Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Is teaching history "unnatural"?

This past week I finished Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts which looks at how history is taught as well as the preconceptions that students and teachers bring to the classroom.

I appreciated the discussion on the different frameworks each teachers bring to the classroom. The assumptions we make about what history is and how to teach it. How some teachers might make it all about the facts and others think that facts (knowing exact dates, for example) aren't important. How we sometimes underestimate what students can handle and assume that we have to purposely keep the complexity out of it so we won't confuse students. But when we simplify history too much we do so at the risk of making history seem like one fixed narrative and don't show students that history is more complicated than this. We don't always let students work as historians -- reading and working with primary sources. I think as teachers it is always important to think about what assumptions we are making both with regards to the ability and background of students but also to what is important to teach.

As interesting as that chapter was, I had more fun with the discussion on how students see history -- the preconceptions that they bring with them from past classes, from television and movies, from how they have created the narrative in their head (what they heard as opposed to what they were taught). According to Wineburg, the wrong answers that students give provides us with as much information about how they think about history as the correct answers.

So that got me thinking about the wrong answers that are regularly given. I've been thinking quite abit about them lately because I'm hoping that understanding how students have come to believe in these answers will show me what they're thinking.

Many students believe that the 1st coal miner was William Lethbridge. I think this is simply that they know coal was important in Lethbridge and that William Lethbridge was important and make the assumption that the two go together. The job of an investor and president of a company are not something they understand but coal mining is concrete.

In grade 3 we have a class on bridges where we study the history and science of the high level bridge and then work to construct bridges. When I ask students if the high level bridge was built for trains 100+ years ago OR was built as some other type of bridge and then changed into a train bridge, many students think it was some other type of bridge and then changed into a train bridge. This seems to be partly because at their age they think the bridge is older than trains AND because as some students told me it was probably used for coal cars back then. They have a sense that the bridge had something to do with coal and make this logical jump.

We have several photographs of Lethbridge in the 1880s that show the settlement developing on the prairies. Many students over the years have been worried that because there are no trees the people could not survive. To them, only trees give oxygen and without trees, it would have been difficult to breathe. I think this may come partly from commercials that promote planting trees to give the world more oxygen. Many students come to understand that as trees are the ONLY thing that provide oxygen.

And, not surprisingly, I get lots of questions about the various presidents of Canada. Sigh!

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