Sam Wineburg praised for his courage and insights

Historians in the News
tags: Sam Wineburg



John Dichtl is President & CEO of the American Association for State and Local History.

In its deepest forms, historical thinking is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development. Its achievement goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think…. 

– from Sam Wineburg’s, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001)

Nothing beats having great a “hallway conversation” at a conference or discovering a session that turns out to be far more than you were expecting. Much of the best that comes from a conference are those experiences that are serendipitous. But Sam Wineburg’s keynote presentation at the AASLH Annual Meeting in Louisville (10:45 a.m., September 17) is one event that I am expecting to be terrific.

I was a big fan of his 2001 book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, though I admit I have lost track of what Wineburg has been up to the past few years. I’ll be eager to hear how he discusses his research on the cognitive psychology of education—figuring out how students and others learn and understand history—in the context of what AASLH members do.

Wineburg has long been a proponent of dramatic change across the historical profession. His Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts challenged history educators to figure out exactly how a well-practiced historian approaches source materials, formulates probing questions, and resolves historical conundrums. Wineburg closely observed students and teachers, parents and historians, and concluded that it really is an unnatural thing to think historically. It can be taught, but carefully. Historical thinking involves a choreography of contextualizing and “sourcing” documents, images, and other materials to determine who created them, how, and why. Historians also “corroborate” their primary sources, drawing linkages between them and related materials, making comparisons or contrasts as well to the interpretations offered by other historians.

Historical Thinking demonstrated that history really ought to be taught as a specialized, separate (from social studies) subject. And yet—here is where the larger challenge to the profession comes in—many K-12 educators, college professors, and museum educators alike have too vague a sense of how the historical mind is developed. We think we know that “background knowledge” in the historical discipline is crucial for teachers, that familiarity with “key ideas, events, concepts and interpretations” in the discipline generally make for better classroom educators, but we don’t know exactly why it is so.

This uninformed forward march gets more disturbing. In his 2004 article, “Crazy for History” (Journal of American History), Wineburg noted that more than 80 percent of history teachers in middle and secondary schools did not study the subject in depth in college. Unfamiliarity among teachers with the key ideas and concepts of the historical discipline is THE major problem, according to Wineburg. Teaching American History grants, the more than $1 billion federal program created by the late Senator Robert Byrd, which many in the AASLH community will remember for bringing history organizations and schools together to train teachers (in-service), was a “colossal waste,” he says. Despite the limited good the TAH program did, it mostly reached veteran teachers and didn’t change the teaching accreditation system that encourages teachers unprepared in historical thinking to enter the history classroom. ...




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