Want the kids to learn the story? Ask these 4 questions

History teachers usually receive inadequate training and materials, and students often don’t learn much. Several initiatives attempt to address the problem, but only one, the four-question method, provides teachers with the framework they need.

Efforts to improve history teaching go back decades. A federal program called Teaching American History spent $1 billion between its inception in the early 2000s and its expiration in 2012, primarily to provide history teachers with “professional development” in the form of lectures given by professional historians. Teachers loved it, but there was no evidence that it increased students’ knowledge of history.

And students’ knowledge needs to be strengthened. In the last round of national testing in U.S. history, only 15% of eighth graders scored proficient or above, down slightly from previous years. Even college students can struggle to answer basic questions like “Who won the Civil War?”

Students often find the boring story, and the knowledge and skills of teachers may be part of the problem. Only about 40% of social science teachers specialized in history, and many take on other responsibilities like athletic training. Among the various tests required of aspiring primary school teachers, the one they are most likely to miss is social studies. To make matters worse, state history standards and textbooks based on them often try to cover a wide range of topics, preventing teachers and students from delving into any one.

At a time when reading and STEM subjects are getting all the attention, schools generally treat history as relatively unimportant. At the elementary level, it is rarely taught at all. Even many colleges ignore it. But it’s hard to make sense of the present if you don’t know much about the past. And it’s hard to make sense of the story if you first encounter her in ninth grade.

The newest prescription for making history lessons more engaging—and helping students see that the stories of the past are more complex than presented in textbooks—is that of primary source documents. Nowadays, many such documents are available at the click of a mouse. And at least two different initiatives aim to place them at the center of history teaching.

One is the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (GLI), which offers a dizzying array of programs based on the 75,000 items in its collection, all viewable online. Like the Teaching American History program, it sponsors summer institutes with lectures given by noted historians. But it also tries to reach students more directly. The institute has some 30,000 schools as “affiliates,” and its paper-based lesson plans — some aimed at elementary grades — are freely available online.

Then there is the Stanford History Teaching Group (SHEG), which created document-based courses for high school students. Teachers present background information on a topic, then ask students to “interrogate” a series of documents with a guiding question in mind. It could be “Was the New Deal a success?” or perhaps, “Was Lincoln a racist?” Students learn to pay attention to the source of a document and the purpose of the author when writing it, in order to assess its reliability.

Primary sources can have value as teaching tools. But – talk like someone whose work for 10 years read and analyzed 18th century documents – they can be difficult to live with. They use archaic language and convoluted sentence structure and refer to now obscure events and individuals without explanation. If you want an example, try a paragraph or two of Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.

Many high school students, through no fault of their own, struggle to read and understand even contemporary texts written at the secondary level. For elementary school students, the challenges of reading primary sources are even greater. A GLI Elementary Level Lesson on Pilgrims has children parser the Mayflower Compact, written in 1620. The documents guide them to paraphrase the document, piece by piece, and students may find the effort engaging. But is this the best use of their time? Isn’t there a risk that they lose sight of Why they read the Mayflower Compact?

A third history education initiative – the most promising, in my opinion – takes a different approach, using primary sources more as a seasoning than a main dish. It’s the brainchild of two Boston-area high school history teachers, Jonathan Bassett and Gary Shiffman, and it’s featured in a very readable and insightful recent book, From History to Judgment: The Four Questions Method for Teaching and Learning Social Studies. (I provided a blurb for this.)

The “four questions” are simple yet powerful and applicable to any historical subject. And, Shiffman told me, “The one cardinal rule is don’t be boring. There is no reason to be.

The four questions are:

· What happened? Building a cohesive story out of a series of events is difficult but crucial. Teachers often skip this step, leading to fundamental misunderstandings. As Bassett recounts in the book, two-thirds of the way through a unit on the American Revolution, many of his students were surprised to realize that the war was vs English.

· What were they thinking? This is where primary sources can be used, judiciously, to help students put themselves in the shoes of historical actors.

· Why then and there? This is perhaps the most difficult question, calling for comparison with other times and places. But it teaches students to analyze and learn from history.

· What do we think of it? An excellent question, but one that can only be meaningfully answered after a thorough exploration of the first three.

There is much more about the method in the book, and I encourage anyone interested in teaching history to read it. But for many busy and perhaps underprepared teachers, adapting the method to their own curriculum is a daunting task.

That’s why Bassett and Shiffman, who also provide hands-on assistance to schools, are now creating a few complete teaching units, complete with materials and daily lesson plans. Even better, one of the units, created and run in partnership with a charter school called Nashville Classic—is at the elementary level, fourth grade.

Unity is Renaissance, and to develop it, Bassett and Shiffman first streamlined an exceptionally content-rich but overloaded elementary curriculum called Basic knowledge History and Geography. For example, rather than covering three Italian cities – Florence, Rome and Venice – the duo chose to delve into just Florence and simply mention that the Renaissance was also taking place in those other cities. They decided to focus primarily on the transition from medieval art – which was confined to religious subjects and also unsigned – to that of the Renaissance, when artists began to sign their names. Unit’s version of question four is: “When is it okay to brag?”

Bassett and Shiffman hope the unit can serve as a model for others, and ultimately they hope to secure funding to create a comprehensive K-8 curriculum based on their method, which also includes homework. writing programs designed to develop writing skills and deepen knowledge of content. (Their approach to writing borrows from The writing revolutionof which I am co-author.)

Of course, whether any of these initiatives will boost student achievement in a measurable way remains to be seen. So far, only SHEG has been rated this way: A quasi-experimental study with eleventh graders, it improved historical thinking skills, retention of factual information, and reading comprehension. This is encouraging, but the document-based approach was compared to “business as usual”. Something else might work even better and also work on the crucial elemental level.

If I were a philanthropic bettor interested in teaching history, I would bet on the method of the four questions.

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