History-It Can be Elementary

An Overview of Elementary Students' Understanding of History

Keith C. Barton

History occupies a curiously fractured position in elementary schools. Virtually absent in the primary grades-or limited to a few mythical stories of presidents and Pilgrims-it quickly comes to dominate the social studies curriculum in the intermediate grades, when students are expected to master centuries of state, national, and world history in three years. Teachers in fourth grade and beyond often feel pressured to cover massive amounts of material, in part because students enter their classes having learned so little history previously. Primary teachers, on the other hand, resist adding more of this textbook-driven content to their own curriculum since they understandably consider it inappropriate for young children. Given this peculiar arrangement-from three or four years of almost no history to excessive coverage for three years-it's no wonder that children retain little of what they were expected to learn in elementary school.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Recent research on elementary students' historical knowledge and understanding points toward more appropriate ways of teaching the subject to children from kindergarten through sixth grade. This research identifies several consistent patterns in the way students think about history, as well as the areas they know the most (and the least) about. Teachers can use the results of these studies to design cognitively sound history instruction-instruction that builds on what students already know and addresses the gaps or misunderstandings in their knowledge. By keeping in mind the findings discussed below, primary teachers can introduce students to meaningful history long before fourth grade, while teachers in the intermediate grades can help students learn much more than barely understood and quickly forgotten facts.

Two Students Encounter History
By the time they reached junior high, Dwight and Marisa had undergone very different experiences with the history they encountered at school. Dwight's experience was a familiar one. In the primary grades, his curriculum followed the "expanding horizons" approach, and his exposure to history was largely limited to holiday celebrations-Thanksgiving, Presidents' Day, and Martin Luther King's birthday. Attention to history increased somewhat in fourth grade, as his class engaged in a month-long unit on the state's history and prepared reports on notable settlers and statesmen for a Heritage Day celebration. History was a constant feature of Dwight's fifth grade experience, as he and his classmates systematically worked through their U. S. history textbooks, read Johnny Tremain, and staged a mock trial between colonists and the British. Sixth grade featured world history, again centered around a chronological textbook and supplemented by making salt-and-flour maps of Mesopotamia and reading Number the Stars.
Marisa's experience was very different. In the primary years, she regularly had a chance to learn about history; in first grade, for example, she and her classmates brought in old objects each day for History Show and Tell. In third grade, as part of a thematic unit on "Conflict and Cooperation," they learned about the civil rights movement, the Holocaust, and Japanese American internment during World War II. In fourth grade, her class worked in small groups using artifacts, trade books and interviews to prepare displays on change over time for "Grandparents' Day."

Marisa's fifth grade curriculum was part of a larger social studies curriculum focusing on "Freedom"; topics included the American Revolution, abolitionism, the women's rights movement, and apartheid in South Africa. Similarly, in sixth grade the class learned about history as part of a social studies program that centered on "Encounters" both in history and in the world today-such as the colonization of the New World, European imperialism in Africa, and the war in Bosnia. In both fifth and sixth grades, Marisa and her classmates spent a great deal of their time using historical fiction, trade books, and other reference sources to compare the experiences of people with differing perspectives on historical events.

Both Dwight and Marisa represent composites of the experience of many different students, and it's not hard to tell which is meant to be the more desirable portrait. But on closer inspection, teachers reasonably may ask whether Dwight's experience is really so bad. After all, he did have significant exposure to history, particularly after fourth grade, and his experience did include active involvement-presentations, a mock trial, making a map-as well as integration with language arts. Teachers might also ask whether Marisa's experience is really practical. Won't students be confused by conflicting perspectives? Won't studying history thematically rather than chronologically get in the way of covering the content? And, can primary students really understand anything as abstract as history? For years, answers to questions like these relied largely on conjecture; recently, however, research has begun to provide systematic information on the possibilities- and the problems - in elementary students' historical understanding.

Experiencing the Past
Research shows that students learn a great deal about history outside of school, even though they may not be familiar with the word history itself, or may not see the connection between what they have learned and "school history." Even kindergartners have some accurate ideas about how life was different in the past, and as students get older they have an increasingly complete store of information about change over time and about specific events and time periods. This information comes from their encounters outside of school-with historic buildings and sites, artifacts, stories told by relatives, and images presented in the media. Perhaps because they usually encounter these sources in positive and interesting contexts, many students approach history-at least before they study it at school-with interest and enthusiasm.1
Marisa's teachers built on such positive expectations by taking their students' previous experiences seriously. She and her classmates were excited when it was their turn to bring in an object for History Show and Tell, whether it was a family heirloom, a baby bottle, or a baseball card from last summer. These were things they and their families had saved, and they were eager to explain their meaning and significance. When Marisa later studied conflict and cooperation, her teacher also began with students' experiences: she asked whether they had ever been treated unfairly, how they felt about it, and how they had responded.

By fifth and sixth grades, Marisa's teachers used KWL charts (with columns for what students Knew, Wanted to Know, and Learned) as a constant feature of instruction. They found that students knew a great deal about some topics-such as World War II. They also discovered basic misconceptions-such as the belief that Martin Luther King "freed the slaves." By taking this information into account, Marisa's teachers saw what knowledge they could extend and refine, which understandings needed to be developed, and which misconceptions had to be addressed.

Marisa's teachers also built on the sources of her historical knowledge. Outside school, students learn about the past primarily from people, visual images, and tangible objects-not from textbooks. While exposing students to the analytic prose of history texts may be one goal of instruction, it makes no sense as a starting point. In the primary grades, Marisa was able to use the sources she was already comfortable and familiar with: she talked to relatives, handled old objects, looked at pictures, and went to places in the community. In the intermediate grades, she increasingly used trade books and other written sources of information, but these were sources that included large numbers of pictures or first-hand accounts. By drawing upon familiar kinds of sources, Marisa's classroom became an extension of her learning outside school. For Dwight, on the other hand, school history remained unfamiliar territory, a subject that had little connection to the understanding he had already begun to develop from his family, his community, or the media.

Social and Political History
One of the biggest obstacles to Dwight's understanding of history lay in the focus on institutional political history: the development of nations, constitutions, laws, political parties, and foreign relations. While these topics make up the content of most elementary textbooks and official curricula, they are among the most difficult topics for young students to understand, and are a particularly poor introduction to history.
In the primary grades, Dwight learned about people who have guided the development of our country's constitutional democracy-people such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. But because he knew so little about the nature of government, he came away with only superficial understanding: Washington had gray hair, Lincoln wore a tall hat, Parks sat on a bus, and King made a speech. His encounter with political history became an even bigger hindrance in the intermediate grades. Like many fourth-graders, he studied "state history," which emphasized his state's admission to the union, the writing of three state constitutions, and the names of early governors. Predictably, he forgot most of this information as soon as Heritage Day was over.

The focus on politics extended into fifth and sixth grades and continued to confuse Dwight. He and his classmates, for example, never understood the relationship between the North American colonies and Great Britain, and wondered why the colonists didn't just buy their tea from somewhere else if they didn't like the taxes. Since the curriculum in these grades focused solely on historical events, Dwight never learned directly about political, religious, and economic institutions or their role in society; his textbooks simply took for granted that students understood these topics.

A major finding of recent research is that students know more about some historical topics than others. Most importantly, they know a great deal about social history-both changes in material culture and changes in social relations. Even kindergartners know that covered wagons came before cars, and as students grow older, they have an increasingly large store of information about changes in clothing, technology, and architecture. Some students also know (especially by fourth grade) that European Americans have held negative stereotypes about African Americans and Native Americans, and that women faced more restrictions in the past than they do today. Students frequently point to these kinds of topics-changes in everyday life and the way people treated each other-as their favorite topics in history.

But children younger than about fifth grade have a very limited understanding of the nature and purpose of the government, politics, and economic institutions. Unless directly asked, children younger than fifth grade rarely even mention such topics when discussing the past. Older students sometimes refer to particular Presidents and various wars, but may have only superficial or confused information about them-and their understanding sometimes remains superficial and confused even after studying them. When students in the intermediate grades study political or economic developments-such as the colonization of North America or the American Revolution-they tend to interpret them solely in terms of the actions and desires of individuals, and to misunderstand or ignore the role of government and economics.2

Marisa's experiences at school began with her understanding of social history and helped her to develop an understanding of societal institutions and their role in history. In the early grades, she looked at photographs, handled artifacts, and engaged in dramatic play. Because she already knew that areas such as fashion and technology were different in the past, it was easy for her to make sense of the new information she encountered. Studying "Conflict and Cooperation" built on her background knowledge of how people think, feel, and behave, and this unit expanded her understanding to other times and places. In studying the history of race and gender relations, for example, her teachers emphasized that human behavior doesn't occur in a vacuum. Attitudes are not purely individual phenomena: people don't hate each other just because they don't know any better, and they don't suddenly "figure it out." Instead, Marisa learned about the forces that influence behavior-the way laws, religion, the economy, or other social institutions shape attitudes, constrain behavior, or provide a catalyst for change.

In the intermediate grades, Marisa studied history not in isolation but as part of an integrated social studies curriculum that focused on the nature of society and social relations. Marisa's understanding of the American Revolution was more complete than Dwight's because she was also learning directly about representative government and international trade. Her understanding of relations between Europeans and Native Americans was more complete because she was also learning about culture and the process of culture contact. Although her teachers covered fewer individual topics in history, Marisa understood those she studied much better than do most students.

The Role of Narrative and Evidence
Research has shown that children enjoy history presented in the form of narratives (at least when the stories focus on people).3 But students do not necessarily approach narratives with a critical eye: if they encounter information in the form of a story, they may assume that it's true simply because they're so caught up in the story itself. Research has also shown that elementary students have very little understanding of the way historians use evidence in order to create historical accounts; indeed, they often assume that historians' knowledge of the past has been handed down orally in their families over the generations.4 Children may assume that the stories they read are accurate-or, alternately, that all historical accounts are equally fictional.
In the early grades, Marisa's teachers frequently read aloud historical narratives like The Lily Cupboard, Nettie's Trip South, and Here Comes the Mystery Man. But they also taught students to regard stories about the past critically. Around the time of the Columbus holiday, for example, Marisa's second grade teacher had students compare several picture book accounts of Columbus' voyage, and check what they found with other reference sources. Similarly, in fifth grade students were required to keep track of the questions they had as they read historical fiction-Did they really tar and feather people? Did they shut down Loyalist newspapers? Were there many Loyalists?-and try to find the answers using other sources of information. Just as importantly, Marisa had frequent experience with collecting, analyzing, and drawing conclusions from historical information-creating displays on the history of everyday life in fourth grade, for example, and using primary sources to produce her own narratives in fifth and sixth grades. By having directly experienced the selectivity and interpretation involved in creating historical accounts, Marisa was better prepared to recognize the works of others as authored creations, accounts with varying degrees of reliability.

A second problem with narrative is children's tendency to think of the past as too much like a story. Students often assume, for example, that historical developments proceeded in a linear fashion-that all immigrants moved to the United States before there were any presidents here or that people moved West in covered wagons before there were any cities in the United States. Without guidance, they do not automatically recognize that many things were going on simultaneously, or that different groups of people were having different experiences. In a similar way, students have a limited sense of the scope of history, and overemphasize the importance of abrupt transformations; they may believe, for example, that all immigrants to the United States arrived on a single ship, or that African Americans were treated differently after Martin Luther King gave a speech and suddenly changed people's minds.5

Dwight's encounter with history had the unfortunate effect of strengthening these misconceptions. In the primary grades, he learned about famous people and dramatic events-Columbus "discovering" the New World, Washington fighting for America's freedom, King giving a speech. As a result, he had only simple and vague ideas about the development of the United States and changes in social relations. Although his experience in later grades expanded his historical understanding, Dwight studied each topic in isolation and continued to think of historical events as discrete episodes: there had been a group of explorers, and once they discovered everything, exploration was over. Moreover, each topic was studied from a single perspective-the American Revolution from the Patriots' perspective, the westward movement from the settlers' perspective. Like many students, he believed that all American colonists supported independence, and that everyone in England opposed it-a belief reinforced by a simplistic "debate" between two sides.

Marisa's teachers, on the other hand, devoted themselves to diversifying students' understanding of history and helping them see that people's experiences have always been influenced by factors such as class, race or ethnicity, gender, location and occupation. When discussing books in the primary grades, she and her classmates were asked to think about how a story might look different from someone else's perspective. After reading Ox-Cart Man, for example, students worked in pairs to rewrite the story from a woman's perspective, a child's perspective, and a storekeeper's perspective. In fifth grade, students compared historical fiction focusing on the experiences of Patriots, Loyalists, mercenaries, children, women, and emancipated slaves during the Revolutionary Era.

Even the walls of Marisa's classrooms strengthened her understanding of diversity: instead of a linear timeline with the dates of significant events, she and her classmates developed comparative visual timelines-timelines showing images of men and women, of people from different geographical regions of the world, and of different economic situations.

The implications of recent research may come as little surprise to many who teach history to elementary children. While Marisa's experience as described is exceptional, individual components of it are already found in many classrooms where insightful teachers address the features of students' thinking identified by recent research. Many of these practices, however, stand in contrast to recent policy recommendations affecting state and local curriculum frameworks.
Teachers who are required to march through the centuries at breakneck speed, or who are obliged to tell simplistic stories of legendary heroes, will have little opportunity to base their instruction on sound cognitive principles. But teachers who are willing and able to engage students in active investigations, to build on what young children already know and to address their misconceptions, will stand a good chance of helping them to develop meaningful historical understanding.

1 Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, "'Back when God was Around and Everything:' The Development of Elementary Children's Understanding of Historical Time" in American Educational Research Journal 33(1996), 419-454; Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton, "'They Still Use Some of Their Past:' Historical Salience in Elementary Children's Chronological Thinking" in Journal of Curriculum Studies 28 (1996), 531-576.
2 This research is reviewed more extensively in Keith C. Barton, "'Bossed Around by the Queen:' Elementary Students' Understanding of Individuals and Institutions in History," Journal of Curriculum and Supervision (forthcoming).
3 Linda S. Levstik, "Historical Narrative and the Young Reader" in Theory into Practice 28 (1989), 114-119, "The Relationship between Historical Response and Narrative in a Sixth-grade Classroom" in Theory and Research in Social Education 14 (1986), 1-19; Linda S. Levstik and Christine C. Pappas, "Exploring the Development of Historical Understanding" in Journal of Research and Development in Education 21 (1987), 1-15.
4 Reviewed in Keith C. Barton, "'I Just Kinda Know:' Elementary Students' Ideas about Historical Evidence," paper presented to the College and University Faculty Assembly, National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, DC, November 1996.
5 Keith C. Barton, "Narrative Simplifications in Elementary Children's Historical Understanding" in Jere Brophy, ed., Advances in Research on Teaching, Vol. 6 (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, forthcoming); Bruce A. VanSledright and Jere Brophy, "Storytelling, Imagination, and Fanciful Elaboration in Children's Historical Reconstructions" in American Educational Research Journal 29 (1992), 837-859.

Keith C. Barton is on the faculty of the School of Education at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Kentucky.