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How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom
remember with something like the Brendan task, which is designed to develop understandings about the discipline of history, that not all students’ substantive misconceptions actually matter for the task at hand. For this task, the focus is their thinking about how we know about the past, not on correcting every minor misconception about geography or even about how society works.
Working Through the Task
We begin with the question:
Did an Irish monk land in America about 1,000 years before Columbus?
As teachers we need to be very clear in our own minds about the question right from the start, even if it is not necessarily sensible to pursue this with the students as an abstract issue at the outset. This particular question is asking about what happened, not just what was possible. Since in history it is always the question that decides what can be evidence and how that evidence can be used, this is an important point.
We tell the students that they are going to look at some important historical sources and that they will use these sources as evidence to try to obtain the best answer they can to the question. The idea of “the best answer you can get” is something that can be woven into the discussion as it proceeds.12 By the end of the task, we will want all the students at least to understand that “the best answer” means the one for which we have the best evidence. Some students will be able to think in more sophisticated terms—perhaps something more like “the answer that makes the best sense of the most evidence and is not knocked out by anything.”
We next give students an introduction to the story of St. Brendan’s voyage and the story itself to read. (This material can be read by the teacher, but preferably should not be read around the class by students since doing so tends to break up the picture, especially if the students read in a halting manner.) Issues about the meaning of words or sentences can be addressed at the end, but not in a way that preempts interpretation. For example, there should be no hint that the supernatural elements in the story might also be interpreted naturalistically or that they are somehow signs of the story’s