Historical thinking is unnatural: Notes on how to teach history

(4/20 Update) My order of Sam Wineburg’s “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts” just arrived from Amazon, and it’s quickly shaping up to be one of my most interesting reads this summer. I’ll be posting a review of it once I’m done.

But for you to understand why I bothered to order this from Amazon, check out the following article which I’ve posted over a month ago. There are some really fantastic insights about how people think about history.

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I’ve been reading up on the works of Sam Wineburg, an educational psychologist who has looked into how we read, study and write history. His book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, won the 2002 Frederic W. Ness Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

I was browsing for books on historical theory and his work caught my attention. Then I read up on other articles:

“‘Growing historical ignorance’ among teens a myth, scholar says” by Lisa Trei, an interview with Wineburg,

“Reading and Writing History” which he co-wrote with Daisy Martin, a PhD candidate at the Stanford School of Education

“Questioning minds make study of past alive for the present” by Judy Lightfoot, a review of Wineburg’s book

(All excerpts in this article come from these three sources.)

He raises a lot of interesting points, but he also made me realize that I may not need to buy the book just yet. Here are some of the ideas that struck me:

Wineburg’s “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts”shows that historical thought is not a natural process: It “goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think, one of the reasons why it is much easier to learn names, dates, and stories than it is to [understand] the past.”

Wineburg told me his interest in this subject first awoke when he took a history class he couldn’t ace with his good memory. He learned that histories aren’t objective summaries of the facts but interpretations and arguments made out of information that’s always incomplete.

“But how did historians do that?” Wineburg asked. “Their books seemed like products of naturally systematic thought — which wasn’t how my mind worked, but maybe I was just dumb!”

Wineburg’s research into history and the mind has won many honors during his 12 years at the UW. Through having students and professors think aloud while reading documents, he found that only novices just read something and decide what it means.

“A historian’s thought process is full of hunches and reverses, constant self-questionings and I-don’t-knows,” Wineburg explained.

Standardized history tests inhibit this kind of thinking, besides guaranteeing that students will seem vastly ignorant. “Periodically, starting with the first national survey in 1917, Americans have concluded from factual tests that kids don’t know history. The conclusion isn’t logical.” Wineburg smiled wryly. “Kids have just never remembered the facts that adults sitting around a table making up a test say they should remember.”

That’s true. That’s why I don’t believe in ‘standardized tests’ in teaching history. History is a thought process that requires us to go beyond our time and place. It’s more similar to literature, only that we’re more grounded on a reality with true political, economic and social consequences. History requires a lot of imagination, criticism and humility. It also requires that we know who our sources are.

In social studies classes, students amass piles of information and sometimes become quite articulate about what they have learned. But the moment the discussion turns to assaying the quality of information, voluble students turn mute. Asked to exercise judgment, they throw up their hands and vote.

We recognize that some would cry foul at our question, claiming that the ability to evaluate the trustworthiness of a textbook is beyond the ken of the typical middle school or even high school student. Young people, according to this view, should first learn the facts. It’s only later on, when they take an Advanced Placement class or a college seminar, that students would learn that historians argue over competing interpretations of history and sometimes even question the veracity of widely accepted facts.

Back when the world presented itself in measured doses—the daily newspaper at our doorstep, the big three networks on TV, the weekly visit to the public library—such a stance might have sufficed. But this Rockwellian world has long since vanished. Ask any middle schooler with a research project how to spell the word library and you’ll get a six-letter response: G-O-O-G-L-E.

And what happens exactly when we cede to Google the role of quality control? Try typing Holocaust and crematorium as keywords, and your surfing will eventually take you to an official-looking Web site for the Institute for Historical Review, its home page proclaiming “truth and accuracy,” with a dedication to “promoting greater public awareness of key chapters of history” and a dispassionate statement of its “501(c)(3) not-for-profit tax-exempt” status. Follow a few links and you’ll soon learn that, contrary to what you might have believed, the Holocaust never happened. In our age of new technologies, every crackpot has become a publisher. The ability to judge the quality of information can no longer be considered “extra credit.”

I know this all too well. My students know how much I value being able to analyze and to judge over recalling names, dates and places. It is no accident that they find my class difficult or at the least, challenging.

Even my multiple choice exams (which they will have 35 items worth of tomorrow), go beyond simple memory and recall. We criticize ideas and find connections. Instead of knowing how many emperors there were in China, we look at why there were so many emperors. As we study imperialism, we grapple with the traditional notion of it being a negative force in history then flip the discussion to see how modern societies have been forged because of imperialism. And before going through the different rhetorics of the different Arab leaders, we look at the issues in the first place.

That’s why even if they’re hell to check, I prefer essay exams. They dig deep into the students’ thought processes more than a multiple choice exam or a 60-item true or false. Here is an excerpt from Wineburg that justifies this:

Literacy is the key word here, because the teaching of history should have reading and writing at its core. Years ago, this may have been the case, but that time is long gone. In some underfunded schools, teachers struggle to cope with low reading levels by reading the textbook aloud to students so they at least “get the content” (Schoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, & Hurwitz, 1999). In other classrooms, writing in social studies is increasingly being replaced by PowerPoint assignments, complete with bullet points and animation. But we can no more defend an argument on why the USSR disintegrated using bullets points than we can journey to Moscow on the wings of a Frommer travel guide. Working through successive drafts of the cause-and-effect essay—making sure that paragraphs reflect a logical procession of ideas and that assertions are backed by evidence—is hard and inglorious work, but there are no shortcuts. No celebration of multiple intelligences or learning styles that takes the form of skits or illustrated knowledge posters equips us to answer those who would deceive us the moment we open our browsers. Skits and posters may be engaging, but leaving students there—engaged but illiterate—amounts to an incomplete lesson that forfeits our claim as educators.

I want them to be able to pass judgment on history. While they may not have mastered that by the time they leave my class, I hope they have at least a sense of going beyond conventional knowledge and investigating into why people say what they say. And in the long run, these are the values essential in a liberal and democratic society such as ours.

Wineburg and Martin end their essay with these words:

We need an approach to teaching history where the criteria for success have less to do with intoning loyalty oaths (to either side of the political aisle) than with students’ ability to participate in the literate activities that our society demands. This means teaching students to be informed readers, writers, and thinkers about the past as well as the present—a goal all parties should be able to embrace. Our democracy’s vitality depends on it.

History goes beyond mere names, dates and places. The way I teach history now is largely influenced by the fact that I hated how it was taught when I was a student. It’s about the whys and the hows. It is all about facing a future with no guarantees by learning from a past that gives us confidence.



  1. I have to be honest when I first started History classes I had a McGraw Hill textbook that was printed in 1964. I loved digging through that textbook and I did learn a lot about History. Much to my dismay long after I attended that class I find out that many so called facts of History were not fact but the summation of theory of the publisher. Realizing that one book can never be the sole source for learning History, this immediately became a self taught learning experience to do much more research on what I believed were facts. I learned more about WWII after high school than I did while I was a student mainly because my quest to actually know about the truth in historical events then became an obsession. Once a person learns to research the published research do they truly become well versed in the subject at hand as in this case World History.

  2. Hey sir. 😀 I’ve always loved studying history. I actually like social science more than the natural sciences (although i can’t think of it as a career in the future :p) and perhaps the reason this is so is because of the type of teaching in Pisay (unlike my grade school) where room is given for analytical and critical thinking. For me, a good way to measure historical aptitude is when someone can analyze and make a stand on a current issue based on historical facts. Another is how well a person can discern whether something stated is fact or opinion (especially when it is veiled as fact). And I agree that democractic vitality is dependent on a people’s ability to remember and analyze history. The fact that we still commit the same mistakes as a nation shows how lacking we are in this department.

  3. That kind of thinking alone won’t get a student through the modern educational system regarding history, though. He/she will have to memorize interpretations and, usually, one-sided views. Then he/she will have to remember how much of a drag history lessons have been. Sad.
    That got me thinking: how many people in the world think learning history is important?
    To someone who simply memorizes the “facts,” I’d think that he/she’d think that it is an irrelevant topic, considering you don’t learn anything important from history at all. Are there any existing surveys or studies?

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