, and I am excited about trying my hand at answering the challenge of helping students to become hands-on historians who gain both procedural and content knowledge.