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Dr. Booker’s Simple Rules of History

Dr. Matthew Booker is the first presenter in our Century of Progress summer session. He’s sharing today about how the US was able to sustain its Revolution. We always assume that once we won the war against England and signed the Treaty of Paris, that the process of nationhood was a given. But it wasn’t.

(An interesting tidbit he just shared. One problem was the huge growth in the population between 1790 and 1830. Ohio grew from having basically zero whites and Europeans in 1800 to 500,000 in 1810. That’s more people than any of the American colonies had in 1776. The result? Political power begins to shift west and challenges to federal American power were common.)

But before he jumped into historical content, he shared three ideas about the process of historical thinking. He calls his ideas “habits” and adds a couple of rules.

So here they are – Dr. Matthew Booker’s Simple Rules of History:

1. We as teachers need to see the past and history as a series of problems and questions rather than solutions. And we need to train our kids to do the same thing. So instead of simply following the textbook from start to finish and providing the answers, we should frame our instruction around a series of great questions that kids will have to mess with.

  • Why was slavery so successful?
  • How was it possible for the Constitution have some amendments and not others?
  • Why are states shaped the way they are?

Students have trouble with this – they come to our classes with their own world view and questions and problems make them uncomfortable. But I’ve always talked about the idea of creating “academic discomfort” in the minds of our students – when the brain is frustrated, it means the brain is learning.

2. We should teach history and should see the past through more than one lens. We need multiple points of view. So not just one diary from the Civil War period but three: a slave journal, a northern diary and something from the South. Booker also mentioned that we need to also use what he called “different scales of view.” In other words, both individual views and the aggregation of those views through the use of statistics.

And there are many resources available to help with this. Booker mentioned something that I hadn’t really thought about before today – one of the reasons (excuses?) why we as history teachers are such big users of worksheets as instructional tools is that at one time there was nothing else.

3. We must train ourselves and our students to work from evidence to argument, not the other way around. We should ask a question, do the research and, based on that research, create the argument.

He said something to the effect of “we must refuse to believe something merely because we want it to be true.” We need to let the facts drive our argument, not our emotions.

Sam Wineburg said this as well:

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.

Booker also shared what he called two “absolute rules for historians.”

1. You cannot make it up – if you have a story but don’t have evidence for that story, you can’t tell that story.

Implications? There are some stories that you think you know about the past and believe to be true, just aren’t. Sarah Palin is the most recent example of believing a certain story (Paul Revere)  that is not based on evidence. So . . . you have to find your own evidence.

2. You have to include all the evidence connected with the story, not just the evidence that you agree with. The facts are the facts. We don’t have the luxury of pre-selecting what facts we’ll accept.

And yes . . . some of this may be review for you but I like the way Booker phrases it. What are your habits and rules for history?

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