04. Applying the Principles of HPL in Teaching HS History

        High School history has been at the forfront of educational criticism for over a century, people often saying how such an important subject has been taught dryly, with teachers with their fingers on the textbook and taking questions from the back of the book.  As far back as 100 years ago Stanley Hall (Stanfor Psychologist) called for the end of recitation, lecture, and textbooks - and instead teach history with more active pedagogy.  This has been repeated continuously since then, although critics have disagreed exactly on how - with the debate being primarily between student or teacher-centered, facts versus concepts, hands-on teaching or lecture, textbooks or primary sources, depth or breadth, etc.  Such dichotomous views are unhelpful, as teaching is more complex than that.  Principles outlined in "How People Learn" suggests a different model.  This chapter addresses the challenges by showing how a history-specific instructional environment can be created to deepen students' historical understanding.  Familiar curricular objectives can be restructured into hisoriographic problems, which is the first important step.  Yes, problem formulation isn't enough.  Developing and using "mind tools" are essential in the process too.  


        Just as creating and investigating large questions is the work of a historian, so should it be in the history classroom.  History teachers must devise these questions then allow students to inquire about it.  What differs between researcher and teacher is that the latter must deal with a different set of constraints - curricular mandates, testing, AP requirements, etc.  These often begin with large ideas, correctly, but when developed into curriculum too often fall into a list of information the students need to know, missing the problems that questions that make the content coherent and fascinating.  In practice, this means designing unifying historical problems that link across topics, so that units and courses are designed around coherent and central frameworks.  
"Problemizing" Historical Accounts to raise Year-Long Historical Questions

        Creating central questions must take into account both what is historically significant and what is instructive or interesting to students.  At the unit level - ranging from a week to a month typically - it means raising questions about stories, narratives, etc.  At the course level, it means raising questions about fundamental historical understanding.  For example, "What is the difference between historical laccounts and the "past"?  How is it possible for people in the present to present and create accounts of the past?"  Does it matter which version of the past we accept?"
        Raising questions about historical accounts immediately changes the format of much of history.  Instead of reading that John Adams was the President and that he was born and died on a particular day, an "accounts" view  will read about his interests, travels to Europe, etc.  It moves history from reproducing others' conclusion to understanding how people produced those conlcusion, whicle considering the limitations and strengths of vairous interpretations.  Historical ideas should be anchored not just in facts, but also in interpretation - for example, why should we consider particular sets of facts important?  Students must develop tools to evaluate and assess stories of the past.  
        To do all this teachers need to explicitly frame central problems and concepts at the outset of a course.  In one example, a teacher used as a central theme the idea that history and past are different.  Although it seems like a subtle distinction, to get students to fully understand the difference takes a long time.  To start the year, the teacher had students on the 1st day of school write their accounts of that day.  Seeing all the different interpretations showed very quickly the idea that history just an account, often personal, of the past.  Once defined, these concepts were used throughout the year to set a conceptual framework for students to organize their information.  Just drawing on this distinction, of course, isn't enough for it to be embedded into students' thinking habits.  To fully integrate it, frameworks such as this became "mind tools."

Accounting for the "Flat Earth"; Building a Unit-Level Problem 

        The unit started with a question, "What do you know about Columbus sailing the ocean blue? What do you know about the people of Europe on the eve of the voyage?  What did they believe and think?"  With gentle prodding and questioning, students got to the widely accepted viewpoint that people thought the world was flat.  Then, students were given excerpts that validated this idea, such as that other sailors were worried he would fall off the face of the earth.  The stage was then set for giving them contradictory evidence - such as Atlas holding up the globe 1,000 years earlier, and Eratosthenes determining the circumference of the earth in 300BC.  This challenge students' notion of Columbus changing the view of a flat earth as an event, to the idea that the round earth was a movement.  Questions such as, did 15th century people believe that the earth was flat?   What evidence do you have?  This turned the class conversation into a discussion about evidence, accounts (perhaps being lost) - ultimately about the deeper question of how history is created.  
        Moving forward, the teacher then gave different texts of different historical accounts by contemporary scholars (Boorstin and Gould), arguing different points about how ideas were developed - continuously versus discretely.  These excerpts were used strategically to consider accounts and evidence, asking questions such as "Who promoted that account?" or "How have historians changed those accounts over time?"
        By problemizing the Columbus account, both the larger historical questions were dealt with by students while they, at the same time, learned the history.  In order to learn about the flat-earth story, for example, students needed to study about 14th and 15th century Europeans, the renaissance, etc.  especially as they made their cases.  The historical account was used to support, extend, or contest students' understanding.  


        It would be a large mistake for teachers to mistake doing history with teaching history.  As experts differ from novices, teachers must consider students' schemas, presuppositions for the teaching to be authentic.  Furthermore, instead of allowing some students to be left behind feeling frustrated, the design of cognitive tasks (see chapter 3) can make sure everyone is challenged appropriately.   
       Some other techniques used were assigning students to become a certain type of historical questioner (corroborators and sourcers), using visual prompts, linguistic devices (Hev and Hac, to signifiy evidence versus account), and conceptual strategies.  Students also wrote in their journals, used reciprocal teaching techniques - all to allow students to raise their own questions and develop their own understandings.  
        ln general, a history teacher's job is to build a classroom culture that, through its interactions, instructional tasks, and artifacts, assists students in thinking historically.  Teachers should try to make key features of expert historical thought accessible.  In time, students begin to see textbooks, excerpts and lectures as historical accounts.  It allows students to ask the question, "how does this support, extend, or contest my understanding?"
        Teaching history is hardly a simple task.  It has a lot to do not with what you don't know, but with what you think you know that isn't right. History demands complex thinking by both teachers and students.  It centers around interesting, generative, and organizing problems; critical weighing of evidence and accounts; suspension of our views to understand those of others; use of facts, concepts, and interpretations to make judgments, and, if the evidence is persuasive, to change views and judgments.  Teachers must expand their view of history and get rid of the false dichotomous (facts versus concepts, students-centered versus teacher-centered).            


  1. Brainstorm a list of at least 12 questions about the topic, concept or object. Use these question-starts to help you think of interesting questions:

  2. Why...?
    How would it be different if...?
    What are the reasons...?
    Suppose that...?
    What if...?
    What if we knew...?
    What is the purpose of...?
    What would change if...?

  3. Review the brainstormed list and star the questions that seem most interesting. Then, select one or more of the starred questions to discuss for a few moments.

  4. Reflect: What new ideas do you have about the topic, concept or object that you didn't have before?

Question 1:
  • How do we best find these problems to teach?
  • Should a curriculum all be based on problems like the Flat-Earth, or are there other templates?
  • How do we assess the second-ordered concepts?
  • What are all the second-ordered concepts in history?*
  • Has anyone tried to map them all out?
  • How do we deal with students that have a really hard time with the 2nd-ordered concepts?
  • What types of activities are suggested?
  • How or what should we assess and grade summatively?
  • What would change if the students are ESL?

Question 2:
What are all the second-ordered concepts?
Using evidence, considering viewpoints or accounts, seeing the difference between history and past,  - What are the others?

Question 3:  
I can more easily understand now how the 2nd-ordered thinking is discipline specific.  For example, seeing the difference between a history (and account) and the past (what actually happened) is very important in history and not so much in other subjects, like Math.  Teaching so that these deep understandings are always referred to makes a great deal of sense, as it provides a conceptual framework that can help students truly become skilled at historical study at a young age already.  What still puzzles me is what are the other deep, underlying historical concepts?  Surely this one can't be the only one that is taught.  How many are there that is important for the discipline?