Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past

By Sam Wineburg

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. 255 pp.


Reviewed by Elizabeth Anne Yeager

The lament that “kids don’t know history” is very familiar to us today. As Sam Wineburg shows, it has also been a recurring theme throughout the history of American schooling. Wineburg argues in his newly published Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past that this lament “rests on shaky ground. . . . It may be that we have spent so much time discovering . . . what students don’t know that we have neglected more useful questions about young people’s historical knowledge” (p. viii). These “useful questions,” which are potentially fascinating for history teachers, revolve around what both students and teachers know and understand, how they know it, how they make historical meaning, and how they situate themselves within the broader scope of history.

Wineburg, who is professor of cognitive studies in education and adjunct professor of history at the University of Washington in Seattle, has clearly established himself as one of the foremost authorities on such questions. His work over the past decade has enriched conceptions of engaging history pedagogy through a better “understanding of historical understanding” (p. xi). Because his book rests on the assumption that “history teaches us a way to make choices, to balance opinions, to tell stories, and to become uneasy—when necessary—about the stories we tel#148; (p. ix), an “understanding of historical understanding” seems an appropriate starting point in an exploration of the many uses to which history study can be put.

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts could also be referred to as
The Wineburg Reader. It assembles previously published articles, essays, and speeches by Wineburg on historical thinking and understanding into one convenient volume that is an excellent resource for history teachers. The book is organized into four parts: Why Study History?, Challenges for the Student, Challenges for the Teacher, and History as National Memory.

Part One provides an overview of major themes of the book, reflecting on the “History Wars” in the standards movement of the 1980s and 1990s, then surveying research on the teaching and learning of history. Most important, Wineburg uses this section to focus on the question of why teach history, a question that he argues was lost in the rancorous debate over which history should be taught.

The “challenges faced by novices in learning history” (p. xii) are the focus of Part Two, which includes one of Wineburg’s best and most-cited articles, “On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach Between School and Academy,” an exploration of the differences in how professional historians and high school students read and interpret historical documents.

Three essays about history teaching, all co-written with Suzanne Wilson, are included in Part Three. They grew from Wineburg and Wilson’s work with Lee Shulman’s Teacher Assessment Project at Stanford University. Two pieces, each of which profiles exemplary history teachers with diverse approaches to their subject matter, are especially fine: “Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History” and “Wrinkles in Time and Place: Using Performance Assessments to Understand the Knowledge of History Teachers.”

Finally, Part Four “seeks a broader context for history instruction by considering it alongside other ‘memory sites’ in society . . . the home, the community, the church, and the ‘cultural history curriculum’ of the larger society” (p. xii-xiii), with essays about addressing moral ambiguity and controversy in the history classroom, and about the nature of collective and historical memory within the context of the Vietnam War.

I asked an eighth-grade U. S. history teacher who had read Wineburg’s book about what was most compelling for him in these essays. He immediately cited “Wrinkles in Time and Place: Using Performance Assessments to Understand the Knowledge of History Teachers” in Part Three. More than simply encouraging him to think about teacher performance assessments, the essay motivated him to reflect on the nature of history, the methods of presentation of historical content, and the assessment of students’ understandings of that content. It profiled two teachers, Mr. Barnes and Ms. Kelsey, and their very different teaching approaches, with Barnes, the highly experienced teacher, more focused on the “facts,” and Ms. Kelsey, the newer teacher, more focused on a constructivist approach heavily emphasizing the use of historical documents. The authors purposefully contrasted the two teachers, both products of their own understandings of the nature of history, in terms of three main characteristics: how they grade essays, how they evaluate textbooks, and how they use historical documents. Wineburg and Wilson admit their bias toward Ms. Kelsey’s constructivist/document-based approach, but they realize that it is idealistic and clearly acknowledge the merits of Mr. Barnes’s more traditional teaching as well.

One of the main points of this chapter is the complexity of the act of history teaching and the difficulty of assessing history teachers’ effectiveness. The complexity of assessing history teaching, however, also reflects a larger problem: that, when it comes to “understanding historical understanding,” there is no such thing as “one size fits all.” The teacher with whom I talked believed that this insight had profound implications for his own teaching. Furthermore, the issues raised in Part Three caused him to compare himself with the “model teachers” presented by Wineburg and Wilson, and to reflect on his own beliefs about history, how he communicates those beliefs to his students, and how he helps his students make historical meaning for themselves.

Although the book covers a great deal of territory, the fact that Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts comprises a wide-ranging assortment of issues can be viewed as a strength of the book from the standpoint of a reflective practitioner hoping to enrich his or her understandings of the historical enterprise. Wineburg would also have done well to have written a concluding chapter in which he shared his own reflections about his work, his beliefs, and the themes of his book.

One especially powerful theme can be discerned consistently throughout the book, and it relates to Wineburg’s intriguing title. Historical thinking, he repeatedly illustrates, is “neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development” (p. 7). Instead, it is an “unnatural act” for us—a complex, challenging, multifaceted, and contested process. More important, it is also a stimulating, engaging process that can be learned under the watchful guidance of good teachers.


Elizabeth Anne Yeager is an associate professor of social studies education at the University of Florida and editor of Theory and Research in Social Education.