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‘Where are the Kids?’:
Students’ Pre-Instructional Thinking in and about History

by Robert Bain (1999) -- excerpts

compiled by Prof. Harold Marcuse for Hist 200w Seminar Presentation, Feb. 20, 2007
(Hist 200WO Links page; Hist 2c Course homepage, Prof's homepage)
created Feb. 14, 2007, updated

in: Heidi Roupp (ed.), A Jump Start Manual for World History Teachers (papers presented at the 8th Annual World History Association Conference, Univ. of Victoria, June 1999), 4-26;
introduction and excerpts from pages 9-13. (references at bottom)

Samuel Wineburg demonstrated significant differences in the way high school students and historians read text. Wineburg gave a group of high school history students and historians a set of primary sources from the U.S. Revolutionary War to read while thinking aloud. The students had completed successfully a U.S. history course and in some cases had a greater factual knowledge of the event under study than did some of the historians, particularly those whose specialty was not U.S. history. Yet, factual knowledge did not seem to affect how each group read the sources. The historians employed multiple strategies while reading. They corroborated sources within the document set, consciously attended to who created the source and the time of its creation, and worked to construct a larger context to situate the documents. Each historian tried to corroborate, discover attribution and contextualize each document and the entire set. They engaged in a multilayered dialogue between the documents and their own questions, trying to understand the minds of those they were studying while weaving tentative interpretations that successive readings challenged or refined.

And the students? They handled the documents as they did any text, simply reading for information. They rarely paid attention to a document’s author, to the relationship among sources or the larger context surrounding the evidence. Students read documents in the order given, and from top to bottom. Unlike historians, students made their assessments of the sources “without regret or qualification.” In other words, they approached historical texts as vehicles of information, reading them as they read other material to get the facts. Historians, on the other hand, “seemed to view texts not as vehicles but as people, not as bits of information to be gathered but as social exchanges to be understood.”

These differences, Wineburg concluded, were more complicated than differences in factual knowledge or reading skills. … What differentiated historians’ reading from that of students was … knowledge of how to … determine the validity of competing truth claims in a discipline.” …

We might be fooling ourselves because students can engage in the outward trappings of an activity. A disciplinary task, such as reading primary sources, might mean something different to history students than it does to historians. …

[p. 11] In replicating Wineburg’s study with teachers, Yeager and Davis found little evidence that teachers regularly corroborated evidence, looked for attribution or constructed context when reading multiple sources. While there was variation among the teachers in the study, the majority approximated the reading habits of the high school students in Wineburg’s study. …

[p. 12] The past, for students, was filled with facts that historians retrieved for students to memorize in ways that will somehow improve the present. …
For the students, history seemed to consist of indisputable stories told about the past, packaged with clear lessons and unfettered by … considerations of evidence.

In a sense, students have a positivist view of history. History is the mirror of the past. Students, as Shemilt showed, believed historical facts speak on their own and exist independently of the historian. The job of the historian is a gatherer of factual information, analogous, in the mind of the student, to a photographer who brings back “true” pictures of distant times, peoples and places.

[p. 13] It should not come as a surprise that students see textbooks as more reliable and free of bias when compared to other sources. In a study that investigated the ways students worked with a variety of sources used in history classrooms including textbooks, primary documents, drawings and photographs, Mary Singer Gabella discovered that students asked the same types of questions, regardless of the sources they were using. While the students liked using art and seemed engaged with it, students did not trust the information the drawings gave. The exception was with photographs that students saw as factual and unbiased. Of all the sources they used, the students held the textbook with the highest regard as an exemplar of historical knowledge. She concluded … that for students the “credibility of a source varies inversely with apparent human craftsmanship.”

The cited studies are:

  • Samuel Wineburg, “Historical Problem Solving: A Study of the Cognitive Processes Used in Documentary and Pictorial Evidence,” Journal of Educational Psychology 83:1(1991), 73-87. [see also: Samuel Wineburg, "On the Reading of Historical Texts," AERJ 28:3(Fall 1991), 495-519. (pdf)]
  • Denis Shemilt, “The Devil’s Locomotive,” History and Theory 224(1983), 1-18.
  • Terrie Epstein, “Sociocultural Approaches to Young People’s Historical Understanding,” Social Education 61.1(1997), 28-31.
  • Mary Singer Gabella, “Beyond the Looking Glass: Bringing Students into the Conversation of Historical Inquiry,” Theory and Research in Social Education (23(1994), 340-363.
  • Elizabeth Yeager and O.L. Davis, “Classroom Teachers’ Thinking about Historical Texts: An Exploratory Study,” Theory and Research in Social Education 24:2(1996), 146-166.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse, Feb. 14, 2007, updated: see header
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