02. Understanding History

        Learning principles can be applied to history.  One problem with history is that meanings change over time.  For example, today's meaning of a farmer is different from in the past.  It is therefore critical to address students' misconceptions; otherwise we risk students simply assimilating information into their existing incorrect frameworks.  Another principle, being knowledge-centered, shows us that frameworks such as political concepts (state, government, power) are important, but so are evidence, cause, and change.  Yet, history books are often written as authors present their (usually sophisticated) understandings, without consideration of organizational frameworks.  The underlying concept of what history is needs to be addressed as well.  This brings about the learning principle of metacognition.  Among other things, monitoring one's understanding of history  means knowing what questions to ask and why one must be cautious.  


        History can be counter-intuitive at times.  For example, while in most daily situation people experience a certain "truth" based on their own experience, history must be viewed more broadly, as something experienced by many people and with multiple "truths" often present.  Oftentimes, when differing accounts are given, students see these as a mistake on the part of the author, instead of recognizing how multiple perspectives may be at play.  
        Students need to view historical ideas from the framework of evidence.  Using this "inferential" concept, history becomes more powerful than seeing it as something that is just passed along.  Historians ask questions and use what people say as evidence for or against a particular viewpoint.  
        Students' ideas change over time and we must look at how we can extend this understanding.    
        This book is not saying teaching history is teaching students to be mini-historians.  It is saying, however, that students' understanding of multiple views of history, for example, is important.  In other words, underlying concepts do not just belong to the experts.  Secondly, certain periods of history are still important.  Understanding the concepts simply helps students make sense of them.  Understanding these things allows students to be more seriously engaged with the discipline.  
        Ideas We Need to Address: 
  • Time - This is clearly a central component of history.  Yet, oftentimes children have difficulty transferring common-sense ideas about time to history.  One example is research on first graders that gave them new and old cards, yet had pictures of things from long ago and recent on them.  Students confused the two concepts.  Another example is how a century, such as the 18th century, may refer to a shorter period within the 1700's, and not necessarily the full 100 year time span.  These examples show how things other than just history need to be taught.
  • Change - This is often viewed as one-time events, where usually change is a continuous process and historians choose a theme to highlight within a certain time period.  This involves questions such as pace and direction of change.  Some evidence exists that students always see change as progress, when it is not so.  Significance also becomes important within change. 
  • Empathy from a historical perspective is the study of ideas, beliefs, values, etc. that form the context for what people did.  Students need to be able to understand, feel, or experience things from a people's perspective if they are going to study history properly.  There is a tendency for students to write off the past, instead of understand it from the context it existed.  
  • Cause is often misconstrued as well.  Oftentimes, students don't see that inaction, or a certain non-decision, may have caused a problem.  The job of a historian isn't just to explain why things happened, but also why did it happen as opposed to other alternatives.  Also, students frequently under emphasize the complex network of causes in a situation, rather thinking linearly or just making lists of causes.  The relationship between the causes also needs exploration. 
  • Evidence is critical to history because only through it is history possible.  Research shows that for some students, the question of how we can know about the past never arises.  Especially young students assume it is just known.  The notion of bias comes into play here.  The preconception that history is based on true reports encourages students to think of reliability as fixed.  Rather, it all depends on the perspective you take when you ask a question.  
  • Accounts form another important historical concept, related to evidence.  Students often view fact-laden accounts as true, when often they suffer from serious ommisions.  Yet when students get materials that are not entirely fact-laden, they view them as weaker sources of evidence.  Another misconception is that a true account is a copy of the past, rather than a theory.  When different viewpoints come up, they often attribute it to be a historian's mistake, or as deliberately biased.  The key point here being that stories are not copies of the past, but rather ways of looking at it.  There can be no complete story of the past, only accounts within parameters.     

        The concepts above are involved in all history, no matter the topic.  But topics such as trade, nation, protestant, slave for the "substance."  These numerous and inter-related concepts are usually what history teachers see as central to their teaching.  However, focusing on students' misconceptions of them is often forgotten.  Moreover, these are not the same as names and dates.  They involve knowing rules for what is considered so and not.  The meaning shifts over time as well.  For example, a king in the 15th century is different from one today.  Likewise, students' conception are developed over time.  For example, young students often think of war as something started by individuals.  Older students begin to see it as conflicts between nation-states.  


        Understanding material in depth needs time, but is important.  It is not necessarily enough, though.  They also need to develop historical undestandings through a wider historical framework.  For example, teaching a topic in depth (for 2 to 3 weeks), then returning later on, always referring back to it, may be a way to acheive both depth and breadth.  The frameworks here described must give students the opportunity to see the complex inter-relations, for example through long-run themes.  These can be, for example, population change, migration, or cultural encounters.  It must avoid information overload, but rather clump the information into patterns behind concepts.  In short, the idea is to take students' substantive knowledge so it can be applied to past and present.  
        While teaching multiple perspectives or critiquing accounts can be valuable, it is not necessarily enough.  It often leads to students thinking that the ideas are just opinions, one or the other must be right and wrong, or there may be bias.  These fall short of efforts to teach explicitely the various ways that claims can be tested for validity.  They therefore need a "toolkit"  to think about what types of evidence may be appropriate.  They may also see that the different accounts may be able to coexist, depending on their choice of questions and boundaries they set.  As such, schools have the difficult yet important task of giving students the means to make sense of historical events, even when given differing accounts.  
        History is an open subject that begs exploration.  Oftentimes it is taught or viewed as closed knowledge that teachers have.  Giving students the conceptual tools makes it exciting.  


CONNECT:How are the ideas and information presented CONNECTED to what you already knew?
EXTEND:What new ideas did you get that EXTENDED or pushed your thinking in new directions?
CHALLENGE:What is still CHALLENGING or confusing for you to get your mind around? What questions, wonderings or puzzles do you now have?
1.  Connect: I have learned from chess that it is important to give students tools, not to tell them what to think.  Instead, the object is to empower them to make sense and reach conclusions on their own.  This chapter outline these basic principles in the subject of History.  

2.  Extend:  The combination of the principles as well as the substantive concepts extended my thinking.  

3.  Challenge:  How does a teacher both focus on the broadest thinking habits as well as the substantive topics?  Which should be assessed?  How can they be assessed?