Students As Historians

As history teachers, we want students to develop a rich understanding of history topics, concepts, events, and people. However, in many cases, history instruction relies heavily on text books, second- and third-hand accounts of history, and shallow overviews of significant topics. Students become history receivers and not history learners. For students to develop a rich understanding, they need to become historians.

All historians do four things:

  1. Study what other historians have said about a topic,
  2. Study primary sources,
  3. Formulate opinions on the topic, and
  4. Communicate their opinions.

The first action (reading what others have said) is the most common form of history instruction. Additionally, as TAH participants, you understand the value of using primary sources, and, I hope, you have seen students’ interest and enthusiasm when studying primary sources. But what about the next two tasks?

Do your students have opportunities to formulate their own opinions, even if those opinions are contrary to “accepted wisdom”? Historians reflect on what they have studied and support their opinions with evidence. Certainly, they have to justify their ideas, and students can be expected to do the same. Even so, the learning process includes processing, which means reflecting and forming opinions.

Do your students have opportunities to communicate their opinions, not just to you, the teacher, but also to peers? Through communication, a historian seeks to teach other people about the topic, as well as to convince others that the historian’s opinions are correct. This implies that peers analyze the historian’s opinions and provide criticism, which is task one and begins the cycle anew. This enhances the knowledge of all students, even while helping them to become better historians, themselves.

As history teachers, our primary mission is not teaching history to students. Our primary missions is helping students become history learners…historians.

(This short post is from the TAH newsletter delivered to TAH participants on 10/15/2012. Do you want to receive the monthly TAH newsletter directly, learn about and be invited to special TAH events, and receive resources for teaching history? Become a member of the TAH 50! Read more.)

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