Thinking About Historical Thinking

Someday, I hope to teach in a museum setting and/or in a college classroom. Reading Wineburg, Lévesque, and Calder was highly informative, but also raised more questions for me about teaching history. Here are a few of my questions and my tentative answers:


1) In Calder’s article, he lays out a new method for teaching introductory-level or survey history classes. While he described his organizational structure for the class and how he sees himself more as a coach than a teacher, I am still having a hard time envisioning how one might coach students through one of his history workshop session. He lists “six moves” that he tries to teach students during the end of the semester. While I like how his method gives students hands-on experience with the historians’ craft, I am still incredibly curious about how the real nuts and bolts of the method actually work in a college classroom. How do you teach students how to make inferences or ask good questions (since he claims that simply modeling this for students doesn’t normally do the trick)? Even if you can get students to think about good questions, how do you make students feel comfortable enough to start sharing their questions in class? Since every student will probably get something different out of the material you present, how do you teach one specific skill each week? How do you choose material that is challenging, but not so much that students have a terrible experience or give up? How do you make the the struggle to get over these threshold concepts a process of fascinating inquiry instead of one that is dull and frustrating?

Frankly, I think that I might have to actually observe a college professor using Calder’s method or attend a workshop before I would feel comfortable using it in my own classroom. I think that deciding to use this method would require an incredible amount of preparation work for the teacher. I think that it is the sources used and the coaching ability of the teacher that would make or break this approach. I regards as to how one teaches specific skills, I think that one has to choose the primary sources one uses very carefully. For example, if I was trying to teach students to embrace different perspectives, then obviously, I would want to use multiple sources that described the same event from different perspectives. For example, I might use primary source accounts from Lexington and Concord from the perspectives of a colonial militia man, a British military officer, a British regular solider, a loyalist colonial, etc.


2) How can museums help visitors get a hands-on experience with thinking historically with the short amount of time and attention they receive from each visitor?

As I mentioned in one of my responses, I think a basic idea of historical thinking can be incorporated into most exhibits by being very open about the process historians and curators went through to create the exhibit, ie. what sources they looked at, what leads they were excited about, what dead ends they ran into, how they corroborated among sources, what answers they hoped to find, but did not. Another option is to present selected sources and invite visitors to become detectives or investigators. The exhibit then prompts them to look for certain things or think about certain questions. While it would be best for visitors to ask questions of the sources on their own, guiding them through the process give them some experience and shows them what types of questions to ask. I have heard many museum goers, after reading a prompting question in an exhibit exclaim, “Wow! I never would have thought to look for (or ask about) that!” A more in depth method of teaching historical thinking could be presented through a series of special programs that mimic the workshop method presented by Calder.


3) How can the use of technology help or hinder students and visitors in learning to think historically?

We haven’t really talked about this yet, but here is a guess for one way it has affected it: One of the authors talked about how the Internet has been great in giving students and teachers easy and instant access to primary sources. At the same time, it is now harder for students to find relevant information because they have to comb though so many places to find what they are looking for. In many cases (due to lack of time), teachers have to pre-select sources for their use in the classroom and students miss out on the mostly frustrating (and occasionally rewarding) process that historians actually go through to find relevant sources. In addition, technology has also contributed to the immediate answer gratification culture. For example, students have learned to google any question they have and are immediately greeted with thousands of responses. This has made it harder to teach students to suspend their judgment while they read and analyze primary sources. They just want to get an answer and move on, instead of really taking the time to investigate and think deeply.

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