History Can Do More

In 1917, J.Carleton Bell asked the questions, “what is historical sense?” and “how can it be developed?” After one hundred years, today we still ask the same questions: what is historical understanding? How can historical analysis and interpretation be taught? What is role of instruction in improving the student’s ability to think?

Carleton gave five aspects of historical sense:

  1. “The ability to understand present events in light of the past.”
  2. The ability to sift through the documentary record—newspaper articles, hearsay, partisan attacks, contemporary accounts—and construct “from this confused tangle a straightforward and probable account” of what happened.
  3. The ability to appreciate a historical narrative.
  4. “Reflective and discriminating replies to ‘thought questions’ on a given historical situation.”
  5. The ability to answer factual questions about historical personalities and events.

These five aspects overlaps with the historian Mills Kelly’s 15 points of historical thinking that most historians agree upon. The 15 points provide more details than Carleton’s definition but the key points are the same: the ability to discriminate the sources and construct historical narrative or argument and the ability to understand the relation between the present and the past. In short, historical thinking is the with the ability to examine, discriminate and judge the sources, the historians interpret the past rather than simply set forth the historical facts. Historians think of the past not as the settled truths but as a sense-making activity, thus being always interpretive. Historical thinking is a training ground for solving problems when definitive answers are elusive. The difference between Carleton and Kelly is Kelly’s 15 aspects of historical thinking stressed more on the ability to process sources.

The historical thinking most historians have certainly contradicts with the experience most students have in their history classes in K-12 schools. In these classes, teachers convey the content knowledge to the students, the students memorize dates, facts and important events and at the end of a semester, take a test. Students do not play much a role in the class but are usually the mere receivers of information. Although American Historical Association agrees “that the accumulation of facts is not the sole, or perhaps not the leading, purpose of studying history,” yet the recitation of authoritative knowledge continued to be the goal of a coverage-oriented history teaching that retained its dominance through the 20th century and persists today.

This teaching style influenced people’s expectation or understanding of history. Students expect there is a clear answer for every question, like those multiple-choice questions they have in exams. Florida even writes this understanding of history into the state law. A 2006 statute to raise historical literacy requires the state’s public school history teachers to limit themselves to the “teaching of facts,” stipulating that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed . . . and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence” (Florida K-20 Education Code 2015).  However, for historians, history is all about interpretation.  This view makes it difficult to assess students’ learning by standardized tests. Meanwhile, colleges have stress to demonstrate the values of the disciplines to justify the dollars students spend on higher education. There is a demand that college education should have their utility and produce economic benefit for students. Some universities asked faculty to develop metrics to better measure learning outcomes

These expectations constrain the teaching and learning of history because historians and non-historians have different understanding of history.  To show the learning outcomes, most schools adopt the tests which ask students to have knowledge of dates, facts and people, and take form of multiple-choice questions. But this further reinforces the teaching of content knowledge rather than procedural knowledge. On college level, the pressure to show utility and economic value forces the schools to have metrics to measure learning and most adopt a similar style of that in the high school.

Technological change in the 20th and 21st century provides an opportunity for the historians to break this vicious circle of teaching-learning-testing. Like the Teaching Hidden History course of George Mason University, the learning can become inquiry-based learning which engage both students and teachers. This style of teaching and learning centers on students and sparks students’ interest in the historical research and learning because they are not mere receivers of information in the class room but can actively participate in the process with intrinsic motivation. With the technological tools, it’s easier and more interesting for students to gain procedural knowledge. It was only after they had learned the methods of the historian that they could be expected to successfully synthesize important facts from lectures. This student-centered teaching and learning breaks the stereotype expectation of the public that history is only teachers teach history and students listen in the classroom. It becomes an interactive mode. Other digital tools brought by the technological revolution also provides hope for the history majors in colleges. Besides the tradition skills historians have such as analytical ability, students have more ways to research and understand history, and more importantly, they gain the interdisciplinary skills which enable them to work better in this history profession or work outside the profession. For example, text-mining and data processing, plus the analytical ability trained naturally by history department, can make them a good analyst in banking and investment companies. This increases the possibilities about what a history major can do after he or she graduates and also meets the social demand which asks higher education to provide utility and “economic profit”. The coding skills enable students to present their work, in matter what they do in the future, to wider public and/or elegantly. The digital skills and the student-centered teaching of these digital skills break the constraints the social expectation put on history teaching and make history majors more competitive on the job market. If this continues, the society will not think history is “boring” and majoring history is impractical. Instead, history majors are more competitive by crossing the boundaries of disciplines and gaining more skills.



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