How?: Doing History and Signature Pedagogies

The one word–well, really question–that continued to circulate through my cognitive processes while reading this week was “how.” The word erupted into a myriad of questions, many of them originating from the sources, especially Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (2001) and Lendol Calder’s article “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey” (The Journal of American History, March, 2006). How has history been taught traditionally? How does it need to change to accommodate new technologies? How are teachers to use new technology and pedagogical tools to inform effective teaching? How are these new features learned?

What was beneficial about reading Wineburg and Calder in conjunction with each other were the overlap of relevant examples of alternative, engaging, and active forms of pedagogy in the classroom. Calder, with obvious respect to Wineburg’s work in cognitive studies and research applied to historical teaching and processes, describes his own attempts in the classroom to address Lee S. Shulman’s “signature pedagogies.” In Calder’s words, signature pedagogies present and integrate information about “the personality of a disciplinary field—its values, knowledge, and manner of thinking—almost, perhaps, its total world view” (Calder 1361). Within history, Calder’s signature pedagogy tries to engage students with questions about the value and role of history itself. Why is history important? Why do we teach and learn history?

But Calder goes beyond the “whys” to address the “hows,” many of which I listed above. How do we do history, professionally? What Calder emphasizes, along with Wineburg and many of the teachers he studied, is the reconfiguring of the traditional concept of history as concrete, assembled definitively in textbooks and told chronologically, date to date, event to event. As historians know, history is not stagnant or immovable. History shifts and changes with the incorporation of new perspectives, new data, reinterpretations of old information, rediscovered or newly discovered documents and artifacts that pulls what is known into new light. An event occurred–like the American Civil War, the launch of Sputnik, the assassination of John F. Kennedy–but the event has many actors, spectators, critics, political and social factors, and more that prevent it from becoming completely “covered.” Calder, borrowing Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s term, points to the “uncoverage” of history, the extraction of historical interpretation, speculation, and research processes from the hidden realm of the textbook into sight, like drawing Gollum out from his cave by tricksy hobbitses.

Calder’s signature pedagogy addresses the importance of history through six moves he deems “crucial to the development of history mindedness”: questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternative perspectives, and recognizing limits to one’s knowledge. (Calder 1364). With these moves in mind, Calder constructed a course that provided an active role for students to not only engage with primary and secondary texts, but to examine films, study visual materials, analyze and debate personal claims based on research and speculation of data, and continue to question the historical records and studies.

One of the most fascinating approaches for me was the use “think alouds,” which Wineburg also discusses. These “think alouds” come from cognitive science research to present raw, unfiltered processes as they occur. For example, a student might engage with a packet of different sources and interpretations of Abraham Lincoln’s views on race and slavery (from Chapter Four of Historical Thinking, “Reading Abraham Lincoln”). As the student reads each document–newspaper clippings, scholarly articles, transcripts of speeches and debates, personal letters–he verbalizes his thoughts as they occur, overlooking well-reasoned, well-developed arguments and pronouncing confusion, mixed reactions, allusions to other encounters with Lincoln in film, past history classes, images, personal biases, and more. The purpose is to present the cognitive processes of the basic historical moves that Calder listed as they occur in real time. You catch the thought mid-stream, hovering and leaping like salmon swimming up river on loop.

For Calder, signature pedagogies are effective for two reasons: 1) it forces students to engage with larger, historical questions and discusses that professional historians wrestle with constantly in their works, and 2) it builds up a pattern, through constant, frequent engagement, that constructs routines, scaffolding by which students can continue to engage with history. “Routines form habits,” says Calder (1369). Habits occupy the cognitive processes of the restless Marcel Proust in his search for lost time, and habits inform the work of the historian operating in and with things past (aware of how students’ memories are important to how they learn).

I clarify, and Calder does as well, that teaching history is not a one-size-fits-all formation. Each classroom, teacher, and institution is different from others, and working with one pedagogical approach is impossible. It takes the skill of the teacher, their resources, their knowledge, their willingness to change and integrate new approaches, and their active participation to guide, but not dominate, the classroom and discussion. Engaging students, treating the textbook as one of many interpretive texts, and working tirelessly are important to firing on all cylinders in the body shop of History. How do you do the voodoo that you do in the classroom? How do you do history?

Sources:

Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History, 92.4 (March 2006), pp. 1358-1370.

Lee S. Shulman, “Signature Pedagogies in the Professions,” Daedalus, 134 (Summer 2005), pp. 52-59.

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

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