The Program: Workshops
All students must understand the main lines of America’s national history. As
scholar E. D. Hirsch notes (1988), learning this national history is essential
to learning "to communicate effectively with one another in our national
community." Likewise, historian Thomas Bender (1986) asserts that while the
proliferation of historical studies on local subjects significantly adds to our
historical knowledge, we must also focus on a synthesis of American history, a
narrative of our past. This narrative should integrate social and political
history and address the most significant themes of American experience:
patriotism, equality, and democracy.
In order to successfully acquire this historical knowledge, students need to do
history. Doing history means studying the past as historians do. This means
learning the narrative of American history, the practice of historical research,
and ways of connecting the national story to the experience of local
Doing history begins with learning the tools of historical inquiry. Historians
start with the evidence. Documents, artifacts, diaries, interviews, pictures,
movies, buildings and memorials can all offer clues to the past. Comparing these
different sources, historians look for patterns in what the documents say and
fail to say. They arrange the evidence in the form of a narrative of change over
time, making choices about what to include and how to express cause and effect.
Finally, and most importantly, historians reach out from the sources they have
collected to tell a larger story, one that confirms or complicates the
conventional historical understanding of the period.
Exposing the process of historical discovery, and the often-conflicting ways of
interpreting the sources, reveals how history is made and remade by historians
in the archives. The practice of weighing sources, evaluating information and
making interpretations is the disciplined work of historians and can, with the
right tools, also be the work of students.
Indeed, studying the past as historians do is precisely the kind of approach to
learning history that researchers find best engages students. Howard Gardner
argues (1999) that doing the work of history brings the subject to life;
inviting students to participate in creating knowledge brings students to a
deeper understanding of American history. "Only if armed with some notion of how
historians work" Gardner writes, "will a student be able to make sense of the
various claims made about, say, the causes of the Vietnam War or the character
of Martin Luther King, Jr." (p. 154). Without learning the habits of historical
inquiry, Gardner argues, students learn facts without meaning: "The disciplined
thinking of the historian is crucial if individuals are to draw their own
inferences about what happened in an event, decide which historical analogies
are apt and which are not, and express opinions and cast votes on issues of
import in terms of reasonable criteria rather than sheer whim" (p. 218). For
students to be engaged in studying American history they need to learn to think
At a time when most Americans can read but choose not to—in what historian
Robert Rosenstone (2001) names a "Postliterate Age"— students and adults alike
typically read one book a year of their own choosing. This suggests a failure in
our teaching to stimulate curiosity, perhaps because students do not see
themselves or their community in their textbooks. Using the tools of historical
inquiry to explore local history offers students a chance to engage in learning
about their own lives and communities.
For students to study the past as historians do, they must be presented with the
opportunity to both learn the narrative of American history and bring that
narrative to life in exploring their local history. Local historical sites and
online archives provide students with ready access to historians’ raw material;
historians provide the tools for interpreting them, fitting them into the main
lines of our history and sharing the excitement of doing history.
Doing History : The Key Principles
According to the major proponents of Doing History
(Levstik and Barton, 2000)
there are key principles underlying this approach to teaching American history
(see Appendix B). Through them, students are engaged, learn content, and learn
to approach other learning tasks with critical thinking and investigative
This proposal lays out a program in which participants are taught these key
principles and how to employ them as teachers in order to make their lessons
come alive for students, and thus to enhance how much they learn as well as the
experience of learning. The goal is also to instill this approach in both the
teachers and the students.
The evaluation plan will be designed to tap these important principles as
criteria as well as other outcomes important to the principal investigators.
According to the major proponents of Doing History the key principles underlying
this approach to teaching American History are the following. Through them,
students are engaged, learn content, and learn to approach other learning tasks
with critical thinking and investigative methods. The principles are:
- Questioning… learning is about asking and answering questions. Questions
focus attention, rouse curiosity and interest, elicit views and stimulate
- Challenge… challenge students to speculate, to debate, to make connections, to
select, to prioritize, to persist, in tacking real issues and important
- Depth… real knowledge demands study in depth. Children’s expertise and
confidence develop as a result of deep knowledge.
- Authenticity… we do not need to give children Mickey Mouse versions of what we
want them to learn. Challenge them with authentic materials.
- Economy… children will learn more from a few well chosen resources which they
can focus on than from an unstructured jumble.
- Accessibility… make learning accessible to all children by starting with what
they know and can do, and building on that. Also by finding a key—something they
can identify with which will unlock the door to engagement and learning.
- Communication… essential for consolidating learning and to give it purpose.
Give children the opportunity to communicate to a real audience.