centered pedagogies, an emphasis on facts or concepts, hands-on learning or lecture, textbooks or primary sources, depth or breadth, inquiry or direct instruction.
History teachers know that the choices are neither so dichotomous nor so simple. Framing the instructional situation as a set of either-or choices, such as abandoning textbooks in favor of primary sources or substituting student inquiry projects for teachers’ lectures, ignores the perennial challenges that history students and, consequently, history teachers face in trying to learn history and develop historical understanding. History is a vast and constantly expanding storehouse of information about people and events in the past. For students, learning history leads to encounters with thousands of unfamiliar and distant names, dates, people, places, events, and stories. Working with such content is a complex enterprise not easily reduced to choices between learning facts and mastering historical thinking processes. Indeed, attention to one is necessary to foster the other. As How People Learn suggests, storing information in memory in a way that allows it to be retrieved effectively depends on the thoughtful organization of content, while core historical concepts “such as stability and change” require familiarity with the sequence of events to give them meaning. Moreover, learning history entails teaching students to think quite differently than their “natural” inclinations. As Wineburg3 suggests, historical thinking may often be an “unnatural” act, requiring us to think outside familiar and comfortable assumptions and world views. Such work, then, requires both substantial knowledge and skill on the part of the teacher to help students learn historical content while expanding their capacities to use evidence, assess interpretations, and analyze change over time.
This chapter addresses the challenges high school history teachers confront every day when, facing large classes, predefined course goals, and the required use of textbooks, they try to engage students in the intellectual work of learning and “doing” history. Given the demands on history teachers and the intellectual challenges students face while learning history, how might high school history teachers use the ideas found in How People Learn to construct history-specific instructional environments that support students as they work toward deeper historical understanding? As a veteran high school history teacher with over 25 years of experience, I begin by showing how I cast traditional history topics and curricular objectives as historical problems for my students to study. Reformers have long argued that historical inquiry ought to be part of history teaching, but often teachers see it as something either on the margins of instruction or as a replacement for traditional teaching. This chapter takes a different approach by building upon traditional curricular mandates and pedagogy to place inquiry at the heart of instruction. Using a case study developed around my students’ studies of Columbus, exploration, and the concept of the “flat earth,” I focus on ways