Textbooks Serve as a Major Obstacle in Cultivating Historical Thinking

Sam Wineburg, in Historical Thinking, questions what is important about learning history and its disconnect with what students learning history actually encounter and learn. This inquiry into teaching history, when combined with James Gee’s work What Video Games have to Teach us about Literacy and Learning, challenges both what students are expected to learn, and how. Reading these two works lead me to reflect on the textbook as learning instrument in History instruction, and explore alternatives.

Wineburg acknowledges that History instruction often has the intention of prompting students to collect important facts, names, dates, and linearly positive narratives. This is reflected in the standardized test, and its prompting of students to recall random and isolated pieces of data. This goal is facilitated by the textbook, which serves as an unwavering authority in communicating all the bits and pieces a student should know. This creates a stale learning experience where the vast majority of students will not retain the content, and will be deemed by lawmakers and school administrators to have been disserved.

This quandary of ineffective History learning is predicated on the idea that teachers and students should take an objective and static approach to historical knowledge. Wineburg convincingly argues that learning the subject of History should embed a student with the ability to think historically. This requires the cultivation of critical thinking skills and approaches that allows for a more complex understanding of the past and present. Both a sense continuity and change should be developed and reinforced in History instruction. This would allow a student to see connections and threads in History, and would arguably make it a lot harder to negate why history matters, as an understanding of the past would better facilitate an understanding of the present. Students should also develop and utilize a sense of difference, to better prevent a projection of present values and beliefs on people of the past. Such an approach allows the student to understand difference, and how context ultimately shapes the past.

Historical thinking is a skill that students should gain, but cannot be taught through the textbook. This skill would require greater critical thinking, and interaction with the past. Students can play a greater role in interpreting the past if other methods of instruction are incorporated in the classroom. Gee’s work on literacy and education provides some insights into how historical thinking can be taught. When video games are effective in teaching they involve elements of interaction, identity, and practice. The textbook does not allow for this.

Video games require an active player, and the same level of participation and interaction should exist in the History classroom. With innovations in technology, and the growing digitization of information, the potential for communicating with past is great. For example, access to visuals such as paintings, photos, and online exhibits, provide another means of understanding the past. Gee emphasized the role of identity in video games, and how personal identity influenced what decisions a player would make. A player’s moral views may restrict their actions, and a player’s understanding of their avatar’s morality and character often influences actions as well. An understanding of identity and subjectivity allow a student to be aware of their personal biases, while being able to conceive of historical difference and the mindsets of people in another time. Another important element of learning in video games involves practice. The interpretation of primary documents can greatly benefit from students practicing and familiarizing themselves with understanding history.

If students are to gain a command over historical thinking, a variety of teaching materials would best benefit them. It is important to see the student’s mind as more than an empty container ready to be filled with isolated pieces of information. Every individual brings a unique perspective to interpreting the past. An acknowledgement of the student’s potential will allow them to assume the role as their own teacher, as they navigate the varied perspectives of the past. Wineburg effectively argues that it is more important for a student to gain a sense of historical literacy, rather than being able to quickly recount the eleventh President of the United States. Gee shows that video games offer some serious insights into how this goal can be achieved. The rapid development of technology offers the potential to create a more immersive and interactive learning experience for the student. And combined with some older forms, such as the historical document, create a true potential for historical thinking. Also, works that demonstrate the act of historical interpretation, such as James West Davidson’s After the Fact, should replace the authoritative and myopic textbook.

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2 Responses to Textbooks Serve as a Major Obstacle in Cultivating Historical Thinking

  1. hnballlard says:

    You bring up good a point that we haven’t really touched on, Michelle: the ever-growing availability of primary source documents online. Not only are these documents readily available, but I’ve seen many of these sites (often run by city and national libraries) include interactive teaching tools that allow students to read one document and, if they are interested, they’ll see a list of related documents (something with really cool interactive functions) that could give them further practice at reading document while simultaneously exposing them to a wide variety of takes on related historical episodes. It’d be interesting to compile a list of the some better sites out there, and try to see what we can mine from them for our teaching tools.

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