Thinking About History The Way Historians Do

A wonderful article by Stanford professor Sam Wineburg about how we can learn to “think historically”:

“I’ve spent nearly 20 years studying how high school students learn history. Over the years I’ve met many young people for whom the life has been sucked out of history, leaving only a grim list of names and dates. When confronted with the term ‘historical thinking,’ many students scratch their heads in confusion, stumped by an alleged connection.

The funny thing is that when you ask historians what they do, a different picture emerges. They see themselves as detectives searching for evidence among primary sources to a mystery that can never be completely solved. Wouldn’t this image be more enticing to a bored high school student? It would, and that’s one reason why thinking like a historian deserves a place in the American classroom, the sooner the better.

To historians, history is an argument about what facts should or shouldn’t mean. Even when historians are able to piece together the basic story of what happened, they rarely agree about what an event means or what caused it. Historians argue about the past’s meaning and what it has to tell us in the present.

But, you may ask, if history has already happened, what’s there to argue about? Plenty. Was the American Revolution a fight against tyranny or an attempt by the well bred to maintain their social status? Was the Cold War really a conflict of democracy versus communism or a struggle between two superpowers for dominance?

Divergent opinions swirl around these questions and other matters of unsettled history – opinions that get students talking, and thinking, and learning. But while everyone is entitled to an opinion, not every opinion deserves to be believed. In history, a persuasive opinion is one backed up by evidence.

It would be easy to conclude that historians simply know more about American history than high school students do. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Beyond highly specialized areas of concentrations, even doctoral level historians don’t possess factual knowledge about every topic. What historians do have is a ‘historical approach’ to primary sources that is often taken for granted by those practiced in it. However, this approach unlocks a world closed to untutored readers.

For example, before approaching a document, historians come prepared with a list of questions—about author, context, time period—that form a mental framework for the details to follow. Most important of all, these questions transform the act of reading from passive reception to an engaged and passionate interrogation. If we want students to remember historical facts, this approach, not memorization, is the key.” (Read more here.)

I love that—approaching a text with questions in mind “transform[s] the act of reading from passive reception to an engaged and passionate interrogation.” That can go for reading all kinds of materials, not just history.

Was there a moment when history came alive for you? What made it happen?

5 Responses to “Thinking About History The Way Historians Do”

  1. Brooke Jones says:

    I can’t agree more. Some of the best educators I have seen in action are those history teachers who have engaged their students through passionate debates, teaching them to cite evidence to justify their thoughts on either the affirmative or negative. This is how we cultivate active citizens who are capable of high level dialogue and the ability to critically analyze our complex world…

  2. I really like that this article emphasizes the use of primary documents and is asking students to piece them together. It’s important to not ignore the content and contex of history too. I find the 6 Historical Benchmarks incredibly useful to teaching history – you can find them at http://www.historicalthinking.ca

  3. [...] Annie Murphy Paul quoted an article by Stanford professor Sam Wineberg yesterday where he wrote: “The funny thing is that when you ask historians what they do, a different picture emerges. They see themselves as detectives searching for evidence among primary sources to a mystery that can never be completely solved. Wouldn’t this image be more enticing to a bored high school student? It would, and that’s one reason why thinking like a historian deserves a place in the American classroom, the sooner the better.” [...]

  4. Elwin Green says:

    History came alive for me when I read Frederic Morton’s “A Nervous Splendor,” an account of 10 months in the life of one city: Vienna, 1888-1889. Freud, Mahler and Gustav Klimt were among those who lived in Vienna during those months, and “A Nervous Splendor” made me realize that history is about real people living real lives.

  5. teachermrw says:

    No. As a person of color, the past, present and future co-exist for me.

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