. "4 They Thought the World Was Flat? Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History." How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2005.
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How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom
teachers can restructure familiar curricular objectives into historiographic problems that engage students in historical thinking. Formulating such historical problems is a critical first step in history teaching.
But it is not sufficient simply to add problem formulation to the extant history curriculum and pedagogy. This chapter goes beyond problem formulation to suggest ways teachers might design history-specific “tools” to help students do history throughout the curriculum. These modest cognitive tools—“mindtools” as David Jonassen4 calls them—provide useful ways to help students grapple with sophisticated historical content while performing complex historical thinking and acquiring substantive knowledge. Again drawing on my experiences with my students, this chapter makes a case for transforming lectures and textbooks from mere accounts of events into supports that help students grapple with historical problems as they learn historical content and construct historical meaning.
WHERE TO BEGIN? TRANSFORMING TOPICS AND OBJECTIVES INTO HISTORICAL PROBLEMS
History begins with—and often ends with—questions, problems, puzzles, curiosities, and mysteries. Historians frame and build their historical research around problems emerging from a complex mix of personal and professional interests, unexamined and underexamined questions, gaps in established literature and knowledge, and recurring puzzles and issues. Like detectives working intently on solving the mystery at hand, historians face questions and puzzles that direct their scholarship, giving it meaning and providing coherence.5 Seeking the answers to perplexing questions does more than simply make history an engaging activity for historians; working with problems also helps historians select, organize, and structure their historical facts. It is no surprise, therefore, that most attempts to reform history education urge teachers to begin with “big” questions. If historians are driven to learn content by their questions, so, too, might students find history engaging, relevant, and meaningful if they understood the fundamental puzzles involved. Students, like historians, can use historical problems to organize data and direct their inquiries and studies. Therefore, creating and using good questions is as crucial for the teacher as it is for the researcher.
However, much as high school history teachers might wish to frame their instruction around the historical problems arising from compelling interests, gaps, puzzles, or mysteries, they must deal with a different set of constraints from those faced by historians. History teachers are charged with teaching their students a history that others have already written; thus they typically begin with course outcomes in hand, determined by curricular mandates (i.e., district or state) or the imperatives of external testing (i.e.,