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Sam Wineburg is a stud

I had the privilege of sitting at the feet of historian and author Sam Wineburg this morning and was just blown away. He spent part of his time discussing and demonstrating some of the ideas that he writes about in his book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. (This is a must read for all history teachers!)

But Sam also spent time talking about his vision for learning in the history classroom and responding to questions. (He also pushed his fabulous new site Historical Thinking Matters.)

I was hoping to live blog his presentation but ran into access issues. And it was probably a good thing because I never would have kept up. Sam is a very engaging speaker and, based on the tone of his book, I never would have guessed that his presentation would have been so much fun!

I especially enjoyed listening to his responses to audience questions:

I do not believe that my message is political. The message is really about how to get our kids to be democrats with a small “D”. If we do not get our kids to think like true democrats, the country is on its way to hell in a hand basket.

Increasingly we are becoming a nation of those who can read and those who can’t. Those who can think historically and those who can’t and that is a tragedy.

A history class should not be arguing about the facts of history, the most important argument we should be having is how do we interpret the facts. The discussions should focus on questions about meaning not questions about facts.

I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as History Alive or about making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to thinking rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out of the class having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.

My favorite?

When he talked about how we have Bloom’s taxonomy upside down. Sam argued that knowledge should be at the top of the pyramid, that the brain will only be able to create a sense of knowledge after it has had the chance to solve problems and answer questions.

Memory is not an attic where we store stuff that doesn’t matter to us. We have to start with questions and good problems.

And I think that as I work with social studies teachers and encourage them to “engage” their kids, I’ve been doing that. But I’ve never really thought about the whole Bloom’s Taxonomy thing in the way that Sam articulated it. We need to start thinking differently about how we view unit and lesson creation.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Terry Walbert #

    I think one of the best ways that historical thinking can help you make sense of current events is to teach you how to live with uncertainty and to suggest possibilities in a given situation.

    For example, take Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama. It would not surprise me if Powell were name Secretary of Defense if Obama wins the election. I’m not suggesting that Powell’s motives were crass. He may have had conversations with Obama and received some type of assurance about defense policy in an Obama administration. The lateness of the endorsement suggests this scenario to me. I’d also wonder if there were overtures from the McCain people to Powell.

    If I were a reporter, I would ask these and other questions and try to get confirmation. Unfortunately, the main stream media in the United States consists of people who are lazy, historically ignorant, and herd minded. It’s not that many of them don’t know; they don’t even suspect.

    October 22, 2008
  2. glennw #


    I agree!

    There’s a great book that I just went through a few weeks ago called “True Enough” by Farhad Manjoo that basically says Americans have very few historical thinking skills. And uses presidential elections as examples.

    Manjoo cites the Swift Boat episode during the 2004 presidential election as an example of how people fail to use good thinking and evaluation skills.

    As social studies teachers, I truly believe that we have a responsibility to train our students to evaluate and stay informed.

    Thanks for the comment!


    October 23, 2008
  3. Terry Walbert #

    Thanks for the heads up on the book.

    Speaking of the Swtif Boat episode, what was his take on that? Is there any serious reporting about the truth or falsehood of the claims?

    Since I sent them a modest contribution in 2004, I’d like to know if I advanced truth or falsehood. Their claims about John Kerry seemed credible to me at the time, but that was during the heat and smoke of a political campaign.

    November 6, 2008
  4. glennw #


    Manjoo basically says that the Swift Boat people were able to create a fictional account of Kerry’s service in Vietnam. The internet and other forms of media such as talk radio provided an ideal forum for this type of disinformation. The “truthiness” of the SB account seemed “right” to many who were looking for reasons to vote against Kerry.

    And at the time says Manjoo, while it was probably historically inaccurate the SD version of events still “felt” right. Which is Manjoo’s point – new forms of media make it difficult to see other world views.

    Manjoo tells “about a study by Stanford professor Shanto Iyengar and Richard Morin of the Washington Post, in which they obtained a list of headlines in six categories: politics, Iraq war, race, travel, crime, and sports, and randomly placed beside each headline one of four logos: BBC, CNN, Fox, and NPR. Democrats somewhat preferred CNN and NPR, and Republicans very strongly preferred Fox. The Fox logo tripled the interest of Republicans in stories about politics and Iraq, and even increased Republicans’ interest and decreased Democrats’ interest in headlines about travel and sports. Professor Iyengar says that people “have generalized their preference for politically consonant news to nonpolitical domains.”

    Just more reason for Social Studies teachers to teach appropriate questioning and evaluation skills!

    (Thanks for the comment / sorry the delay in responding!)


    November 8, 2008
  5. Glenn,

    Thanks for the quotes from Wineburg. Understanding that history is rigorous work, but also deeply intellectually satisfying, is an important point to stress with students. Scaffolding lessons and teaching them tools for thinking historically challenges us teachers to go well beyond the facts and focus on higher level questions (Bloom again). And, starting with questions provides students with motivation — a need to know and desire to investigate.

    Charlie Newhall

    November 24, 2008
  6. glennw #


    Thanks for comment. High level questions are such a huge part of instructional design but so many of us fail to include them.

    Love your blogroll! I’ve already spent time on some of your favorites.


    November 24, 2008

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