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How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom
foundation of factual knowledge, but this is not tantamount to saying that they must learn all there is to know about any topic or set of topics. Because history is an information-rich subject, it is easy for students to flounder in a sea of facts that cannot be contained or controlled. And because history is about people and events that are halfway recognizable, it can sometimes be viewed as a series of weird soap operas. Thus, the foundations of factual knowledge must be deep in the sense that its layers of historicity are understood; in other words, the rules by which communities work and people interact are likely to shift according to time and place. In addition, as is argued in Chapter 2, the substantive facts and ideas of history must be understood in the context of a conceptual framework that includes second-order concepts such as those associated with time, change, empathy, and cause, as well as evidence and accounts. Indeed, it has been argued that the systematic development of such concepts is essential for students to be able to organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.
The third key finding of How People Learn emphasizes the importance of metacognitive approaches that enable students to reflect on and control their own learning. This finding relates to the development of second-order concepts noted above. Students can acquire and refine the conceptual tools necessary to organize and manipulate information only to a limited extent until they are explicitly aware of what they are doing. In order, for example, to determine that a given source is reliable for some purposes but not for others, or to decide that a source can yield evidence of things that it purports to neither say nor show, students must be able not merely to draw inferences, but also to know that they are doing so and to make those inferences objects of consciousness that are evaluated against rules. This level of metacognitive awareness is unlikely to be achieved in the lower grades, but its achievement may be accelerated if teachers of third and fourth graders focus their attention on such questions as “How do we know?” “Is this possible?” and “If this could have happened, can we say that it did happen?”
This chapter examines what these three key findings entail for the ways in which we work with students in the classroom and for the strategies used to plan history teaching. The first section sets the stage for what follows by addressing the issue of the extent to which these findings can realistically be applied in the classroom. The next two sections demonstrate the applicability of the findings by presenting two detailed example classroom case studies.
THE REALITY TEST
The three key findings of How People Learn and the arguments advanced in the preceding chapter may be thought to reflect too favorable a view of the realities of teaching in some classrooms. Indeed, we may not