Entering The Jagged Landscape of History: Can We Teach Our Students to Apply Historical Thinking Skills?

Paul McGuire

This is the second entry in a monthly series on Thinking Historically. See the Introduction here.

Researchers continue to write about the value and importance of teaching Historical Thinking Concepts (HTC). There is a near consensus on the importance of moving from a transmission approach to teaching history to one that focuses on inquiry.  This ongoing discussion has been shaped by the works of several researchers including Sam Wineburg who wrote, “the essence of achieving mature historical thought rests precisely on our ability to navigate the jagged landscape of history, to traverse the terrain that lies between the poles of familiarity with and distance from the past.” (Wineburg, 1999, p. 490)

Wineburg’s challenge to history teachers, written over twenty years ago, is to take students on a journey to a foreign land – his jagged landscape of history. While the research supports this aspirational goal, is it possible to do this in the classroom? There is no question that teaching historical thinking concepts offer a new way to engage students in the study of history, but no one really writes about how to do this.

It is hard to find many studies on how to teach this to students. However, there are some exceptions. Gibson and Peck (2020) outline a complete course taught to elementary teacher candidates. Ruth Sandwell (2011) has developed an approach to teaching historical thinking concepts relying on workshops to instruct students on how to use primary documents. As a culminating task, Sandwell’s students develop a lesson plan anchored by a Critical Challenge inquiry question. Using a historical thinking concept to frame their inquiry, students follow the same process used by historians – looking for causes, establishing significance, developing empathy, and using evidence-based sources (2011).

One of the challenge for teacher candidates is taking what they learn in school and applying it to their own teaching. Researchers must also ask if new teachers able to apply the theory they have been taught or do they, for one reason or another, fall back into the traditional transmission model of history – one fact, name, and date after the other. As a long-range plan for my own research, I would like to continue the work of investigating the gap between theory and practice that has been well documented. Specifically, are new history teachers able to incorporate the teaching of historical thinking concepts into their professional practice.

There have always been excellent history teachers who teach in creative ways, the “kill and drill” teaching strategy remains a common practice. As students trained in discipline-specific methodology courses enter the workforce, it is important to understand what impact their new work environment has on their pedagogical practice. Further, Fehn and Koeppen suggest that the needs of K-12 students along with the influence of the associate teacher have a greater impact than the learning taking place in their university theory course (1998). Time constraints and the demands of curriculum to transfer content plays a more significant role than new teacher’s exposure to teaching methodologies including historical inquiry.

Longitudinal studies that follow new teachers from teacher training into the first few years in the classroom are rare (Towers, 2013). While Towers  asserts that new teachers can use what they have learned in their theory-based courses help them withstand pre-existing school cultures, Sydnor, (2017) and Monte-Sano, & Cochran (2009) assert that the pressures new teachers confront in their first years plays a more significant role in the development of their practice. It would be instructive to further document what happens to teacher candidates trained to use historical thinking concepts once they enter the classroom. Are there instances as Towers (2009) asserts where teaching theory supports the development of new teacher practice or do the pressures of the school environment have a more significant impact? Further, are there particular practices that can be introduced in theory-based courses that allow teacher candidates to apply history thinking methodology.

One approach that may hold promise focuses on the use of digital technology to encourage and enhance the development of historical thinking concepts in students and teachers. The growing field of digital history offers educators a way to help students develop and hone their historical thinking skills. Digital history requires students to work together to become active participants in the process of historical research. This opens diverse sets of historical source material for the researcher including the digitization of library and archival collections, text visualization tools, interactive maps, and large-scale data analysis tools. Digital history also encompasses a variety of tools to share, compare, and publish historical information . As an approach to teaching and studying history, digital history has the potential to engage students and actively involve them in the process of making history Levesque (2014), reinforces the importance of digital technology, stating that digital methods represent a fundamental break with the past. It is “futile” for students to employ traditional methods of study using the authorized textbook, listening to one person’s – the teacher’s – interpretation of history. It is not a question of whether digital technology should be used in the classroom, but how it will be used to further inquiry. 

Paul McGuire is a graduate student at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. Paul is also a retired educator with 31 years’ experience in the public school system.

Suggested Reading

Fehn, B., & Koeppen, K. (1998). Intensive document-based instruction in a social studies methods course and student teachers’ attitudes and practice in subsequent field experiences. Theory and Research in Social Education, 26(4), pp. 461-484.

Gibson, L., & Peck, C. L. (2020). More than a methods course: Teaching preservice teachers to think historically. In C. W. Berg & T. M. Christou (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of History and Social Studies Education (pp. 213–251). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-37210-1_10

Monte-Sano, C., & Cochran, M. (2009). Attention to learners, subject, or teaching: What takes precedence as pre service candidates learn to teach historical thinking and reading? Theory & Research in Social Education, 37(1), pp. 101–135. doi:10.1080/00933104.2009.10473389

Sandwell, R. (2011). “History is a verb: Teaching historical practice to teacher education students.” In Penney Clark, (Ed.), New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada, (pp. 224-242). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Sydnor, J. (2017). “I Didn’t Realize How Hard It Would Be!”: Tensions and Transformations in Becoming a teacher. Action in Teacher Education, 39(2), 218–236. https://doi.org/10.1080/01626620.2016.1226202

Towers, J. (2013). Consistencies between new teachers’ beliefs and practices and those grounding their initial teacher education program. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 59(1), pp. 108–125.

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