Beyond Facts

In Chapter 2, we discussed a study of experts in the field of history and learned that they regard the available evidence as more than lists of facts (Wineburg, 1991). The study contrasted a group of gifted high school seniors with a group of working historians. Both groups were given a test of facts about the American Revolution taken from the chapter review section of a popular United States history textbook. The historians who had backgrounds in American history knew most of the items, while historians whose specialties lay elsewhere knew only a third of the test facts. Several students scored higher than some historians on the factual pretest. In addition to the test of facts, however, the historians and students were presented with a set of historical documents and asked to sort out competing claims and to formulate reasoned interpretations. The historians excelled at this task. Most students, on the other hand, were stymied. Despite the volume of historical information the students possessed, they had little sense of how to use it productively for forming interpretations of events or for reaching conclusions.

Different Views of History by Different Teachers

Different views of history affect how teachers teach history. For example, Wilson and Wineburg (1993) asked two teachers of American history to read a set of student essays on the causes of the American Revolution not as an unbiased or complete and definitive accounts of people and events, but to develop plans for the students’ “remediation or enrichment.” Teachers were provided with a set of essays on the question, “Evaluate the causes of the American Revolution,” written by eleventh-graders for a timed, 45-minute test. Consider the different types of feedback that Mr. Barnes and Ms. Kelsey gave a student paper; see Box 7.1.

Mr. Barnes’ comments on the actual content of the essays concentrated on the factual level. Ms. Kelsey’s comments addressed broader images of the nature of the domain, without neglecting important errors of fact. Overall, Mr. Barnes saw the papers as an indication of the bell-shaped distribution of abilities; Ms. Kelsey saw them as representing the misconception that history is about memorizing a mass of information and recounting a series of facts. These two teachers had very different ideas about the nature of learning history. Those ideas affected how they taught and what they wanted their students to achieve.

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