Thoughts on teaching History

The past two weeks for me have been filled with research and writing in preparation for the ORATE conference, where I will be presenting with some colleagues of mine this Friday (whew, that was a long sentence). My research is following the lines of my Taking High Schoolers to Primary School post from a few weeks ago.

The reason I bring this up is that I stumbled (almost literally: research is exhausting sometimes) across a source with some pretty compelling statements for a History teacher like Yours Truly.

In their study on using primary sources in class, Patterson & Kithinji (2012) delved into how well primary sources are incorporated into the planning of lessons by Social Studies teachers. I wont bore you with the nitty gritty of their research, but their basic premise was this: Teachers need to be careful how they use primary sources. While the usefulness of using eyewitness accounts, images, and other kinds of primary sources cannot be fully denied, Patterson & Kithinji caution against using them as a pure delivery method for historical knowledge.

This is the part I found really interesting. They encouraged teachers to remember that history is a developmental field. That students of history should be less interested in a progression of facts and more in a quest of understanding. That using primary sources to help students comprehend history is less useful than using them to help students create a thesis, or construct an argument. 

I have to say I agree completely. In teaching we have this thing called Bloom’s Taxonomy that helps us create assignments and activities that are truly rigorous, engaging, and useful for students. Again, I don’t to bore you too much, but what Bloom’s tells us is that assignments about understanding are less useful for learning than ones about building or creating something new. It isn’t that comprehension is a bad thing; it is absolutely necessary. It’s just that assignments that ask students to synthesize (rather than summarize) offer a greater learning experience.

The study of History is fascinating to me because it is about more than simply understanding that one event preceded another. Rather, it is about the creation of arguments, the construction of theses. That is what I want my students to take away from my class. That is what I  want to remember every time I build a lesson.

Reference:

Patterson, N. C., Lucas, A. G., & Kithinji, M. (2012). Higher Order Thinking in Social Studies: An Analysis of Primary Source Document Use. Social Studies Research & Practice, 7(3), 68-85.

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