Friday, January 24, 2014

Teaching facts about the past vs. teaching historical thinking

This is my first post in our monthly history blog circle. I have started the idea of a blog circle with the intention of creating a space for history teachers regularly to contribute blog posts about various curricular and instructional themes. Posts will be uploaded to this site on the last day of each month. Please let me know via a comment here or a message on Twitter if you would like to contribute a post. Suggested length for a contribution is 750-1250 words. That’s just a suggestion, though. Please don’t take these numbers too seriously.
Most of us have likely been in history classrooms where the transmission of factual information has been the main focus. As we all know, some teachers do this better than others. Well organized lectures, engaging videos, and interesting readings, by most measures, are the recipe for an ideal classroom experience. We ought to be doing more than this, though.  

This month’s posts focus on the following question: What’s the difference between teaching students facts vs. teaching them to think like an historian? Most of my time as a teacher, sorry to say, has focused more on teaching students to recall selected facts about the past rather than teaching them to use facts as they think critically about the past, present, and future. I am committed to changing this, and since early 2013, I have slowly been transforming my instructional approach.  
I am in the middle of my 13th year teaching social studies. And when I think back to my first attempts at teaching, I was like many new teachers, I suspect. As a new teacher, I taught the way that I had been taught, and the way that I saw my cooperating teacher teach.

And what was it that those who taught me did? What exactly was I imitating?
These teachers, many of whom I admired, told their students about the past. Most of them, I am pretty sure, often told me more than the textbook. This is what history teachers did, I thought. Good teachers went well beyond the text; mediocre teachers, less so.  And this is what I would end up doing once I entered the classroom. If I worked hard, I hoped, one day I would transition from a mediocre teacher to a good teacher.

With the exception of a single historiography course that I took in college, I learned a powerful lesson about teaching history. History teachers talked; and if they were good, they would talk about more than the textbook. And history students listened. And if they were good students, they would also take copious notes, recalling much of these notes from memory when assessed.  
As a teacher in training, I remember feeling a combination of awe and anxiety when I tried to imagine myself one day lecturing to my classes. Would I ever know as much as my professors, I wondered? I had a difficult time believing that one day I would be able to teach a forty minute or, even worse, a ninety minute class. How would I be able to talk that much? That was my focus when I thought about teaching.

Fast forward to 2013. When I look back on my teaching career, I am going to remember 2013 as the first school year that I was a connected educator. In the late spring and summer of 2013, I started to become more active on Twitter. Now, in January 2014, close to 10,000 tweets later, here I am. I am a co-founder and moderator of three active Twitter chats: #hsgovchat, #inquirychat, and #econchat. And, most importantly, each time I participate in one of these chats, or exchange ideas with other teachers, I am better for it. We learn and grow when we collaborate, question, and share. During my first twelve years of teaching, opportunities for collaboration and sharing were infrequent.  
Since having to draft my first philosophy of education in college, I have always had some constructivist ideas embedded in my thinking about teaching and learning. In practice, however, my actions have not been aligned with these views.  Since becoming more active on Twitter, and since being pushed to create common assessments with my colleagues, I have been forced to define what I really value as a social studies teacher. My tweets and my blog, I think, have captured my desire to become a better social studies teacher.

Returning to this month’s central question, what’s the difference between teaching students facts vs. teaching them to think like an historian? Put simply, I realize more than ever that critical thinking must encompass all that we do.
In classrooms where factual recall is the main emphasis, how well do students learn the skills associated with active, reflective citizenship? It is essential that we consider what we are trying to accomplish when we teach our students history.

Though it is not our only job, teaching students facts is not as simple as many make it out to be. We need to be thoughtful about the epistemological realities that exist when we choose which facts to teach our students. Who decides? The textbook publisher? Which facts are being left out of our  lessons? And why are they being left out?  And a ‘just the facts’ approach is not enough, is it? How could it be? After all, we need to teach students concepts, generalizations, and skills.
Critical thinking skills must be integrated into all that we do. And when we say critical thinking, we must be clear about what we mean by that term. Critical thinking is evaluative thinking. To evaluate means to make a judgment against some kind of criteria. What kind of judgments should students be making in our history classes? (maybe next month’s topic…?)

To help our students become better critical thinkers we must embed regular feedback procedures into our lessons. Teaching that doesn’t involve a series of feedback loops is not teaching; at best, it is talking, the spewing of content for students to regurgitate. This, to steal a term from Frank Nochese, is pseudoteaching.


  1. Hi Joe, well done, great post and I agree with what you are saying. I have been teaching for a while but only have two years of IB History teaching under my belt. In those two years I have learnt so much about historical thinking, much more than in the years before. Our southern hemisphere school year starts this week and I have already planned my first lesson to not be about just the syllabus and the content, but about habits of mind, critical thinking, ways of learning and online tools to help make life easier.
    Also, can I recommend this Coursera source, you can still join in:
    I have already picked up things I can use with my students.

    Also, I'd be happy to contribute a post. I am grappling with meaningful use of technology to improve learning. I wonder if and how online technology really makes a difference to learning outcomes. John Hattie's effect sizes list Technology as quite low, but I am convinced that it helps students to be more effective as learners. I just have to figure out my justification and proof.

  2. Hi Joe,

    Really like your article - thought provoking and a good group discussion point - factual recall important in terms of being able to sort, sequence, analyse (all those higher order thinking skills) but factual recall should not be mnain focus of teaching as it is a lower order thinking skills - agree with you that in many classrooms factual recall is main emphasis - and as you suggest - this should not be the case - look forward to further dialogue,

    Catherine :-)