The latest Sam Wineburg book is out! The latest Sam Wineburg book is out!
I will be the first to admit it. I’m in love with Sam Wineburg. The bromance started, I suppose, 15 years ago when I first ran across his book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. It was a fairly typical academic book focused on some guy’s research but I loved the title. And as a newly minted social studies curriculum coach, the content was right up my alley.
A former middle school teacher and college instructor, I was finding it difficult to articulate what quality history instruction could look like and how to share that vision with other educators. After 15 years in the classroom, I knew what had worked for me but I was struggling to find ways to structure that. And perhaps even more important, I wasn’t completely sure WHY it had worked.
Wineburg’s research resonated. I read more of his early articles on historical thinking skills and loved his ideas about how we needed to re-think our approach to teaching history. In a nutshell? We were doing it wrong. It’s not about memorizing. It’s not about multiple choice. It’s about asking kids to think critically about evidence and developing arguments around that evidence. Radical, right?
It’s been over ten years since I first heard Sam Wineburg speak. During a combined Kansas / Missouri Council for History Education conference way back in 2008, Sam opened with a keynote highlighting the main ideas in his book. This face to face meet cemented it. His later books, articles, research, SHEG, Beyond the Bubble, Historical Thinking Chart, civic online literacy tools . . . have all convinced me that the two of us would be great together in an action comedy buddy cop movie.
All this to say that Sam is a future social studies Hall of Famer, having helped to swing the pendulum of social studies instruction over to something more focused on a balance of both content and process, of historical thinking rather than questions at the end of the chapter.
And now . . . wait for it . . . his latest book just came out.
It’s gonna be a great day.
Why Learn History? (When It’s Already On Your Phone?) just showed up in the UPS delivery and a quick 60 minute skim hasn’t disappointed. Divided into four chunks, Why Learn History is a collection of Wineburg essays that’s part history of the Stanford History Education Group, part Teaching American History rant, and part reminder of why we do what we do. The book highlights the vital role social studies teachers play in the democracy that is the United States and, perhaps more importantly, what can happen if we fail to fill that role.
Chunk One – Our Current Plight
The state of history instruction with a focus on poor assessment, the good, bad, and ugly of the TAH program, and the importance of the words perhaps, maybe, might, and on the other hand.
Chunk Two – Historical Thinking An Amazing Memory
The need for historical thinking skills. And what it can look like if our students don’t have those skills.
Chunk Three – Thinking Historically in a Digital Age
A more autobiographical section describing the growth of SHEG, their sweet lessons and assessments, and Sam’s research into Civic Online Literacy.
Chunk Four – Conclusion: Historical Hope
Perhaps the most inspiring section. Sam shares the results of a survey he conducted that asked Americans to list the most famous American. The result? “. . . those who most capture our imagination acted to expand rights, alleviate misery, rectify injustice, and promote freedom.”
So you get a nice little package outlining the problem, how we can solve it, and what it can look like when we’re successful.
Need a spoiler?
Start with this primary source:
For years, Sam and his research team observed students working in classrooms as they interacted with historical evidence. Asked to read this document “historically” – to tell Sam what they thought about it and to raise questions about how and why the document was created – most students failed.
But how would we as social studies teachers do?
Not much better, says Sam. What about budding PhD history students at the University of California? Yeah . . . about the same. (Feel free to jump in on this. Why did President Harrison create Columbus Day? Why should your students care?)
To a historian, Sam argues, critical thinking isn’t just collecting facts in order to pass judgment. It’s determining what questions to ask in order to generate new knowledge. So this document isn’t really about 1492 and Christopher Columbus. It’s more about 1892 and Harrison’s attempt to appeal to millions of new urban Catholic voters.
So why should our students care? Because this is a sweet little way to connect history to contemporary issues – as in . . . how do current political parties, PACs, and online media impact voter bias, voter behavior, and voter turnout? Do the language and behavior of politicians and businesses matter? In what ways?
In this exercise – and others like it – most of our students (and us) aren’t that bad with the first part of the historical thinking piece. Students recognize that the document is a news article. That it’s about Columbus. Written by the US president. In 1892. But they (and us) often fail to move beyond the obvious:
. . . (students encountered) documents like Harrison’s and issued pronouncements. Like the judge’s gavel, such pronouncements shut the door on history. Not for historians. Faced with an unfamiliar document, they framed questions to help them understand the fullness of the historical moment. They emerged puzzled and provoked. They ended their reading primed to seek new knowledge.
The past is messy and complex. But we need citizens who have the skills needed to navigate their way through it. And I get it. Teaching social studies in 2018 can be frustrating. And tiring. And difficult. But Why Learn History is a great reminder of what it can look like, why it’s important, and how we should be doing it.
So go read it. There’s enough of Sam to go around.
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Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.