vital and engaging ways of helping students use historical facts and ideas and that, despite the enthusiasm hands-on activities generate, they do not automatically foster historical thinking. More important, this scholarship suggests ways teachers may transform both traditional and newer pedagogical methods to help deepen students’ historical understanding. To borrow language from my case study, How People Learn expands and challenges our thinking about learning history, and thus assists teachers in marshaling the effort and understanding needed to enact a more sophisticated and effective historical pedagogy.
We should harbor no illusions about the challenges awaiting teachers and students engaged in such history instruction. Teaching the stories of the past while also teaching students how to read, criticize, and evaluate these stories is a complex task. It is difficult to help students recognize that all historical accounts, including those we hold, have a history. While encouraging students to recognize that all history involves interpretation, teachers must simultaneously challenge the easy conclusion that all interpretations are therefore equally compelling. Rather, historical literacy demands that students learn to evaluate arguments and decide which positions, given the evidence, are more or less plausible, better or worse. Historical study asks students to consider what they know, how they know it, and how confidently or tentatively they are “entitled” to hold their views.
It is equally important to remember the pleasures that such historical study can provide both teachers and students. Through history, teachers can fill the class with enduring human dramas and dilemmas, fascinating mysteries, and an amazing cast of historical characters involved in events that exemplify the best and worst of human experience. In what other field of study can students experience such a range of possibilities and get to know so many people and places? Where else would my students have the chance to encounter fifteenth-century Europeans and Native Americans, people from Christopher Columbus to Montezuma, and life in so many different societies and cultures?
Even this brief description of the difficulties and joys involved in learning history reveals why the study of history is so crucial and, therefore, worth our efforts. “History,” historian Peter Stearns has written, “should be studied because it is essential to individuals and to society, and because it harbors beauty”.27 A disciplined study of history promotes exactly the type of reasoned thought our students deserve to have and democratic societies so desperately need.
I want to thank Suzanne Wilson, Sam Wineburg, Jeff Mirel, Suzanne Donovan, John Bransford, and Kieran Egan for their thoughtful reading of