The Problem With How We Teach History

Nov 04, 2019

This article is part of our upcoming guide, Social Studies: It's Time to ReInvest.

The 1898 photograph of the construction of a London underground station drew me in. The workmen were draped across the machinery. They looked simultaneously heroic and indistinct. The men looked straight into the camera, their bodies unmoving, monuments to the age of industrialization that they were meant to represent. At the same time, each hat and mustache was identical to the next—each man seemingly replaceable.

This is one of the visual sources that former high school world history teacher Amy Ernenwein used in a “gallery walk” to introduce a unit on industrialization. Working in small groups, students visited each of the sources, organizing their reflections with a graphic organizer. The columns in the graphic organizer grew increasingly complex, starting from a simple observation and ending with an argument.


A graphic organizer that introduces the Industrial Revolution through sources. Image source: Amy Ernenwein.

This isn’t exactly how historians work, but it’s a pretty good approximation. Historians look at textual and non-textual sources closely and in combination with one another to construct a narrative about the meaning of the past.

Historians look at textual and non-textual sources closely and in combination with one another to construct a narrative about the meaning of the past.

Ernenwein’s students—and the teachers that she now supports as the Director of Professional Development at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, North Carolina—are lucky. Not all students have the opportunity to construct an historical account from sources; instead most use sources as supplements to fill in the narrative they’ve already been taught. Sources become an illustration of history rather than a tool for uncovering it.

We’ve Come A Long Way

To be sure, history education has undergone a transformation over the last few decades. Whereas once they had to wait until honors high school courses, students of all levels are now introduced to primary sources in elementary school. For several decades, Advanced Placement history curricula have stressed the importance of using primary sources and building historical arguments. High-quality curricular materials that emphasize historical thinking skills, such as the Stanford History Education Group’s “Think Like a Historian” framework, are now readily available on the Internet. The C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards—already half a decade old—offers a guide on how to build source skills across the grades.

It’s now rare to find a textbook that doesn’t include a spotlight on key primary sources. That’s no surprise. After all, primary sources reliably pop up in the state social studies standards to which public school teachers must adhere.

Including Sources in Standards Isn’t the Same As Supporting Teachers to Help Students Use Sources Effectively

But state standards’ approach to sources is often a far cry from Ernenwein’s gallery walk.

I believe that some standards claim dangerous and false moral equivalencies and give elevated stature to sources that don’t deserve it. (Eighth graders in Texas are asked to compare Confederate president Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address with Abraham Lincoln’s first and second inaugural addresses.)

State standards’ directives about the modes of analysis that students should apply to sources also present problems. For example, some list historical research techniques with little indication of how they might be achieved in the classroom. (Students in Alaska must meet a “historical inquiry” standard that suggests using primary sources, among other “research tools.”)

But at least the idea that analyzing primary sources is key to understanding history is a belief that is now generally firmly entrenched in history curricula in the United States.

We’re Asking Students to Use Sources to Tell Us What We’ve Already Told Them

The problem is that students typically approach these sources with a ready narrative—supplied in increasingly complex forms from year-to-year in textbooks, lectures, and the popular media—and contort the sources that they analyze into that conventional wisdom. The narrative may be perfectly defensible. But, despite forwarding-looking inquiry-based guidelines such as the C3 Framework, students are still often building up to what they have been told is true, rather than finding truth on their own.

Students are still often building up to what they have been told is true, rather than finding truth on their own.

How does this problem look in practice?

In the middle of her unit on the Civil War, a high school history teacher might offer a lesson on the Gettysburg Address, a speech that students are told from the outset is important, and that routinely pops up in state standards.

In that lesson, students might begin by doing a close reading of the text, looking up unfamiliar vocabulary words such as “hallow” and “consecrate.” They’d calculate “four score and seven years” and the teacher might ask them to align the math to 1776, a date that hopefully spurs some recognition. The students who have been paying attention will link that date to the phrase “all men are created equal.”

Students next consider the setting and purpose of the speech, situating the address at halfway through the Civil War at a time when Lincoln faced opposition and was trying to build support for continued waging of war, even as he memorialized those who had died.

Finally, the teacher might help students work through the meaning of the Gettysburg Address. She might ask students to pull out certain phrases that give clues about the nature of “the unfinished work” that Lincoln calls on the living to advance: “a new nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” “a new birth of freedom.”

At the end of the analysis, the student’s understanding ends up where it started: the Civil War was fought over freedom and the Gettysburg Address advanced that narrative.That’s not a bad place to end, and any teacher who can engage her students in all that sleuthing and analysis is doing something right. But if state standards and history curricular materials thought about sources differently, we could let that teacher do so much more.

A Historian’s Wish for History Teachers

I wish that state standards and standard curricula would free teachers to let students really think like historians in the way that Amy Ernenwein’s lesson on industrialization did.

I wish that state standards and standard curricula would free teachers to let students really think like historians.

To be sure, that won’t be easy. In the absence of a set narrative, students may develop problematic and false narratives of their own. Reversing such narratives requires significant time and skill on the part of the teacher. Furthermore, making time for source analysis takes crucial time away from supporting students in developing critical historical content knowledge. These are not small issues.

But you could imagine a teacher beginning a unit on the Civil War with a quick look at a variety of sources: the Gettysburg Address, but also lesser known works from far more anonymous sources from the Civil War period. Students could take a look at those sources using a graphic organizer like the one that Ernenwein constructed for industrialization:


A graphic organizer for introducing the Civil War through sources. Image source: Rachel Burstein.

Crucially, students would need to revisit these sources throughout the unit, fitting their learned content knowledge around the sources, and applying deeper and deeper levels of analysis as the unit continues. With more content knowledge, they’ll likely change their view of what the author suggests is the meaning of the war.

But this approach would allow students to come up with the freedom narrative of the Civil War—the idea that the Civil War was principally fought over the possibility of freedom for enslaved people—on their own, throughout the unit. And if they don’t get there on their own, there will be ample evidence that the teacher—and other students—can rely on to explain the importance of that narrative.

After all, isn’t that we want for students—to have them think through evidence? And isn’t that process a whole lot more fun?


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