Teaching Historical Methods in the K-12 Classroom: A Question

Michael Bay, what historical sources did you use for "Pearl Harbor?" "I saw 'Top Gun' once. That was about Pearl Harbor, right?!"
Michael Bay, what historical sources did you use for “Pearl Harbor?” “I saw ‘Top Gun’ once. That was about Pearl Harbor, right?!”

As mentioned on my About page, I’m currently working for the Indiana State House as a Tour Guide for the Capitol Tour Office. It has been a wonderful experience and I truly appreciate having the privilege of educating thousands of Hoosier children about Indiana history. I’ve also talked with many teachers and will often ask them what the students are learning in class. The time constraints of the tour usually prevent us from having detailed discussions, but it is interesting to hear what books are being used in class and what ideas/events in history are being emphasized by teachers.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the process of teaching historical methods in the k-12 classroom, and I’ve made a observation about my own schooling that I don’t think I’ve understood until now. I would be extremely curious to see if anyone else–whether you graduated high school in 1923 or in 2013–has made the same observation as me.

Growing up, I learned about several different methods for understanding and demonstrating my knowledge of specific topics in school. In English class, I remember filling out many worksheets that helped me better understand the methods of reading and writing the English language (although I admit that I am still bad with my commas). As much as I wanted to write stories and do “fun stuff” like creative writing, my English teachers always made sure we understood our methods first. In Math class, we always did practice problems and spent a copious amount of time learning about the methods behind math before taking any assignments or tests. In Science class, of course, we learned about the Scientific Method. Collecting data. Making a hypothesis. Testing the hypothesis via experimentation, so on and so forth. As much as I wanted to do “fun stuff” like animal dissections in Science, my teachers always made sure to teach us the importance of understanding the proper methodology for conducting science experiments. Even in my Physical Education class, I remember that I always had to stretch out before we played any games. If we didn’t stretch, we could hurt ourselves.

So I though about my social studies classes and the study of historical methods, and I can safely say that I never received any training on historical methods. None. Wait, I did learn somewhere down the line what the difference between a primary and secondary source was. But that’s it. I never once learned what an archive was or how a manuscript is different from a printed publication. I never once went to an archive because I was completely ignorant of its existence in the first place. I never learned about any prominent historians who shaped and changed the field of history, even though I learned about Mendel and Copernicus in Science, Descartes in Math, and Twain, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Harper Lee in English. I never learned about different schools of historical study such as “social history” or “political history.” I was never challenged to think critically about history beyond that hackneyed phrase about the doom of repeating history if we don’t understand it properly. I never learned how to “think historically” in the way that Sam Wineburg describes in his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. I do remember seeing Pearl Harbor my Junior year of high school, however, so I did learn about Michael Bay. Maybe that counts for something?

Granted, my memories of my k-12 education are not the same as they were when I was younger, but I really don’t think I’m exaggerating here. When I began my student teaching in the spring of 2011, I was never encouraged to talk about historical methods or why we study history in the first place with my students, and I don’t think of any the teachers at that school district teach anything regarding historical methods to their students today. However, that may not be their fault entirely. Just to double check myself, I went to view the Orchard Farm school district’s curriculum. I checked the social studies education standards for grades 4 and 8-12 and could not find a single standard related to historical methods. Why is this?

I realize that my experience is one of many, and that some have had experiences that are different than mine. Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory is always sharing his lesson plans with his readers, and I know he’s doing some excellent things with his students. However, I also realize that he works at a very elite private school that gives him fairly wide leverage to shape and determine the direction of the classroom. I wish more teachers had that sort of freedom.

Do most students today learn about historical methods in their k-12 social studies classes? Did you learn anything in your classes that helped provide you tools for doing your own historical research in and outside the classroom?