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Helping Students
Interpret History
Think for a moment about your experiences studying history, then answer the G_
lowing questions.
1. Identify at least six things that define, for you, the study of history.
2. What appears to dominate your list?
3. To what extent do you emphasize people, events, and dates?
4. To what degree does your definition indicate that history is an ongoing
process of providing meaning?
5. To what degree does your view of history indicate that history provides you
with a set oftrue relationships that connect the past, present, and future?
6. To what extent do you mention the process or methods of obtaining information?
7. Discuss your answers with friends. Do they see history as you do? Explain
your findings.
People need to know about their pasts and their places in world history. This chapter
is concerned with how we learn about our past and how that past can be made
meaningful to us as individuals and as citizens of an increasingly interdependent
nation and world. The study of history is personal and exciting but is often viewed
by students as remote and uninteresting. Students have difficulty giving reasons
for studying history because it does not seem to serve a utilitarian need. Perhaps
this is more a factor of what and whose history has been taught than of the nature
of history and its importance to people.
Elementary teachers play an important role as they provide students with formal
learning experiences in history. Recent investigations into how elementary
and middle school students understand history have described the naIve concepts
or imaginative and inaccurate assumptions students hold. These investigations
challenge the validity of past ways of introducing the study of history to young people.
Therefore, the curriculum and instructional strategies that adults often experienced
in their elementary and middle school years are being seriously questioned
and reevaluated. This chapter investigates several reasons for studying history,
the skills required to study history, the role of interpretation and evidence in the
study of history, and research on how young students begin to examine and interpret
history to identify the contributions it makes to their lives. .
, 1. Differentiate between the definition of history given by scholars and that
used in schools.
2. IdentifY four goals or purposes for the study of history.
3. State a rationale for the study of history in all grades, K-S.
4. Distinguish between the roles of primary and secondary resources in studying
history.
5. Explain why the teaching of history must include the examination of conflicts.
6. Explain why studying particular historical topics is suggested for elementary
and middle school students.
7. Suggest instructional procedures needed to teach young students to think
critically about historical events and people.
S. Describe how timelines are used to assist in developing an understanding of
time.
9. ReflecE on how the learning cycle approach to lessons is appropriate to the
needs of students studying history.
10. IdentifY various resources that can be used to teach history to students.
11. Explain why the role of narrative in teaching and learning history needs additional
study.
12. Suggest multiple roles for the Internet in the teaching of history and evaluate
the practicality of each.
Development: Definition of History
History means different things to different individuals. Even historians do not
agree on a single definition of history or on what constitutes an appropriate historical
problem for investigation. Historians actually refer to themselves by different
names: social historian, military historian, oral historian, archivist, public
historian, interpreter, reenactor, genealogist, and archaeologist. However, historians
generally agree on three important aspects: History is a chronological study
that interprets and gives meaning to events and applies systematic methods to
discover the truth.
Unlike social scientists, historians cannot rely on direct observations and experiments
to gain facts. The historian has only what has been left behind and preserved
to provide hints as to what may have taken place. Some people leave much;
others leave practically nothing. Like the detective, the historian conducts exhaustive
research to find many clues. Discoveries are mostly just clues, not complete
records. They reflect the perspectives and memories of their preservers.
Therefore, the historian interprets the evidence, deciding on the degree of its importance
and accuracy. This is done by applying logic and "best guesses" to knowledge
about the people and their times.
Often a discovery leads to more questions than it can answer. The ability to
place times and events in chronological order is important in establishing causeand-
effect relationships. Historians not only examine the motives and actions of
people, but also often apply principles from science and scientific discoveries to
help them interpret the evidence. Working in history requires logic and persistence.
The task is not complete when the answer is found; the results must be communicated
to others, or the knowledge could be lost forever.
Actually, this explanation is not quite what a professio;nal historian might indicate.
Elliott West, a specialist in the social and environmental history of the
American West, explains that history has no beginning and no end. There is always
more to learn. Of necessity, historians bound their studies with a beginning point
and an end point. But in reality, events took place that predate the topic of your
study, and more history transpires afterward. Knowing about these events can
con~ribute to a deeper and greater understanding and a more meaningful interpretation
of what you have learned. West describes history as an infinite study
"that celebrates a diversity of viewpoints and emphasizes our continuity with, and
responsibility to, the past and future" (West, 2000, p. 1). West goes on to say that
in this infinite quality, the study of history has much in common with the nature
of education for teachers.
Students have various experiences before coming to school and return to different
situations each afternoon. Teachers try to bound their teaching by knowing
developmental characteristics of students at particular ages, but this is only a
small help. Teachers who know the details of the lives of individual students have
a better understanding of the students' interests, fears, and behaviors. Like the
historian, the more teachers know about their students, the better they understand
them.
When studying history, the more students know, the better they can learn.
Young students with limited knowledge and experiences can learn history but not
with the same understanding that the teacher, parent, or scholar has. Just what
students know and are capable of doing at different times throughout their school
careers is largely unknown. Only in recent years has research tried to discover how
students learn history.
Additionally, if constructivists are correct, the problems of teaching history
today differ from those perceived as problems ofteaching history in the past. What
you knew and could understand as a child might not be, because of changes in society
and the world, what today's child can understand. Recent research points out
that students understand time and lots of other concepts needed to learn history
in more sophisticated ways than educators realized in the past. Other research,
particularly large sample test results, illustrates that students might not know
things that we think they know or what we think we knew when we were their
age. Teachers must decide how to use the research findings to improve the teaching
of history while resisting the temptation to do what has always been done or
what others who have little experience with teaching tell you to do.
Brophy and Van Sledright (1997), in reviewing the new research concerning elementary
students' understanding and learning of history, recommend that teachers
ask themselves the following questions to reflect seriously on their approach to
teaching history:
What are the big ideas I need to teach?
How can the study of history pique students' interests?
How can I encourage students to ask important questions about what happened
in the past?
What inaccurate conceptions do my students hold that keep them from completely
understanding the objectives?
How can I help students understand the past and get inside others' experiences?
How can I help students understand that history is an interpretive construction
based on evidence?
They also remind us that some students introduce imagination into their interpretation
of events. They recommend that teachers create assignments and opportunities
to recognize the improper use of imagination and replace it with analysis
of facts to help students make more accurate and logical interpretations.
History in Schools
Historians have played a major role in all the national commissions and committees
since 1892 that have addressed both history and social studies (Hertzberger,
1989). History is one of the specifically identified subjects in goal 3 of the U.S.
Department of Education (1990), which states that history helps to prepare students
for "responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in
our modern economy." The statement goes on to say that "all students will be
knowledgeable about the diverse cultural heritage of this nation and about the
world community" (U.S. Department of Education, 1990, pp. 5-6).
Two important dimensions of citizenship education in a democracy are identified
by Engle and Ochoa (1988). One dimension is socialization, the process
whereby a child comes to accept and support his or her culture. This provides for
the continuity of the society. Engle and Ochoa suggest that for a democracy to continue
to reflect the will of its people, its citizens must also experience a second dimension,
the forces of countersocialization. Such forces require people to examine
their personal and social beliefs and analyze the problems of their nation and
world. Countersocialization activities require views to be supported with reason
and evidence. Such behaviors are needed if citizens in a democracy are to be able
text continues on page 373
to decide which ideas, institutions, programs, and behaviors should continue,
change, or be abolished.
The study of history provides the opportunity for both socialization and
counter-socialization experiences. Engle and Ochoa suggest that very young children
receive instruction that is largely socialization but that some countersocialization
instruction is appropriate in the later elementary grades. The learning
cycle on page 366 on learning from the paintings and drawings of artists is an example
of how to get data from pictures and how artists show events.
The role of the study of history in the schools has been mostly to socialize
students in the U.S. democratic tradition and to prepare them to be citizens.
Much study has been devoted to learning about the origins of the nation and its
struggles to grow physically, politically, and economically. Famous people and
events have tended to dominate the study of history. Perhaps your definition of
history greatly reflects this traditional approach to history. In recent years, social
and ethnic groups have argued for the inclusion of important events and
groups of people not previously studied in an attempt to present a more accurate
interpretation of the nation and world. When asked to reflect on changes
in social studies during their careers, more veteran social studies educators identified
the inclusion of multicultural/global/gender-related education within the
scope of social studies programs as the most important single change in the field
When using social studies textbooks, many students fail to give attention to the pictures and
graphics; at the other extreme, some students think they can just look at the pictures and
know what happened.
1. What similarities are there between a painting of an event and several written
paragraphs about the event?
2. How is it possible for an artist or a writer to create something that is accurate if he
or she did not witness and event?
3. Do you think that an observer gets more meaning from the work of an artist or of a
photographer? Explain.
4. What attitudes and process skills necessary to understand history or social studies
does a lesson such as this one reinforce for an elementary or middle school
student?
5. Many different artists and pictures could be used for this lesson. Why do you think
the developer selected Jacob Lawrence for the Lesson Development phase and ancient
artwork for the Expansion phase?
6. Why do you think the developer did not include grammar as criteria for the
rubrics?
Note: You can compare your answers for questions 5 and 6 with the developer's reasons
at the book's Companion Website.
of social studies. Catherine Cornbleth described this broadening of social stu --
ies to include more people as an important force because it "enables greater nu.rr:-
bers of people to believe that they are a part of the U.S. and have a stake in ir-
(Haas & Laughlin, 1999b, p. 10).
NCSS Standard II, "Time, Continuity, and Change," names three key concepts for
the study of history: "Social studies programs should include experiences that pmvide
for the study of the ways human beings view themselves in and over time-
(NCSS, 1994b, p. 22). In seeking to understand their historical roots and locate
themselves in the expanse of time, students are linked to people and ideas that remain
the same over generations. They also come to see the struggle to institute
change as a way of exerting control over their lives. Developing a historical perspective
helps individuals and groups answer the following questions:
Who am I?
What happened in the past?
How am I connected to those in the past?
How has the world changed and how might it change in the future?
How do our personal stories reflect varying points of view and inform contemporary
ideas and actions? (NCSS, 1994b, p. 22)
Young children are studying history when they sequence and order events in
their daily lives, hear stories about today and long ago, recognize that other individuals
hold different views, and understand links between their actions and decisions
and their consequences. The curriculum, beginning in kindergarten, has
plenty of opportunity to examine these basic historical concepts. Students enjoy
solving puzzling questions about an unusual site they see on a walk through their
community or about their school in years gone by, as pictured in old photographs
brought in by a visitor. They might also learn about the people for whom local
buildings and streets have been named. Through the study of people and events in
world and U.S. history, middle school students experience expanded historical inquiry.
They have in-depth instructional opportunities to learn about people's lives
in various time periods by comparing, contrasting, and judging the lives, actions,
decisions, values, and cultural traditions of individuals and groups.
After dialog and a major revision, the National Standards for History were
published in 1996. The standards address U.S. history, world history, and historical
thinking skills. Figure 12.1 explains the five common historical thinking standards
(skills) for grades K-12: (1) chronological thinking, (2) historical comprehension,
(3) historical analysis and interpretation, (4) historical research capabilities, and
(5) historical issues analysis and decision making. As you read descriptions of behaviors
needed to perform historical thinking, you might wonder whether you were
asked to do these tasks when you studied history. Note that some skills the historian
uses are not common to the thinking skills elaborated for the various social
Note: Skills listed in italics are additions from the grades 5-12 standards for historical thinking.
Standard 1: Chronological Thinking
a. Distinguish between past, present, and future time.
b. Identify the temporal structure of a historical narrative or story.
e. Establish temporal order in constructing students' own historical narratives.
d. Measure and calculate calendar time.
e. Interpret data presented in timelines.
f. Create timelines.
g. Explain change and continuity over time.
h. Reconstruct patterns of historical succession and duration.
I. Compare alternative models for periodization.
Standard 2: Historical Comprehension
a. Identify the author or sources of the historical document or narrative.
b. Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage.
e. Identify the central questions(s) the historical narrative addresses.
d. Read historical narratives imaginatively.
e. Appreciate historical perspectives.
f. Draw on data in historical maps.
g. Draw on visual and mathematical data presented in graphs.
h. Draw on the visual data presented in photographs, paintings, cartoons, and architectural drawings.
I. Evidence historical perspectives.
J. Utilize visual and mathematical data presented in charts, tables, pie and bar graphs, flow charts, Venn
diagrams, and other graphic organizers.
k. Draw on visual, literary, and musical sources.
Standard 3: Historical._~nalysis and Interpretation
a. Formulate questions to focus their inquiry or analysis.
b. Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions.
e. Analyze historical fiction.
d. Distinguish between fact and fiction.
e. Compare different stories about a historical figure, era, or event.
f. Analyze illustrations in historical stories.
g. Consider multiple perspectives.
h. Explain causes in analyzing historical actions.
I. Challenge arguments of historical inevitability.
J. Hypothesize influences of the past.
k. Identify the author or sources of the historical document or narrative.
/. Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations.
m. Analyze cause-and-effect relationships and multiple causation, including the importance of the individual,
the influence of ideas, and the role of chance.
n. Compare competing historical narratives.
.F_I--G--U--R--E-----1---2--.1
Standards in Historical Thinking Source: National Standards for History Basic Edition, by the National
Centerfor Historyin the Schools,1996,LosAngeles:National Centerfor Historyin the Schools.
o. Hold interpretations of history as tentative.
p. Evaluate major debates among historians.
Standard 4: Historical Research Capabilities
a. Formulate historical questions.
b. Obtain historical data.
c. Interrogate historical data.
d. Marshal needed knowledge of the time and place, and construct a story, explanation, or historical
narrative.
e. Identify the gaps in the available records, marshal contextual knowledge and perspectives of the time
and place, and construct a sound historical interpretation.
Standard 5: Historical IssuesAnalysis and Decision Making
a. Identify problems and dilemmas in the past.
b. Analyze the interests and values of the various people involved.
c. Identify causes of the problem or dilemma.
d. Propose alternative choices for addressing the problem.
e. Formulate a position or course of action on an issue.
f. Identify the solution chosen.
g. Evaluate the consequences of a decision.
h. Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances and contemporary factors contributing to problems and
alternative courses of action.
I. Identify relevant historical antecedents.
J. Evaluate alternative courses of action.
FIGURE 12.1 --_ .._--------------
Continued
sciences. This is a result of the differences in the available data and ways data are
obtained.
In Figure 12.1, skills in italics are for introduction and mastery in grades 5-12
when students are more likely to be formal operational thinkers. Although these
skills are similar to those for K-4, they differ qualitatively in the complexity and
number of tasks the student must perform before making a final conclusion. Note
the emphasis in Standard 5 on multiple perspectives and alternative viewpoints
that encourage the historian to view history as an infinite story. Historians recommend
that all five standards be approached in grades K-4 at a beginning, but
not superficial, level that goes beyond retelling a story and beyond accepting only
one possible outcome. They want teachers to emphasize the need for evidence to
support ideas.
Because of differences in the cognitive and affective development of students
and in the curricula found in various states, two sets of standards for historical
knowledge are presented: one with a K-4 or primary grades focus and one for
grades 5-12. The recommended content standards are identified by eras of time.
Each standard may be addressed in multiple ways. Teachers, states, and school
systems make many decisions concerning the specifics to be addressed. However,