First-Hand StudyTeaching History for Understanding

Stephen J. Thornton

History has long been a staple of social studies curriculum in the United States. How children make sense of history, however, has until recently been documented only sporadically by U.S. researchers and teachers. Indeed, we know more about what students fail to learn than what they do learn.1 Generations of teachers, curriculum developers, and policy makers have made do with fragmentary and even contradictory answers to such fundamental questions as: What are students capable of learning? What does "historical understanding" mean? What kinds of content and sequence within the curriculum are most consistent with it? And-perhaps most neglected-What would teaching for historical understanding look like in practice?
This special section contains a variety of perspectives on these questions. Although the authors speak with neither a single voice nor on a single topic, considered as a whole their writings show how teaching history for understanding can be informed by overlapping developments in historical scholarship, research on children's historical thinking, and documentation of promising classroom practices. As several authors point out, children and adolescents are capable of more sophisticated historical understanding than was once thought possible. Such understanding is only likely to develop, however, by reconsidering what history is deemed most significant and how to teach it.

Although exhortations to teach history for understanding rather than for the mere transmission of historical information are as old as the social studies,2 only now are we witnessing the emergence of a body of research and documented educational practice on this critical subject.3 A start has been made in describing what it is that youngsters "do" when they "study" history. This is heartening news to those of us who have long believed that history teaching and learning doesn't have to be dominated by the values and reasoning incorporated in textbooks and other second-hand sources.

Children and adolescents can-and ought to-do the work of formulating historical problems, locating relevant information, grappling with evidence, weighing alternative explanations, and reaching justified conclusions for themselves. It is, after all, just these kinds of activities that social studies educators have traditionally cited as essential to the education of an informed and humane citizenry. There is also growing reason to conclude that students "doing" history for themselves enhances both their motivation and reflective powers beyond what is ordinarily obtained from textbook-based instruction.

Broadly speaking, the sequence of articles in this section moves from research bearing on youngsters' historical understanding to alternative conceptions of the history curriculum, to teachers' accounts of how they approach teaching history for understanding. While each article stands on its own, these articles add up to more than the sum of their parts. My characterization of the sequence as moving from the more theoretical to the more practical is misleading, insofar as the concerns raised overlap and even the most research-oriented articles are replete with practical implications for the classroom.

The first two articles examine how children make sense of history. Keith Barton sets the tone by presenting two composite and contrasting cases of how elementary school children are taught history. Barton points out that American elementary school children typically proceed from the "holiday" curriculum of the primary grades4 into a curriculum heavily slanted toward institutional political history. He outlines the problems posed by this sort of curriculum, and suggests workable alternatives for teaching history in the upper elementary grades.

Next, three researchers from the United Kingdom-where there has been more continuous attention to youngsters' historical understanding than in the United States-examine how children at different levels struggle with using historical facts to formulate cause and effect relationships. Causation, of course, is at the heart of historical understanding. Based on their study, Rosalyn Ashby, Peter Lee and Alaric Dickinson question the prevalent assumption in school history instruction that children will construct sound causal explanations from the factual information imparted to them. Their research supports the conclusion that explicit instruction is required if children are to understand how one thing causes another.

The articles by Peter Seixas and Terrie Epstein take up the equally important issue of historical significance. Seixas points to another assumption that underlies much of the history curriculum: that children know by themselves how to discern what is historically significant from what is not. As Seixas pointedly notes, North American social studies curriculum guides rarely even mention historical significance as a topic for study. Yet his study of diverse groups of high school students in British Columbia shows how perilous it is to assume that youngsters will identify as historically significant what teachers and other authoritative sources tell them.

In a related vein, Epstein examines research on sociocultural approaches to historical understanding, and concludes that what students judge historically significant is substantially shaped by the social and cultural characteristics of the learner. Although this phenomenon has long been familiar to professional historians,5 until recently few have explored what it might mean for children's understanding of history. In one revealing case, for instance, Epstein describes how greatly European American and African American high school students differ in the degree to which they trust in the authority of the textbook.

"Historical understanding" naturally raises the question: Understand what? All social studies educators today confront two conflicting demands: teaching for understanding and presenting a more inclusive curriculum. We are simultaneously urged to teach in depth for mastery and to adopt a broader focus to incorporate the experiences of traditionally marginalized groups. Both demands seem right. The next two articles deal with this dilemma.

Margaret Smith Crocco leads off with a particular concern: despite the sea change in attention to women's history in colleges and universities over the last generation, the subject nevertheless remains peripheral in many school survey courses in U.S. and world history. Crocco acknowledges that such courses are typically overcrowded and that more curricular space is unlikely to be forthcoming. She suggests a variety of feasible strategies to incorporate women's experiences as more than a mere sidelight to the main story.

Similarly concerned about teaching in meaningful depth within the constraints set by limited instructional time, Bruce VanSledright addresses a standard topic in the curriculum, and contrasts two approaches to the "same" subject matter of American colonial history. In a manner reminiscent of Jerome Bruner's concern with the "structure" of subject matter,6 VanSledright shows how curriculum built around powerful ideas may foster a richer understanding of history-and without requiring additional instructional time.

The next two articles are firsthand accounts by teachers of how they present history for understanding. Jeanette L. Groth, a middle school teacher, talks with researcher Maria Albert about the integration of the arts in her social studies curriculum. Their dialogue focuses on a variety of arts-based classroom activities that contribute to children's historical understanding. Far from distracting from history, this use of the arts can simultaneously enhance the presentation of content while providing multiple paths to learning. The article by Amy Thompson Leigh and Tina Ossege Reynolds underscores how to involve children in "doing" history by starting with familiar knowledge and working backward into the past.

First-hand rather than second-hand instruction in history is, of course, not the norm in United States classrooms.7 Pressure on teachers for traditional forms of coverage emerges not only from official sources but also from custom-that's the way parents, principals, and students expect things to proceed in history classes. Yet, as much of the evidence here suggests, conventional approaches to history instruction often fail to reach students. Linda Levstik concludes this special section with an exciting look at the puzzles and promises involved in the use of an apprenticeship approach to help students develop a reflective and perspectival outlook on history.

1 M. T. Downey and L. S. Levstik, "Teaching and Learning History" in J. P. Shaver, ed., Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 400-410.
2 H. Johnson, Teaching of History in Elementary and Secondary Schools, with Application to Allied Studies, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1940).
3 J. Alleman and J. Brophy, "Teaching that Lasts: College Students' Reports of Learning Activities Experienced in Elementary School Social Studies" in Social Science Record 31, 1 (1994), 42-46; J. Brophy, "Teaching Social Studies for Understanding and Higher-order Applications" in Elementary School Journal 90 (1990), 351-417; T. Holt, Thinking Historically: Narrative, Imagination, and Understanding (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1990); D. Kobrin, "'It's My Country, Too': A Proposal for a Student Historian's History of the United States" in Teachers College Record 94 (1992), 329-342; L. S. Levstik, "Building a Sense of History in a First-grade Class" in J. Brophy, ed., Advances in Research on Teaching, Vol. 4, Case Studies of Teaching and Learning in Social Studies (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1993), 1-31; P. Seixas, "Parallel Crises: History and the Social Studies Curriculum in the USA" in Journal of Curriculum Studies 25 (1993), 235-250; S. J. Thornton, "Toward the Desirable in Social Studies Teaching" in Brophy, Advances in Research on Teaching, 157-178, "The Social Studies Near Century's End: Reconsidering Patterns of Curriculum and Instruction" in L. Darling-Hammond, ed., Review of Research in Education 20 (Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 1994), 223-254; S. S. Wineburg, "Probing the Depths of Students' Historical Knowledge" in Perspectives: American Historical Association Newsletter 30, 3 (1992), 18, 21, 23-24.
4 See R. E. Gross, "The Holiday Curriculum" in Social Education 37 (1973), 670-673.
5 See, for example, E. H. Carr, What Is History? (New York: Vintage, 1961), A. Meier and E. Rudwick, Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915-1980 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1986).
6 J. Bruner, The Process of Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960).
7 J. I. Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984).

Stephen J. Thornton is Associate Professor of Social Studies and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.