Social Education
February 1998
Volume 62 Number 2

Connecting Narrative and Historical Thinking: A Research-Based Approach to Teaching History

Robert H. Mayer

In the early seventies, history teachers experienced one of those golden educational moments. The inquiry method was upon us. As a result, we took a step toward transforming our students from memorizers of dry facts into historians. I remember clearly my own early experiences teaching with the inquiry approach.
In the assigned textbook was a letter written by Sarah Chase,1 a Quaker from Massachusetts who went to Georgia in 1863 to help educate the freed slaves. The drama of Sarah Chase’s experiences, her feelings of paranoia living in a world of hostile Southerners, and the elation she experienced at witnessing the eagerness of children learning, generated an immediacy that was not present elsewhere in the arid and, yes, boring text. With such allies as Ms. Chase, it seemed possible to make history an exciting experience for my students. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. Despite the beauty and power of documents like the Chase letter, and despite my irrepressible idealism, the inquiry strategy was not quite working.
There were two major problems with the way I carried out the approach. First of all, I was unable to help the students integrate the liveliness of documents with the inert facts taught elsewhere. Secondly, I did not know which analytical skills my students needed so that they could turn documents into historical learning.
The easiest solution would have been to abandon inquiry all together but I knew intuitively that this would be a mistake. Though I could not express it then, I now have the language to explain why. Inquiry generates an authenticity which fuels genuine excitement, as the students in Keith Barton’s study discovered.2 This authenticity is due to at least three factors. First, if the teacher chooses documents carefully enough, the human elements of a historic moment can come through. Sarah Chase’s letter, for example, brims with a passion as she describes the uncertain situation for teachers of freed slaves in the South. Second, as Wineburg points out, inquiry is authentic because it echoes the work of historians.3 Finally, the sort of thinking students are encouraged to do in inquiry has a usefulness beyond the field of history. Students learn how to support worthy claims with evidence, an act which students could observe adults doing or attempting to do in many contemporary venues.
The problems I encountered in using the inquiry method suggest to me the challenge that history teachers face today as we begin a serious discussion about how to reshape history teaching and elevate standards for history learning. How do we teach the analytic process for engaging in historic inquiry while also giving students entree into both the overall story suggested by the basic events and the immediacy of historic happenings?
Fortunately, over the last ten years, there has been an impressive body of research in history teaching which can help in answering this question. In the remainder of this article, I want to talk primarily about three research agendas: Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown’s research on reading history texts, Linda Levstik’s investigation into narrative, and Samuel Wineburg’s studies on the expert thinking of historians. After discussing them individually, I will consider how these findings, considered collectively, would have helped me in those days when I struggled to integrate the teaching of inquiry with the teaching of basic historical knowledge.

McKeown and Beck on Reading Text
McKeown and Beck want to know how to help students learn history better when they read texts. They start with the following assumption. Knowledge we possess is not scattered in our thinking, but has some organization. McKeown and Beck then offer a plain but elegant suggestion.4 History needs to be presented to students as a simple coherent narrative so they can discern a “causal chain of events.”5 Such connected discourse provides students with a frame or schema for organizing knowledge. In an empirical study with fourth and fifth graders, Beck, McKeown et al. found that when students read a history text that had been reorganized into a lucid and connected structure, they learned more than students who used a text employing a more disconnected telling.6 This suggests that history teachers should emphasize the overall story if they want to help students learn history.
Beck and McKeown point to the following example from a trade book by Jean Fritz:

England had been fighting a long and expensive war, and when it was over, the question was how to pay the bills. Finally a government official suggested that one way to raise money was to tax Americans.
“What a good idea!” King George said. “After all, the French and Indian part of the war had been fought on American soil for the benefit of Americans, so why shouldn’t they help pay for it?”7

This brief sample conveys a straightforward connecting of two events, the French and Indian War and the taxation of the colonists. The clear explanation reaches out to students through activity and dialogue.8
McKeown and Beck make one other important claim.9 They assert that even with well written text, students will have difficulty grasping what they read if they lack the prior knowledge necessary to understand the connections within the account. Without concepts such as “no taxation without representation” and “colony,” students in one McKeown and Beck study were unable to bind individual facts into a lucid explanation of what caused the American Revolution.
Beck and McKeown’s research suggest several questions. Even if students understand text better because of coherent tellings, will they be engaged in the text? More importantly, will students go beyond remembering the story presented in text to critically examining how the story was constructed? These questions lead us to the work of Linda Levstik.

Levstik and Narrative Construction in History
Linda Levstik explores how the construction of history as narrative affects students’ historical understanding. As with Beck and McKeown, Levstik’s description of narrative includes elements which make for connected tellings.10 According to Levstik, narrative is “story-like” in that it is “expected to go somewhere, to have some point or conclusion.”11 Where Beck and McKeown draw their conclusions from more controlled studies, Levstik employs a case method that examines the messy world of elementary classrooms and the talk of young people.
Students in Levstik’s case studies found a richness in the narrative telling of historic events, especially when it was contained in historical fiction.12 Levstik argues that there are a variety of reasons young people are excited to study history when it is presented in a novel. First of all, the “humanizing details,” such as the descriptions of daily life and people’s feelings, draw the students in.13 Secondly, the conflict within historic novels often revolves around moral issues. Students identify with a character who is confronted with such a moral dilemma. Finally, fiction often explores what Levstik calls the “border areas” or “extremes” of human experience, such as the Holocaust or the genocide of native Americans.14
Take, for example, this scene from My Brother Sam is Dead, a novel about the American Revolution. The dialogue between Sam, a young college student, and his father takes place at a dinner of stew and beer one day after the battle of Lexington. It begins with Sam’s words.

“They say the whole colony of Massachusetts is ready to fight and if Massachusetts fights, Connecticut will fight, too.”
Finally my father lost his temper and slammed his hand down on the table, making the plates jump. “I will not have treason spoken in my house, Sam.”
“Father, that isn’t treas—”
Father raised his hand, and for a moment I thought he was going to reach across the table and hit Sam. But instead he slammed it down on the table again. “In my house I will decide what constitutes treason.”15

Though fiction is apparently a potent force for involving students in the study of history, does it encourage students to examine history critically and go on to think like historians? The answer growing from Levstik’s research is “not necessarily.”
Levstik observed that students did not automatically question the veracity of the books they were reading. Nonetheless, she found that certain factors within the narrative form itself encouraged students to become interpreters of events.16 For instance, historic fiction often presents multiple perspectives of events through the conflicts between protagonists and antagonists. These conflicts can echo the moral dilemmas contained within actual events. As students make moral judgments about the situations within the novel, they also make judgments or interpretations about the historic events themselves. Such conflicts can be seen in the above excerpt from My Brother Sam.
Though narrative presents the opportunity for students to think like historians, Levstik argues that teacher mediation is necessary if students are to critically examine the story being presented in any text.17 Levstik goes on to argue that, without such mediation, students may be lulled into acceptance of the story told within well written historical fiction. Clearly, we need images of how to help students examine the veracity of text. This concern takes us to the work of Samuel Wineburg.

Wineburg and Historical Thinking
Samuel Wineburg, in a recent study, examined the differences between the ways expert historians and novice historians think.18 To get at this distinction, Wineburg asked eight historians from a variety of areas and eight eleventh grade honors students to read a group of primary and secondary documents on the Battle of Lexington and to study three paintings depicting the same event. Where the students worked to comprehend the basic meaning of the text, the historians took their reading to a deeper level.
Wineburg observed that the historians used three central heuristics in their reading of a document: sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization. In sourcing a document, the historians considered first who created the text, and second, what the biases of the author were. By examining multiple tellings of the same events, the historians confirmed information and the validity of their viewpoints across several accounts. Finally, via contextualization, events were placed in a particular moment and a particular world.
Wineburg has also noted that historians explored a document’s subtext by considering it both as rhetorical artifact and as human instrument.19 The artifact is rhetorical in that it is written for some purpose. For instance, the document written by a group of colonists to the British parliament, describing the events at Lexington, was designed to sway parliament. As human instruments, documents reveal something about the person doing the writing. After analyzing a series of documents, the historians would cognitively construct an event model against which they could evaluate other tellings of the event. These historians clearly read in ways which were very different from the students.
To illustrate Wineburg’s rubric, a series of lesson plans for a unit on Reconstruction can be built around two artifacts: the diary of a Southern planter from South Carolina and the Senate testimony of a freed slave.20 By analyzing these documents, which represent opposing perspectives, students are encouraged to generate a Rxeconstruction narrative. They begin by looking at the rhetorical nature of each document. This means that they must consider how the difference between writing a diary and giving testimony before the Senate might affect the telling of events. Next, they are given biographical information about the two authors and asked to explain what each is like as a person.
Students are then ready to look at the content of each author’s message. The students “interview” each author to gather his perspective on what life was like in the post-Civil War South, including such matters as work arrangements for the freed slaves and their treatment by white Southerners. Students are asked to ponder these views in the light of each author’s unique perspective and hence his bias. By considering author perspective, they are sourcing the document.
Next, students are asked to corroborate discussions of events across accounts. Though the sources and hence perspectives are different, it is interesting that certain images of Reconstruction are corroborated across accounts. For instance, students see that both authors make references to violence against African Americans and both authors refer to the ill-defined and unfair wage structure offered to the freed slaves. Finally, the students are asked to contextualize the two viewpoints. By studying data on the South Carolina county where the planter lived, the planter’s views—and, indeed, the entire Reconstruction story—are placed in the context of the impoverished South.
These lessons encourage students to emulate the thinking of the historians in Wineburg’s study. Wineburg’s rubric offers the teacher a means of teaching students how to get inside historic documents so they can gain a sense of immediacy as they become familiar with the people and viewpoints within one particular narrative. In contrast to the fabricated dialogues from historical fiction, students encounter the actual voices from discussions within history.

Conclusion: Connecting Narrative and Inquiry
Reflecting on my own use of inquiry instruction, I realize that the problems I experienced were not with the inquiry approach itself, but rather with my interpretation and use of the method. The three research agendas I have just described suggest ways to construe and adapt the inquiry method for more substantial impact.
The lesson I derive from this is as follows: Students will be more successful at learning history if it is taught in a way that allows them to move back and forth between learning the narrative itself and understanding how the narrative is constructed. Though students should focus on gaining a basic historical narrative at an elementary school age, they should also learn initial thinking skills that allow them to critique that narrative. At the high school level, students should focus on learning how to think historically in order to deepen their understanding of the historical narrative.
The work with elementary-aged students by Beck and McKeown and Levstik suggests that students will more readily engage in and learn history when it is taught as coherent narrative. If history is taught early and often, students will gain a necessary knowledge base for doing more sophisticated forms of inquiry. Remembering that the students in Beck and McKeown’s study needed a knowledge base to grasp the gist of the basic story, one can imagine the extent of knowledge needed to engage in the sort of thinking historians did in the Wineburg study.
If teachers want their students to think historically in high school, teaching only the narrative to students at an early age is not enough. As Levstik argues, teacher mediation is necessary to draw out the characteristics in narrative, especially historical fiction, which emphasize interpretive aspects of the telling. There is a growing body of research to suggest that elementary students are capable of sophisticated forms of historic thinking.21 We need more research in order to construct a clearer road map to know appropriate times for teaching particular thinking skills.
If students enter high school with a rich historical knowledge base and with basic experiences using historic inquiry, they will be positioned to engage in more sophisticated forms of historic thinking. The historian’s heuristics mapped out by Wineburg provide teachers with a wonderful tool for envisioning inquiry skills that can be taught directly. But teaching students to think in this manner does not mean we abandon narrative.
As the historians in Wineburg’s research attest, the reading of primary documents can also generate interesting tales. If we, for instance, read the human subtext of a document, we see the writer (protagonist) as a person acting in events and writing a rhetorical document to some actual group of people. If we read the documents of others who hold opposing views from those of the first author (antagonists), we can explore the multiple tellings of real events and the human conflicts implied. Contextualization allows us to better interpret the document, but it also helps explore the broader setting of the narrative. Students can then use their analysis of these documents to construct a hypothetical narrative that makes sense given the evidence, and to compare it to competing hypothetical constructions.
As I reflect on my own experience with inquiry, I realize that Sarah Chase’s voice got lost in the jumble of facts from the textbook. My students missed the overall story. Part of the tale is contained in Sarah Chase’s post-Civil War observation about the South: “The feeling is intensely bitter against anything northern.”22 Conflict also becomes apparent when students hear the following statement from a speech given by President Johnson around the same time: “I can tell you, my countrymen, I have been fighting traitors in the south, and they have been whipped, and say they were wrong,... and accept the terms of the constitution.”23 The plot unravels as students consider how these starkly different perspectives lead to opposing ideas on how the South should be reconstructed.
Overall, I envision a powerful form of history instruction where students learn to inquire like historians and to experience the immediacy of events through primary documents. Such learning begins and ends with narrative. The narrative within historical novels engages students in the basic story while laying the seeds for inquiry. Students can go further through the analysis of documents and the construction of their own narratives. This linking of narrative with the teaching of historical thinking suggests a new and compelling image of the history classroom, an image which includes students who know history, students who know how historic work is done, and students who know how to construct history on their own.

1. Sarah Chase, “A Northern Teacher in Georgia,” in L. P. Todd and Merle Curti, eds., Rise of the American Nation (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977).
2. 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 (1996).
3. Samuel S. Wineburg, “Historical Problem Solving: A Study of the Cognitive Processes Used in the Evaluation of Documentary and Pictorial Evidence,” Journal of Educational Psychology 83 (1991): 73-87.
4. Margaret G. McKeown and Isabel L. Beck, “Making Sense of Accounts of History: Why Young Students Don’t and How They Might,” in Gaea Leinhardt, Isabel L. Beck, and Catherine Stainton, eds., Teaching and Learning in History (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994).
5. Isabel Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Erika W. Gromoll, “Learning from Social Studies Text,” Cognition and Instruction 6 (1989): 132.
6. Isabel Beck, Margaret. G. McKeown, Gale M. Sinatra and Jane A. Loxterman, “Revising Social Studies Text from a Text-Processing Perspective: Evidence of Improved Comprehensibility,” Reading Research Quarterly 26 (1991): 251-76.
7. Jean Fritz, Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? (New York: Random House, 1977), 30.
8. McKeown and Beck (1994).
9. Margaret G. McKeown and Isabel L. Beck, “The Assessment and Characterization of Young Learners’ Knowledge of a Topic in History,” American Educational Research Journal 27 (1990): 688-726.
10. Linda S. Levstik, “Narrative Constructions: Cultural Frames for History,” The Social Studies 86 (1995): 113-116.
11. Ibid., 113.
12. Linda S. Levstik, “The Relationship between Historical Response and Narrative in a Sixth-Grade Classroom,” Theory and Research in Social Education 14 (1986): 1-19; “Historical Narrative and the Young Reader,” Theory into Practice 28 (1989), 114-119.
13. Levstik (1989), p. 115.
14. Ibid.
15. James L. Collier and Christopher Collier, My Brother Sam is Dead (New York: Scholastic, 1974), 6.
16. Levstik (1995).
17. Linda S. Levstik, “Any History is Always Someone’s History: Listening to Multiple Stories in History,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York (1996).
18. Wineburg (1991).
19. Samuel S. Wineburg, “The Cognitive Representation of Historical Texts,” in Gaea Leinhardt, Isabel L. Beck, and Catherine Stainton, eds., Teaching and Learning in History (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994).
20. The lesson plan outlined here, which I created, is the subject of a forthcoming article: Robert H. Mayer, “Two Actors in Search of a Story: Using Primary Documents to Raise the Dead and Improve History Instruction,” Magazine of History, In press.
21. Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997).
22. Chase, 425.
23. Andrew Johnson, “President Johnson’s Cleveland speech,” in W. L. Fleming, ed., Documentary History of Reconstruction: Political, Military, Social, Religious, Educational & Industrial, 1865 to the Present Time (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1960).

Robert H. Mayer is Associate Professor of Education at Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The author wishes to express his deepest thanks to Linda Levstik, Richard E. Mayer and Greg Skutches for their careful and critical reading of this paper.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.