Curriculum Uncovering History

Epistemic Shifts Are Hard

It is as if for all of these years I have been giving students information as context for critical thinking activities that rarely come.

A couple of years ago I secured a small grant that paid for books and staff time for US History teaching colleagues and I to discuss Bruce Lesh’s Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer? and our experiences in putting his history lab ideas into practice.  We also read Lendol Calder’s seminal article on “Uncovering” History, and the group took its name from the article.  My blog posts from the time will be losing their host and there are a couple that I am reposting on this site before they all go *poof*.  Here is the first, originally posted 2/19/2012.  The last paragraph still rings true for me, unfortunately:

Epistemic Shift

At our first Uncovering History meeting I used this graphic to show Dr. Bruce VanSledright’s concept of how student understanding of historical knowledge, their epistmic view of history, can and should shift while uncovering history.  But it is not just students who are making this epistemic shift.  Students see history this way, as a set of uncontested truths recorded in books and memorized by their teachers and the good people at the History Channel, because that is how it has always been presented to them. I can see it my 5th grade daughter’s education this year as she is being systematically taught history for the first time.  This, of course, is also the view of historical knowledge that supports history testing from our district common assessments to AP tests and the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP tests).

Despite my own interest in pulling back the curtain on how historical knowledge is constructed, I daily find myself lapsing back into narrating the events of the past as if they are uncontested truths.  This struck me this week as I was looking at the profiles of Toussaint Louverture that groups of students created after discussing primary source accounts of Toussaint in small groups.  In writing these they gravitated back to the context that I had provided in a powerpoint presentation, instead of to their interpretations of the sources.  Repeating my conclusions seems to have appeared easier and more valid to them.  So, while providing context is important, we need to be sure that we are also allowing space for and encouraging students to draw their own conclusions.  All of this prompted some deeper thoughts…

It is as if for all of these years I have been giving students information as context for critical thinking activities that rarely come.  History teachers often seem to think that all of the shallow historic knowledge that we ask students to remember will some day be the basis for a grand critical thinking exercise: understanding the world. Instead, I propose, if we want students to think critically we need to do it everyday; and, if we want students to enjoy history, then we need to let them practice it.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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