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Your brain is a bucket full of holes. Sam Wineburg can help

I get the chance to work with all sorts of teachers, across the state and around the country. We’re all different. But when the conversation turns to teaching and learning social studies, I often hear the same thing:

“I have to lecture (or have students read their textbooks out loud, create outlines from the chapter, complete fill-in-the-blank worksheet packets, or watch a 30 year old video converted from 16 mm film) because the kids have to know their facts. It’s not fair asking them to think historically without the basic facts.”

I get it. And I don’t disagree. Kids do need the facts. But I think for too long we’ve just assumed that acquiring foundational knowledge and historical thinking are two distinct and different activities. We fill up their heads with facts and then, if we have time in the school year and after the state assessments are over, then . . . we can try some of that historical thinking stuff.

We need to stop doing that.

The brain is not a basket that we can just fill up with stuff. The brain is a bucket full of holes. The brain works very hard to find ways to forget things and if something is not important enough to be useful, it’s gonna find its way out one of the holes.

Our task is not to fill brains with facts. Our job is Read more

Sam Wineburg is still a stud

I mentioned historian and author Sam Wineburg last week while sharing a story from columnist Leonard Pitts. I’ve read Sam’s stuff and had the chance to hear him speak several years ago.

And just so you know, Sam’s a history stud. He’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and saves babies from burning buildings. He’s like Superman of the history Justice League.

So . . . okay. I like the guy. He says stuff that makes sense and is working to find ways to help history teachers do their jobs better. What’s not to like?

And a recent article in the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Quarterly just adds to his studness. This quarter’s theme is Using Primary Sources to Teach Historical Thinking and Sam shares some reasons why primary sources are such powerful tools.

To get the total Wineburg buzz, head over and read the entire article. I’ve put a bit of a taste below. He starts the article with a conversation:

When I recently asked Kevin, a sixteen-year-old high school junior, what he needed to do well in history class, he had little doubt: “A good memory.”

“Anything else?”

“Nope. Just memorize facts and stuff, know ’em cold, and when you get the test, give it all back to the teacher.”

“What about thinking? Does that have anything to do with history?”

“Nope. It’s all pretty simple. Stuff happened a long time ago. People wrote it down. Others copied it and put it in a book. History!”

I’ve spent nearly 20 years studying how high school students learn history. Over the years I’ve met many Kevins, for whom the life has been sucked out of history, leaving only a grim list of names and dates.

Sam suggests that the way to combat this is by teaching kids to think about what the facts mean rather than just the facts themselves. Nothing new for many of you but he goes on to share how primary sources lend themselves perfectly for this purpose.

History experts approach documents differently than history novices. Mostly, Sam suggests, by coming to documents with

a list of questions—about author, context, time period—that form a mental framework for the details to follow. These questions transform the act of reading from passive reception to an engaged and passionate interrogation.

What sorts of questions?

  • Sourcing: Think about a document’s author and its creation.
  • Contextualizing: Situate the document and its events in time and place
  • Close reading: Carefully consider what the document says and the language used to say it.
  • Using Background Knowledge: Use historical information and knowledge to read and understand the document.
  • Reading the Silences: Identify what has been left out or is missing from the document by asking questions of its account.
  • Corroborating: Ask questions about important details across multiple sources to determine points of agreement and disagreement.

Perhaps most important is the need for teachers to model this sort of questioning out loud for their students. I don’t think we do this enough. We assume that kids know how to think this way. And they don’t.

The title of Sam’s book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, says it all. To think historically is not natural and we need to be more responsible in training our students to do something that they may find uncomfortable.


It’s pretty simple.

The goals of school history are not vocational but to prepare students to tolerate complexity, to adapt to new situations, and to resist the first answer that comes to mind.

These are not history skills. These are life skills. Get on it. Superman is depending on you.

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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.

My first social studies superhero and Teaching What Really Happened.

I’ve always had social studies heroes.

The people who made and continue to make National Geographic magazine map inserts. My 7th grade geography teacher. Garden City High School’s Mr. Tomayko. James Clavell and Stephen Ambrose. Sam Wineburg.

But my first real social studies hero . . . the first person who I consciously recognized as someone impacting my career as a social studies teacher?

James Loewen. As in, the author of:

  • Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
  • Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of Racism
  • Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong
  • And his latest, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History

Years after first reading Lies My Teacher Told Me, I’m not even sure now how and where I ran across the book. But for someone who had grown up in western Kansas and Read more