Thinking Historically

I am reading Sam Wineburg’s book, What Does It Mean to Think Historically?  It has made me continue to refine my thoughts on how I can best incorporate technology to teach history to my students.  Mr. Wineburg is correct when he says that we want our students to engage in the subject matter, and to evoke their own personal experiences so they can formulate good questions and possible solutions[1].  We also want them to develop an appreciation of the limited scope of their own understanding, and to realize that there is the possibility that what they are seeing when they view history might be something so totally new that is cannot fit easily into any known construct or schema.  Mr. Wineburg recounts the story of Marco Polo’s first sight of a rhinoceros; he identified it to be in the family of the magical unicorn, but different.[2]  I want my students to see that there are things in the world that can defy their senses, and can disturb their own personal reality, which is steeped in their culture.  Although the veridical, or true, world is out there, they may possibly never know it.  What is important for them is to try.  Is it possible, then, that teaching students how to think historically is more important than teaching them a chronology of events?

Andrews and Burke have developed a method to teach students how to think historically.  They call it the 5 C’s approach, and postulate that by teaching students to understand change over time, context, causality, contingency and complexity, we can develop students who are able to analyze primary source documents and think critically about secondary sources.[3] This is important in the digital age where students must know how to make value judgments regarding the content they interface with on Web 2.0 platforms.  I have been the recipient of a form of teaching using this method.  Dr. Jim Tuten at Juniata College uses this method by focusing on analyzing events through the use of the 5C’s.  He does this across the scope of topics, and it is very effective when used for analyzing multiple primary source documents.  His use of this technique is not only engaging but is an excellent example of how we can best teach critical thinking skills.  For K-12 teachers, this allows for sequential building of analytical processes and for easy differentiation as required.  Those students or groups who need more challenging assignments might be give the more difficult task of discussing the complexity of events, while others might focus on the more basic change over time analysis.  Both levels of analysis are important to come to an understanding of the historical event, but the tasks require significantly different skills sets from our students.

Here are some of my ideas for teaching using the 5 C’s approach with technology

Change Over Time and CausalityDesign History, An Interactive Timeline allows the viewer to examine events that occur within a span of time.  Teachers can have students create their own digital versions of timelines that allow them to link the interconnectedness of events, and demonstrate how events can impact outcomes.  I have seen this done very effectively with greater reliance on creativity than automation.  One librarian and instructor had students read individual works from an electronic timeline, verbally summarize the information for their classmates, and place their interpretation of the details of the event onto what became a large combined timeline.  The event was brilliant and engaging, but the timeline product was not necessarily portable, or accessible outside of the classroom by the contributors.  Merging this interactive student event with an electronic platform like Prezi would allow the students to later access their combined work on demand.

Context and Complexity:  The Internet allows the door of context and complexity to be opened more easily for our students.  We have evolved beyond the days of relying on a single textbook interpretations.  Our students are searching and discovering information that surrounds events, and through near real time and live feeds like twitter and RSS, contextual background information lands on the screens of their smartphones without asking.   We must teach our students well to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction.  See PBS’s Tips to Evaluate Internet Resources here.

Contingency:  teaching contingency is difficult, and can perhaps be best taught though the use of simulations.  Examples include role playing simulations like the one found here by Gleb Tsipursky that immerses students into to roles to include President Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev.  Do your students create peace or launch a global crisis?  This is an excellent means to develop students’ understanding of cause and effect relationships.

I believe by introducing the 5 C’s approach to high school students is a way to develop their historical thinking abilities.  Are you, or could you, use this  method in your classrooms?

[1] Sam Wineburg. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001 p. 23.

[2] Sam Wineburg. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001 p. 24.

[3] Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke. “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” Perspectives (January 2007).


Digital Literacy Debate – Can YouTube Improve Learning?

The concern about media literacy is not new.  See the video below, Blogging Through History,  for a look at how pamphleteering, Ben Frankin, and Yellow Journalism required readers of the past to look with a critical eye at the written word.  Blank pages were placed at the end of written documents so readers could comment and pass along.  Sound familiar?

These days it seems like everyone is watching YouTube, and some of the content is actually allowing learners to access wonderful, accurate, and thought provoking digital media via the Internet.   Educators like Sal Khan are giving wider access to subjects like Math, Science and History to a diverse group learners on demand with The Khan Academy.  In sharp contrast, there are also the clips of cats skydiving.  So, can YouTube make us smarter?

I believe through proper analysis of the message, it can.  Elizabeth Thoman and Tessa Jolls, in Media Literacy, A National Priority for a Changing World offer us some advice about how to evaluate media.  Since digital media has become more complex, diverse and accessible, the actual content of the message becomes less important than the analysis and further re-communication of the message.  Readers can use the following 5 questions to better evaluate digital media:

1.  Who created the message?

2.  What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?

3.  How might different people understand this message differently from me?

4.  What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?

5.  Why is this message being sent?

The authors add that:  “Now is the time to make media literacy education a national priority in advancing 21st century skills for a 21st century world”

What are you doing in your classrooms to encourage students to learn digital media skills?