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The Organization of American Historians published an article by Bruce A. VanSledright, of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Maryland, “Can Ten-Year-Olds Learn to Investigate History as Historians Do?
He agrees that students in the US are exposed to history. For example, in elementary schools, history units are taught in conjunction with holdays (Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Black History and Women’s History months). In fourth grades students learn the history of their state,; in fifth grades the curriculum is usually devoted to American history surveys.
But, writes VanSledright, history is usually taught as if it were a group of facts to be memorized. It’s not taught as a narrative nourished by “questions, debates, interpretative arguments, and recursive revisions” — the vigorous conversations in which true historians engage.
The common justification for this approach is the largely unstubstantiated claim that elementary-age children are incapable of more sophisticated levels of thinking… many pedagogues claim that youngsters must master historical facts before they can reason about them, as though these were separate — even unrelated — tasks.
The authors of the National History Standards, writes VanSledright, as well as a substantial body of research, are challenging this approach.
These scholars and researchers feel children might very well be able to learn history by using the actual methods historians use.
They could — maybe — try to analyze primary and secondary sources. They might even have the capacity to draw inferences from thin or inconclusive data. Let the kids plunge into historical contexts, and create narratives about the past, as scholarly historians do!
VanSledright tried an experiment.
In January 1999, he selected eight students (out of a class of 23) who would serve as informants in the study: four boys and four girls who represented the class both ethnically and racially.
A few weeks before his actual introduction as history teacher, he asked these eight students to participate in a complex exercise. They were to read aloud two short, conflicting accounts of the Boston Massacre (blends of primary and secondary sources).
Then they had to examine and interpret three archival images of the event, including an engraving by Paul Revere.
VanSledright asked them to share their thoughts as they analyzed and interpreted the documents and images. The students struggled with the effort, just as traditionalists might have predicted.
They were looking for raw facts, as they had been taught to do in earlier classes. They repeatedly missed opportunities to read the evidence inter-textually.
But — several of the students did observe that “doing history” was very interesting!
Acknowledging that the experiment was going to be challenging, he decided to begin by posing a historical mystery. He chose Jamestown, during its “Starving Time” (winter 1609-1610).
Situation: although John Smith reported ample food supplies in the fall of 1609, by spring 1610 approximately 450 of the 500 settlers had died, apparently of starvation.
But the evidence for why this happened is not clear. So VanSledright asked the students to develop a reasonable explanation, using a limited set of primary and secondary sources.
Over three class sessions, the 23 students had rousing debates over what the evidence was saying. Drama and intrigue trumped carefully supported argument.
The class then pursued a cluster of research projects for the next five weeks, working in groups of five. They studied five early English colonies, using large sets of (mostly) primary and (some) secondary sources. At intervals, they paused to discuss the nature of the sources: their reliability, validity, and conflicting perspectives.
Clearly, the students were becoming judicious historical investigators. But they were still stuggling to make sense of the various points of view.
So VanSledright designed a long unit on the American Revolution. They examined a range of events that took place in Boston (the Tea party, the Boston Massacre, the Stamp Act resistance). Armed with a broad range of ideas about causes of each event, all students wrote an essay on whether the American Revolution could be justified.
All 23 students defended the actions of the American rebels — they all agreed that the British government was repressive. A common refrain was that the colonists were “within their rights.”
But during the discussions that took place, many students took turns challenging their classmates from possible British perspctives. Students had learned the ability to shift back and forth between conflicting perspectives.
When the course ended, VanSledright asked his eight “informants” to engage in another task, equally complex.
This time, they were asked to analyze four short accounts and two contemporary artists’ depictions of the battle at Lexington Green.
By this stage, six of the eight almost immediately began checking whether soures were primary or secondary.
Four of them remarked that one document they encountered — the testimony of 34 massachusetts Minutement present at the battle — was a primary source account; it had been originally rendered under oath, shortly after the battle occured.
Two of the students immediately noticed a time lapse in another document (British Ensign Lister’s retelling of the event seven years after its occurrence). They judged it less reliable than the Minutemen’s testimony.
Four students eventually noticed the issue of source corroboration; it just took them longer.
By the time all of them had read the four documents, and discussed the artistic renditions, they were evaluating the accounts from a “fairly well-developed situation model,” writes VanSledright.
Three of them said that this was another one of those historical events where it is very difficult — maybe impossible — to determine “what actually happened.”
There were serious differences in viewpoints. Who fired that first shot? Said one, “I just don’t know how historians can do this!”
VanSledright finds all this encouraging for several reasons. It indicates that reformers may be on target. It also suggest that this kind of exposure to document analysis instills “a powerful form of critical cognition and awareness” in these young people.
It’s not hard to imagine that, in a world now dominated by the flow of information, where it is increasingly difficult to discern supportable claims from the spurious, these children will have a distinct evaluative and cognitive advantage.
source: Read VanSledright’s article in the OAH Newsletter at http://www.oah.org/pubs/nl/2000aug/vansledright.html. The research was funded by the Spencer Foundation. I was directed to this article by a Library of Congress newsletter. You can also subscribe to that at www.LOC.gov.
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