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?

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4 responses

  1. Interesting, Nick. I’ve been thinking about this exact topic a little myself recently. I don’t think I learned much by way of actual useful skills as far as productive historical thinking goes during High School. I certainly don’t remember being asked often to do more than remember dates and people (Certainly useful, but not exactly what will tell any real story, as you well know). It’s sort of baffling to me due to the power and usefulness of the historical thinking. Proper teaching in all of the Social Studies should always include lessons in proper thinking; to me it’s just part of the subject. With the implementation of Core Standards next year (at least in Missouri), I know that a big complaint from parents is that they fear that type of testing will deprive their children of creative thinking since students will be focused on factual sources for their writings and so forth. While these standards won’t effect the Social Studies, since they aren’t as important as, say English (look at the success rate of teaching the their, there, there’s (and my own terrible writing in this post ha)) it still seems to me that things such as historical thinking promote creativity within itself while dealing with, essentially, 100% facts. When looking at people such as the aforementioned Sam Wineburg or Bruce Lesh, or whoever, it’s easy to see how excitingly relevant this type of thinking is to students. I know you’ve been where I have as far as teaching the subject goes so you know the constraints on teaching and it’s a shame that so many people, including many history teachers themselves, are so complacent in teaching to the lowest common denominator. To me, it’s a small travesty to deprive the students of today what we know about such teaching and what it can provide those students. It’s not like it’s a whole lot more difficult. ha Sorry, that got a little stream of consciousness, perhaps.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Daniel. As the title to Wineburg’s book suggests, thinking historically is “unnatural.” It doesn’t come easy to us, and many of us have a tendency to think about the past in present day terms (while still separating the events of the past from what is going on today). Establishing the idea with students that history allows us to see change over time and explain how we got to where we are now is crucial. It’s also important to discuss with students how people have viewed history over time, i.e. as “moral” study and instruction of “great heroes” of the past, etc. I think textbooks can be used as complimentary devices to provide context for primary sources, but history teachers have to use more primary sources in class and provide tools to their students to interpret those documents. Not easy, especially with many of the standards put in place right now, but not impossible.

      Hope all is well with you and your job. It must be great to finishing up school right now!

  2. Daniel Pezold | Reply

    Absolutely, nick. I didn’t mean to downplay the task of taking on years of textbook forward type of teaching to now bring out the type of learning and thinking being discussed here. To your point, I absolutely agree with your assessment of teaching history in a manner that shows how that very history has been viewed itself over that time. I just know that in my own experiences I have seen some great teachers from around the St. Louis area that do a wonderful job with using primary sources, for example, and then requiring the students to use those sources to think critically to answer questions. In fact, one of those teachers gave me Wineburg’s book as a reference to the lesson he taught. Putting together these types of lessons takes a lot of time. I’m sure you’ve had 3 hour periods of just looking for the right documents to use for a lesson just as I have. My point, I guess, is that there is enough quality sources out there that a teacher can easily spend 3 hours+ just sifting those for every lesson they teach and that’s a wonderful thing. Teaching students to use those resources is not easy. I hope to not see students not have to wait until their freshman year of college to really learn the difference between a secondary and primary source as I did. I should not have said easy although it’s, without a question, attainable.

    Congrats to yourself on your first year of Grad School and hope to see you soon!

    1. Thanks again for commenting, Daniel. I apologize if I came off as dismissive or in any disagreeing with you with my last comment. I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying and yes, I’ve had instances where I spent hours looking for that perfect primary source to help put my lesson together. When teachers are trying to grade papers, do coaching assignments, etc. it gets even tougher. There are many teachers doing a fine job out there (and there are some excellent schools in St. Louis like Metro High that I got to observe in person, and I know they are doing great things). But in general I think more schools need to push their teachers to incorporate historical methods and have serious discussions about the nature of history with their students. My experiences in high school and the workplace reinforced this belief.

      I will be back for a visit to St. Louis soon! See you around!

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