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#WHA2016 and creativity in the K-20 social studies classroom

Okay. I’m trying to not let my history fanboy nerdiness bubble over too much. I’m sitting in on a discussion at the Western History Association conference and Richard White is one of the panelists.

Yes. There are others on the panel. Brian Collier (Notre Dame University), Linda Sargent Wood (Northern Arizona University), Jean O’Brien (University of Minnesota), Darla Mallein (Emporia State University), Tom Hoogland (Minnesota National History Day), and Brendan Bell (Cristo Rey High School). All wonderful people.

But seriously? Richard White? It’s a bit like my daughter heading to ComicCon and getting the chance to sit next to the cast of Captain America: Winter Soldier. Just so cool.

And once I got over the “that’s actually Richard White right there” phase, I was able to jot down a few things from the conversation. The panel discussed a variety of topics and started by talking about the most important innovation in teaching history.

Several panelists highlighted the impact that internet access has had and will continue to have on the teaching of history and social studies. As more evidence and primary sources become available, it becomes easier for teachers to focus on inquiry-based learning.

Brendan jumped on the idea of  inquiry-based learning and how important it is to have an over-arching question and problem. I absolutely love this:

We need to focus not just on what to teach but what to ask.

He continued and compared how managing a history classroom is like being part of a jazz concert – teachers and students have to adapt along the way. It’s all about improvising your way through it and being willing to change the question (and the evidence and the grouping and the strategy) along the way.

What collaborative strategies work?

Richard White talked about his current project of asking students to write and publish podcasts. He highlighted the many ways that they have to work with different groups to complete a quality history podcast – they need to learn the tech, they need to work with experts on story construction, they need to develop questions, and they need to work with others to publish final products.

He mentioned that his students don’t know how to craft a story or how the different pieces need to come together to create a compelling narrative. His classes work with the Stanford StoryTeller Project and shared that

humans are a storytelling animal.

Tom Hoogland of NHD suggested that universities need to focus on doing social studies differently – perhaps attaching social studies to other skills such as data visualization. We need to rethink who we are and what we do as history and social studies teachers to find ways of attracting and engaging students to the discipline. This could look like a lot of things but history is about people and Tom is suggesting that we can hook kids by showing them that history is more than just memorizing dates and places. And it’s not just asking students to think historically but finding ways also engage businesses and outside organizations to the social studies.

The discussion morphed a bit here to talk about ways that we can encourage “traditional” history teachers to teach in ways that encourage high levels of learning. Richard White suggested that it’s impossible to convert teachers out of their old ways just by telling them that there is a better way of doing things. We’re going to change the way history is taught by showing teachers the high quality products that are created by our students.

There is an agreement on the panel that to change individual teaching practice, we need to change the culture and belief that direct instruction works and that direct instruction is the only strategy that we need. This changing of the culture includes changing the K-12 standards so that the focus shifts to finding a good balance between content and process. (The cool thing is that this step has already happened in Kansas.)

Richard shared a few thoughts that I really like:

It’s not an either / or question. Lecture works for a lot of things but it’s not the only thing. If all we do is lecture, we’re doing our kids a disservice. I ask other teachers to think about this question – We never start a research project when we know what the answer is going to be. When we lecture, we’re telling kids that we know the answers. When we do inquiry / problem based learning, we’re telling kids that we’re working together to figure things out. We need both.

Theory and practice is the goal. We don’t really have a problem when a chemistry teacher uses an interactive direct instruction strategy because we know there’s going to be a hands-on lab after that. Our social studies classes can and should look the same.

It was interesting to hear several of the panelists argue for non-techy sorts of projects. In today’s tech rich environment, student products are often digital projects but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of hands-on, “real” projects. Using Makerspaces to encourage the building of “artifacts” is a good example of blending 21st century products with hands-on learning. Perhaps using 3D printers and scanners to recreate primary sources and artifacts. This could also look like what is happening at the Stanford Spatial History Lab.

Linda Sargent Wood jumped in here and reminded us that

All of this revolves around the power of the question.

Richard pointed out that we need to use archival materials as part of the process for answering the question. Kids like to touch old stuff. When they touch old stuff, a powerful message is sent to students that thinking and solving problems is important. He continued to impress with this:

Our job is to train kids to create a product for a contemporary audience while explaining the strangeness of the past.

Love that!

It was around this point of the conversation that we got off on a tangent about whether it’s important to teach cursive to K-12 students. An archivist said students can’t read primary sources because of a lack of not being able to read cursive. The implication being that we should teach cursive in order for our students to be able to access primary sources. But Tom made a powerful comment here:

It’s not really about reading cursive – it’s about decoding the documents and understanding the evidence. Students become detectives whether they know cursive or not.

And we’re back to Linda’s comment that our job, then, is to focus on creating great questions so that kids are willing to struggle through the process of decoding evidence  and solving problems.

The final panel topic was the simple 3 – 2- 1 strategy. Panelists were asked to share three things they are excited about, two things they are worried about, and one question they want us to think about.


  • technology continues to support a variety of powerful products
  • these student products are really good
  • cooperation is growing between higher ed, k-12, communities, groups such as the Library of Congress, and businesses
  • more women and students of color are entering the discipline
  • the basics of history still remain the same (using evidence and solving problems)
  • technology allows us to incorporate art, music, and humanities into social studies (such as the Hamilton musical)
  • K-12 administration is beginning to see the power of problem solving skills not just in social studies but other areas as well


  • metrics and how to measure historical thinking is difficult
  • the politics of state departments of education and how that limits their ability to help teachers
  • teaching a class like “this” is a high wire act
  • convincing kids that some direct instruction is good
  • politicians are not always supportive of teachers
  • learning gaps between student groups continues to be a concern

My take away from the conversation is to think about what we as K-12 teachers should focus on to prepare students for college and career.  Here’s my list of things to noodle through over the next few days:

  • how can we help students get better at telling a story
  • what can we do to encourage  collaboration
  • we need to be willing to layer social studies onto other content areas and “non-traditional” skills
  • finding a way to balance foundational knowledge and process skills
  • helping kids develop digital and hands-on products as well as finding ways to blend them together
  • how can I be more like Richard White?

Your thoughts on the state of history education?


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for the summary. This is exciting stuff!

    October 29, 2016

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  1. Favorite Reads of the Week: 29 October 2016 – Teaching history, skeletons and RootsTech news – Family Locket

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