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Bruce A. Van Sledright

Bruce A. Van Sledright


The learning of history is a complex undertaking. Cognitive research done since 1980, much of it in Great Britain and North America, has indicated that it is more difficult to learn and understand history than previously thought. Before the 1980s it was generally assumed that a gradual process of committing historical narratives–constructed around key events, details, names, and dates (substantive knowledge)–to memory would eventually result in a sturdy understanding of the past. The body of research compiled since 1980, however, demonstrates that learning history, if it is to lead to deeper understanding, involves not only the repeated study of such narratives, but also the acquisition and use of a set of domain-specific cognitive strategies (strategic knowledge). Applying these strategies serves as the means by which the past is learned and understood. Researchers and educators frequently refer to the application of these domain-specific strategies to the process of exploring and interpreting the past as historical thinking. Before examining in more detail the implications of this research for learning history, it is important to understand the nature of the domain that learners are attempting to comprehend.

History as a Subject Domain

History is a thoroughly interpretive discipline, closer in many ways to the humanities than to the social sciences. To understand the past, learners cannot conduct controlled experiments to recreate it and then study its effects. Nor can they travel back in time to witness events firsthand. And even if time travel were possible, learners would still be required to interpret the complex events that they were witnessing.

Access to the past is thus indirect, largely governed by artifacts and residue left behind by those who lived it. These include diaries, letters, journals, public records, newspapers, archeological artifacts, pictures, paintings, chroniclers' and historians' interpretations of past events, and the like. Those who make a living inquiring into the past divide the artifacts and historical residue into two types, primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include, among other things, diaries and personal journals compiled by people who actually witnessed or participated in an incident about which they report. Secondary sources include history textbooks or historical narratives written by someone not present at an event but who has studied and interpreted the primary sources that remain. Historical sources form a type of evidence chain or trail that must be painstakingly pieced together into carefully argued interpretations of past events. This piecing-together that learners and inquirers do as they make sense of the past's artifacts and residues has been a central subject of cognitive research studies.

Substantive Historical Knowledge and Understanding

Defining the nature of substantive historical knowledge is rife with debate. Largely, the debate turns on the matter of what constitutes historically significant events and occurrences. For roughly the first half the twentieth century, those who wrote American history, for example, seemed content to concentrate on political, military, and economic achievements in the United States. It was believed that those achievements were the most historically significant. During the 1960s, however, a new generation of historical scholars began to redefine significance in terms of what was often called "history from the bottom up." This generation (sometimes referred to as social historians) began inquiring into the influences on the American past of a variety of sociocultural groups that had often been rendered historically invisible by previous generations of scholars. These groups include antebellum slave communities, labor movements and their leaders, women, immigrants, and small, often marginalized, social organizations. The social historians maintained that these overlooked groups could be seen as powerful participants in, or resistors of, important changes and developments in American history, thus (at least in part) accounting for how change occurred as it did. To ignore such groups would be to misunderstand history. The work of social historians, with their proliferating foci and perspectives on events, has made constructing grand political-military-economic historical narratives less easy to accomplish.

This shifting terrain concerning issues of historical significance has raised difficult questions about what history students should learn. The late twentieth-century increase in the multiculturalization of the United States, for example, has only added to this concern by also raising questions about whose history children should learn. Some participants in the debate, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., believe that all U.S. children should acquire the same "common cultural" core of substantive historical knowledge. Schlesinger defines this core largely in terms of those political, military, and economic events that made the United States the most powerful nation on earth. Knowledge of these events would be delivered by traditional, uplifting narratives of American success stories. Current social historians, and those who champion a more multiculturalist portrait of America, consider such definitions of core substantive historical knowledge misleading at best, and dangerous at worst, because they risk characterizing the contributions of those groups of people thought to be less significant as meaningless.

This debate has continued into the twenty-first century. What, and whose, history students have opportunities to learn about in school vary depending on how school officials define what is historically significant. To the extent that they define it in traditional narrative terms, children's opportunities to learn substantive historical knowledge are often determined by the content of school history textbooks, which, for publishers, in their efforts to find a palatable middle ground to bolster sales, means opting in the direction of more traditional narrative treatments. To the extent that a more multiculturalized view of substantive knowledge is in play, students are more apt to study history from multiple sources, such as trade books, historical fiction accounts, and primary sources, that explore the lives of those not frequently included in the more voluminous textbook treatments.

Strategic Historical Knowledge

Much of the cognitive research done since 1980 has centered on the nature of expertise in historical thinking, and on how novices (e.g., grade school students, college undergraduates) differ from experts (e.g., historians). This research indicates that the process of thinking historically that enables deep historical understanding requires certain strategic-knowledge dispositions. These dispositions include the capacity to: (a) read, make sense, and judge the status of various of sources of evidence from the past; (b) corroborate that evidence by carefully comparing and contrasting it; (c) construct context-specific, evidenced-based interpretations; (d) assess an author's perspective or position in an account being studied; and (e) make decisions about what is historically significant. These capacities are exercised while taking into conscious account the way the learner is, by necessity, also imposing his or her own view on the evidence being interpreted.

Learning to think using these cognitive strategies is no small task. First, as historian David Lowenthal has observed, the past is a foreign country, difficult to penetrate from the locus of the present. Reconstructing historical context is troublesome because it often remains virtually impossible for "moderns" to get inside and understand the experiences of those "ancients." Second, evidence is often sparse, and thus so open to competing interpretations that understanding events by building context-sensitive, well-corroborated interpretations is tenuous at best. Third, any attempt to construct a history of events operates on a necessary connection between a past reality and present interpretations of that reality. This connection is, however, denied because there is no method for bringing that past reality back to life to establish the full accuracy of a contemporary interpretation. There are only chains of people's interpretations of the past, some more recent than others. Learning to use the strategies of thinking historically that enable an understanding of the past hinges on the cultivation of a number of such counterintuitive cognitive processes.

Development of Historical Thinking and Understanding

Most of the more recent North American research on learning history has focused on either expert-novice studies, as noted, or on the relationship between how teachers teach history and how students learn to think historically. Views on how the historical thinking and understanding develop have largely been extrapolated from the expert-novice research cited above, and from studies that show how teaching can influence development among novices. Educational researchers in Great Britain–who were initially influenced in the 1970s by Piagetian developmental theories, but later abandoned them for the most part–have done considerably more work in this area. One of the more promising lines of research is called Project Chata. Chata is an acronym for Concepts of History and Teaching Approaches. The goal of Project Chata is to "map changes in students' ideas about history between the ages of seven and fourteen years. The project focused on second-order procedural understandings like evidence or cause" (Lee and Ashby, p. 201).

Preliminary results of the research on the progression of students' ideas about historical evidence and its relationship to the past indicate that naive views of history begin with the understanding that the past is simply a given. As students grow more sophisticated in their understanding, this simplistic view is abandoned, though history remains relatively inaccessible. They follow this with the belief that the past is determined by stories people tell about it. As sophistication grows, students note that reports on the past are more or less biased. This idea gives way to noting that the viewpoint or perspective of a reporter or storyteller becomes important. Finally, students develop an understanding that it is in the nature of accounts to differ, because varying reporting criteria are used by storytellers and chroniclers.

Project Chata researchers have also studied students' development of ideas about causal structure and historical explanations. They observe that: (1) students' ideas about explanation vary widely, with some younger children having more sophisticated ideas than older children; (2) students' ideas about causation in history and their rational explanations of causal structures do not necessarily develop in parallel; (3) student's ideas about causal structures and explanations in history may develop at different intervals, with some ideas occurring in big gains in younger children and others occurring later; and (4) progression in students' ideas about causation and explanation occurred most markedly in schools where history was an identifiable subject matter.

Some Pedagogical Implications

A tentative theory of how to teach learners to think and understand history can be fashioned from the current corpus of research studies. This results in certain propositions. First, learners construct deeper historical understandings when they have opportunities to consciously use their prior knowledge and assumptions about the past (regardless of how limited or naive) to investigate the past in depth. Second, as learners explore the past, attention must be paid not only to the products of historical investigation, but to the investigative process itself. Third, developing historical thinking and understanding necessitates opportunities for learners to work with various forms of evidence, deal with issues of interpretation, ask and address questions about the significance of events and the nature of evidence, wrestle with the issues of historical agency, and cultivate and use thoughtful, context-sensitive imagination to fill in gaps in the evidence chain when they appear.

Applying this theory in the classroom would mean approaching history effectively from the inside out. Teachers would structure learning opportunities by posing compelling historical questions that have occupied the attention of historical inquirers (e.g., Why did so many colonists starve at Jamestown in the winter of 1609–1610? How did antebellum slave communities construct oral cultures and to what effect?). Students would adopt investigative roles, obtaining and scouring evidence (much of it obtained off the Internet from rich archival sources now online); reading, analyzing, and corroborating that evidence; addressing perspective in accounts; dealing with questions of agency and significance; and building their own interpretations of events as they addressed the questions posed.


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History has played a dominant role in the broader social studies curriculum in the United States and in other countries for at least the past 100 years. For example, in most school districts in the United States, state, national, or world history is taught in grades four through six, grade eight, and at several points in high school. In England, history forms the backbone of the social studies curriculum from primary through secondary schools. History is also a curriculum staple in continental European countries, among post-Soviet republics, in China, and in such places as post-apartheid South Africa.

History in the school curriculum has not been without a number of recurrent debates and controversies. Many of them stem from disputes over the goals and purposes school history should serve (e.g., political socialization and nationalist identity formation versus teaching historical habits of mind). Other issues arise in connection with questions about how, from the vastness of history itself, to define what constitutes historically significant events that should be taught. The proper role of integrating social science disciplines (e.g., geography, economics, political science) in the teaching of history is also a point of debate. Finally, various parties argue over maintaining a relative balance between transmitting historical knowledge derived from the work of historians and teaching students to learn to think and investigate the past the way historians do. Taking time to do both often creates time-use dilemmas within an already surfeited school curricula. Choosing between them repeatedly pits those who would use history for sociopolitical ends against those who see history's importance as a means of teaching critical reasoning and a fuller understanding of the past.

Political Socialization of Historical Thinking and Understanding

The interest in securing a firm place for history in the curriculum frequently stems from its sociopolitical uses. This is especially true in the teaching of national histories. As George Orwell reminded readers in his book, 1984, control of the present (and the future) depends in good measure on control over the past. In many countries, a principal goal of teaching the nation's history is deeply linked to socializing future citizens, as defined by whomever controls the sociopolitical agenda at the time, conservatives, liberals, revolutionaries, or others. Perhaps no other school subject serves this political socialization purpose more than the study of history.

As political parties change or revolutions occur, new regimes attempt to rewrite history in general, and school history in particular, in order to cast themselves and their new politics and policies in a favorable light. Those disempowered by political change often resist such efforts to recast the past. Various groups use history in an effort to shape (or reshape) the nationalist identities of youth around whatever the prevailing view privileged by those in power is at any given time. In post-Soviet eastern European countries, for example, a major educational agenda has been to rewrite history textbooks and reconfigure the history curriculum since 1990.

Prior to the mid-1970s, little systematic research had been done on how history was taught in schools and what students learned from studying it. Since then, there has been a surge of interest in studying school history teaching and its learning outcomes, particularly among researchers in England and in North America. As a result, a sizable body of scholarship has emerged. Much of it challenges the practice of using school history to advance sociopolitical ends. In general, the research indicates that the sociopolitical use of history in schools warps students' views of what history is as a discipline and a subject matter, tends to turn history into a lifeless parade of someone else's facts, and otherwise drives away students' motivation to learn the subject. History education researchers have attempted to divert the teaching of history away from an exercise in socializing students to particular partisan views; instead suggesting the aim of history as an investigation of the past and the social world.

If one of the principal goals for teaching history is to socialize grade-school students to accept certain views of a nation's accomplishments as defined by those in power, thus shaping their nationalist identities, teaching history should take on a transmission approach. In other words, it is likely that in history classrooms teachers would lecture or tell stories about the past via lessons drawn from textbooks sanctioned by those in political control. Research bears out this image. For much of the past century, the teaching of history in schools in many places around the world has been dominated by textbook recitations and teacher lectures or storytelling. This has been especially true in the United States.

There have been moments of change is these traditional practices such as during the "New Social Studies" movement in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s. During this period, historians and social scientists constructed curriculum units that were designed to assist students in learning more about how historical knowledge was constructed in the discipline. Teachers were to guide students in the process of investigating the past via study of primary sources, much the way historians do. However, such efforts to promote pedagogical and curricular change in history typically have not had lasting effects in the United States, and the traditional lecture-textbook-recitation-recall approach has remained dominant.

In England, the Schools Council History project had more lasting results. Educational and instructional changes there during the 1970s and 1980s in some ways mirrored the efforts of historians working under the auspices of the New Social Studies in the United States. The goal was for teachers to learn to teach students the reasoning process of historical investigators. Not only were students to study important ideas in English history, but also to learn how to read primary sources, judge their status relative to other sources, draw inferences about the past from them, and construct historical accounts of their own making. Research on the results of approaching history that way were generally favorable, indicating that students typically progressed in their capacity to learn to think historically as modeled by experts in the discipline itself. Data also indicated that students developed deeper understandings of English history. The project largely succeeded in changing the way teachers taught history because teacher educators and teachers along with education researchers were all involved in changing pedagogical and curricular practices.

In 1988 the Thatcher government attempted to reverse this trend. Alarmed that children in British schools, in their view, were not receiving adequate instruction in the stories of British national and international successes, the education establishment mandated significant changes in the British national history curriculum. Those changes called for more emphasis on teaching stories drawn, for example, from the days of the British empire. Less stress was to be placed on teaching historical-reasoning processes. The changes brought on by the Schools Council project and by the work of teacher educators and researchers however, had been institutionalized in many places. Reverting back to teaching history in lecture-textbook-recitation fashion became difficult. Many of Great Britain's history programs in schools therefore remain among the few in which history is taught more as a way of learning to think historically (as a way of knowing) than as a socialization exercise in memorization and recall of a nation's grand accomplishments and celebrations.

This debate continues. Cognitive scientists interested in history education and researchers in general who study how history is taught and to what result stress the importance of teaching history more closely aligned with the way in which history operates as a distinctive discipline. Researchers such as Peter Lee and Rosalyn Ashby point to gains in students' capacity to learn important thinking processes and habits of mind as they learn to understand the past more deeply. Those who are more interested in the power of using history to forge particular nationalist identities among youth remain skeptical of teaching history as an exercise in educating thinking processes and critical habits of mind. Generally, they prefer an approach that favors transmission of favored views of the past via lectures and textbook recitations, and a focus on stories that celebrate chosen accomplishments and historical successes.

Historical Significance

The debates about the purposes, goals, and uses of school history are exacerbated by the problem of choosing what constitutes historically significant events worth teaching. The very breadth and vastness of the past from which school history lessons must be chosen coupled with the finiteness of the school day and the press for curricular room by other subjects makes this issue difficult. It would be convenient if those who devise the history curriculum in the schools could turn to the discipline and to historians for help in addressing which events and historical actors of significance to choose. The debate within the discipline over what constitutes historical significance is perhaps even more intense than in school history. This has been especially true since about 1970 and advent of postmodernism with its deep skepticism about the veracity of Western knowledge-production projects rooted in the scientific method. The issue of historical significance has been further exacerbated by the multiculturalization of many Western societies, rendering questions about "whose" history to teach as important as "which" history.

The problem of defining historical significance leaves history teachers, curriculum designers, educational policymakers, and politicians without much firm ground upon which to anchor their decisions about which or whose history to teach. The inability to resolve this issue, however, gives history education researchers some support in their efforts to press the importance of teaching history primarily as an exercise in habits of mind.

Time in the Curriculum

Teaching history as both knowledge about a nation's history and its place in world history, and as an approach to learning a way of reasoning about the past requires more time than doing one or the other. Debates between advocates for the importance of subjects other than history can have the effect of reducing the time teaching history might otherwise have in the overall school curriculum. To the extent that politicians exercise greater control of textbooks and history curriculum and assessment approaches (e.g., in states, provinces, or countries where a centralized curriculum dominates), teaching history is often pressed into the service of socialization. History taught as historical reasoning and understanding tends to languish in the context of overabundant time pressures.


In some countries, educational policymakers and curriculum developers see the teaching of history as an opportunity to integrate the social science disciplines into history syllabi. Issues arise over the right mix and relationships of such disciplines as geography and political science to the teaching of history. Some express concern that such interdisciplinary approaches effectively water down the actual teaching of history, reduce its value for students, and contribute to confusion about how to conduct appropriate assessments of student learning. Others argue that history already draws from the social science disciplines; therefore, calling attention to its interdisciplinarity makes good sense, opening up learning opportunities for students. Much like the controversies over historical significance, this issue of interdisciplinarity has not been resolved. The time factor also plays a role in this debate.


The aforementioned issues and debates also intersect with questions about how to properly assess what students learn from being taught history. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, many Western countries moved closer to centralizing assessment practices in many school subjects including history. What consequences these tests hold vary from county to country. In the Unites States, a national test of history learning (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which also tests other subject learning as well) was developed in the 1980s. It tests students' capacity to both recall elements of American history as well as construct short answer responses to written prompts. As of 2001 this test was voluntary and was considered to hold low stakes for participants. However, the U.S. Congress is engaged in a debate to make the NAEP a required national test, thus making it a high-stakes test with sanctions and resource allocations related to outcomes.

Between the late 1980s and 2001 the history portion of the NAEP was given three times. During the administrations of George Bush and Bill Clinton, the data suggested that students in grades four, eight, and twelve recalled low to moderate levels of historical knowledge about the United States. Some critics, such as Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn Jr., argued that this level of recall meant that students effectively knew very little about their country and thus required even heavier doses of American history to overcome the deficits in their knowledge. Based on the growing number of in-depth studies of teaching and learning history, educational researchers such as Linda Levstik countered with the claim that more history, particularly if taught as lecture and textbook recitation, would do little to solve the problem. Reminiscent of the debates described above, the U.S. researchers called for immersing students in a pattern of historical study characterized by investigating history using strategic knowledge borrowed from expertise displayed by historians as a means of developing more powerful substantive understandings about the American past.

This debate over the most productive pedagogical approach to teaching history (e.g., more drill in the substantive knowledge of history versus instruction into and exercise of historical thinking practices to foster deeper knowledge about history) continues largely unabated.


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