Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives
reviewed by Stephen J. Thornton - 2002
Title: Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives
Author(s): Peter N. Stearns, Sam Wineburg & Peter C. Seixas (Eds)
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 0814781411, Pages: 576, Year: 2000
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The editors of this volume—Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg—are described as an historian, an historian and teacher educator, and a cognitive psychologist, respectively. These differing perspectives turn out to be important in how the reader might react to this book. Thus, a brief review of this book presents a conundrum.
The book is based on the proceedings of a conference and contains chapters by 22 separate authors. Clearly space does not permit reviewing all 22 chapters, the introduction, section openers, and postlogue. But as even the editors themselves point out, there are "some differences in emphasis" across the chapters (p. 471). My admittedly imperfect solution to this conundrum is to consider the collective impact of the volume, which I assume will be of primary interest to most readers. Reference to individual chapters will only be made to illustrate some broader concern.
This book is mainly about research on the study and teaching of history in schools and their ramifications for closely related matters such as teacher education. The authors hail from four countries—Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, United States—although most are American. Considered as a group, the chapters reveal how far research on learning history has come in the last few decades. A generation ago researchers often focused on what children cannot learn in history. Now that focus has been reversed. Research on history learning once lagged far behind comparable work in reading and mathematics. Judging by chapters such as "Progression in Historical Understanding among Students Ages 7-14" by Peter Lee and Rosalyn Ashby, that gap appears to be narrowing.
Another important thread in this volume is considering what it means to "know" history. Going beyond the traditional instructional materials of classroom history, authors such as Roy Rosenzweig, James V. Wertsch, and Wineburg suggest how significant historical learning occurs in everyday life through a variety of media and settings. As Rosenzweig points out, for instance, the widespread belief that most people are uninterested in history does not stand up to scrutiny. A surprisingly large proportion of American adults claim to be interested in history, although far fewer look back with affection on traditional textbook dominated, fact-driven school history courses.
The editors argue that this collection of essays shows that it is time for "change." The impetus for change, they say, comes from "psychology’s cognitive revolution" and "the historiographic revolution" (pp. 11-12). Although they fail to say what they want to "change," it seems they mean the three processes of the title—knowing, teaching, learning—for educational purposes. Most of the authors seem to take for granted what cognitive psychologists and historians have provided in their "revolutions" should guide curriculum and instruction in the schools. But a better grasp of how students can learn history is no reason for teaching it in the first place.
Nonetheless, I think the editors are right when they note that "which history should be taught is only one (albeit important) questions among many" (p. 12). In his own chapter, for instance, Wineburg argues persuasively why endless disputes about more information about topic x rather than topic y are usually unproductive distractions from more important matters. But there is a deeper question here that warrants more direct attention than Wineburg gives it: What are the purposes of history in general education? He, and most of the other authors, seem to assume that it is to, as Robert B. Bain puts it, "breach" the gap between how historians themselves know and think and how schoolchildren know and think.
But changes in the discipline of history and advances in understanding how children learn it, as only a few of the authors remark upon, are only two among a number of the educator’s proper concerns. As Rosenzweig points out, for example, what many adults fondly recall about their history teachers is "their dedication to the personal growth of students" (p. 274). Similarly, Linda S. Levstik, suggests student interest (p. 296) and the development of "active civic participation" (p. 301) are valid criteria in deciding what history should be taught and how it should be taught. In other words, as Erling M. Hunt (1935) once put it, there are important and legitimate differences between "scholars’ history" and "school history."
This distinction also matters for what this volume implies (and, in a few cases such as the chapter by Diane Ravitch, states) for teacher education. The editors call, for instance, for "pedagogical experimentation" (pp. 474-475). The aim of this exercise, however, seems largely restricted to ways to emulate historians. But preparing teachers to meet the subject matter demands of teaching may differ from the preparation of disciplinary majors. Teachers most need a thorough examination of the subject matters of the school curriculum. They should examine basic material from a higher standpoint, with an emphasis of its lateral connections (Noddings, 1999), while the disciplinary major is properly concerned with knowledge at the frontiers of the field (Thornton, 2001).
In conclusion, this volume will doubtless be helpful to anyone concerned with current research on knowing, teaching, and learning history. The contributors to the volume include some of the best known researchers in this field. The volume’s organization and overall themes, perhaps inevitably given the number of authors involved, may not be as clear to the reader as the editors claim. Readers will also have to do much of the work themselves to figure out how this research does (or should) fit with the broader purposes of history within the school curriculum.
ReferencesHunt, Erling M. (1935), Scholars’ history versus school history," The Social Studies, 26(8), 513-517.
Noddings, Nel. (1999). Caring and Competence,In Gary A.Griffin, ed., The Education of Teachers, Ninety-eighth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Thornton, Stephen J. (2001). Educating the educators: Rethinking subject matter and methods," Theory into Practice, 40(1), 72-78.