One Key to Historical Thinking

One Key to Historical Thinking: What are we giving our students?

Thinking about teaching History, much less the act of doing so, has not been something that has crossed my mind to any extent.  My main pursuits have centered on becoming an independent researcher.  However, as I progress through the doctoral program I am in, I am challenged with thinking about how I might engage with students and spark their interests.  It appears to me, having read Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, the key to historical thinking is to “understand others different from ourselves.”  A task not so easily accomplished by undergraduate students who might not have developed or even been exposed to “fundamental disciplinary concepts.”

Wineburg, who writes mainly for would-be History teachers, explains that to effectively teach History, we must understand and develop ways to educate our students to think contextually.  There is a human element to this process as well.  Indeed, Wineburg says that we understand others (today and in the past) by contextualizing the world in which people of the past navigated.  In contextualizing the past, “the past [takes shape because it] is not mere prologue to the present but is discontinuous with it.”  I interpreted this point as meaning that learning the past tells us who we are and where we have come from, but also that historical issues are also so situational that they cannot be continually applied.  For example, issues faced by gay men before the decriminalization of homosexuality and after are quite different, and we must keep those differences in mind as we try to parse out meanings in each temporal location.  But at the same time, understanding the distant past helps us put into context developments seen within gay male communities.  In doing so, in this example, by examining various legal historical documents might we see the ways in which gay men navigated their world.  At the same time too do we see how and to what extent gay men were defined by the world around them (much less how some gay men sought to challenge those ascribed definitions by how they show up in court cases and police records).

Being able to articulate contextualization skills to undergraduates is critical for effectively teaching (and thinking about) History.  By creating exercises that help students see what is involved in understanding fully how different the context was at some past moment is key to thinking critically about the past.  Only then, do we begin to “shed light on how we come to know who we are” too.  Contextualizing the past calls upon students, as it does researchers, to question motives and actions.  It helps us to learn about, through distinguishing how people in the past approached various situations, and by pealing away our preconceived notion of how people navigated their world.  We see this occur when we try to reconstruct the world as those in the past might have seen it or might have thought about it.  Wineburg does discuss that students often times try to apply their present day notions of the world to people in the past, but says that it is the responsibility of History teachers to address how doing so is problematic.

It appears to me that being able to teach undergraduate students historical thinking skills we have to exam, scrutinize and develop confidence in the first assignment we will give our future college students – our course syllabus.  As argued in the Teaching College History course I am taking this spring semester, History teachers have to begin with constructing Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs).  SLOs, however, are only useful if they are tied to assignments that ensure students will learn, develop, and apply designated skills.  History teachers, as encouraged by Wineburg, ought to develop ways in which students think critically about how to contextualize the past and at the same, go further by establishing an understanding of how the past is relevant to the present.

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