First Piece of the Puzzle

By Greta

In the Digital Public History class last spring, I created a website which told the story of the capture of Fort Sackville during the American Revolution from many different perspectives. While it was largely narrative, I tried to include excerpts from as many primary sources as possible so that students could hear first-person descriptions of the event. I ended up gearing the project toward 4th and 5th grade students who were learning about Indiana State history and US history.

One idea I had was to make a supplementarity tool to go along with my previous project that would be focused on helping fourth and fifth grade teachers to teach historical thinking to their students in the classroom through a more in-depth examination of some of the primary sources associated with my previous project. This could take the form of a simple tool that would allow students look at two sources side-by-side that describe the same event from two different perspectives (ex. British vs. American).

At the fourth and fifth grade level, I think that many students’ exposure to history has largely been through a textbook’s master narrative. Therefore, one important historical concept for them to learn is that that of the master narrative vs. multiple perspectives.

I think that one of the biggest struggles with teaching students of this age is that they have grown up in the “standardized testing” era where they have been taught from a young age to look for the right answer and then move on. When presented with two conflicting accounts, I think that they might struggle because they are still looking for a “right answer” and a “wrong answer” instead of really reading and thinking about the two different perspectives presented. Another important skill that goes along with this is corroborating evidence. What did the two accounts agree on? What did they present that was different? To students that have never been asked to step back and analyze two perspectives (that might be very different than their own) this is hard.

Another idea I have stems from the common misconceptions and questions I have encountered on a daily basis while working and interning at various historical sites. Just yesterday, I was again asked the question, “Why are the doors so short? Were people really shorter back then?” I also get questions or statements like, “Didn’t all girls get married at age 15? If you were 20 something and not married wouldn’t you have been considered an old maid?” or “Everyone must have died really young because the average age at the time is much lower than today.”

I can imagine some sort of digital tool that is geared for a museum audience that shows them the process that historians go through to answer questions like these and really “uncover” history like Calder describes. For example, it would have them think about what types of sources you would want to find to answer the questions (census records, township records, marriage certificates, etc.). Then it would have them compare some records to corroborate evidence. It would also provide some background information about the topic and time period (information about wood fires and heat in relation to the height question or information about nutrition and many child deaths to address the average age question). This would give them examples of how historians use historical thinking skills such as asking questions, choosing sources, corroboration, making inferences, and using the context.

I think these types of misconceptions are hard historical questions to answer because as historians, you are competing with the mythological history that everyone has accumulated over their lifetime. Even after you have given a more investigative answer (and even shown sources to back it up), many museum guests like to hold on to what they have always “known” instead adopt the new information you present. I also think that many people do not understand the process that historians go thorough as they try to find answers to questions like these. I think that if museum visitors were able to act as their own investigators and come to a different conclusion on their own instead of being told they are “wrong,” they might be more receptive to the new information.

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