Over the past two weeks I’ve been conducting workshops as part of various Teaching American History grants we’re helping to direct. The participants in these workshops are K-12 teachers (largely from grades 4-11) who are interested in improving both their teaching and their content knowledge. One of the readings I’ve assigned is several chapters from Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, largely because these chapters introduce them to the key issues in historical pedagogy at all level–how students think, how that is different from the ways that scholars think, and how students become historical beings.
One of the main ways that Wineburg investigates student learning is through “think alouds”–exercises in which students (or scholars) are given primary source documents and asked to think aloud as they try to make sense of the documents. In this way they expose for everyone else to see the intermediate processes of cognition that educators are so interested in. What kinds of questions do they have? How do they connect what they see with other knowledge they already have? Etc., etc., etc.
For the first time this year, I decided to have the teachers do their own thinking aloud so that they could see for themselves what can be learned about their students’ thinking by watching (and listening to) that thinking taking place. I gave one sort of willing volunteer four primary sources from the Battle of Little Big Horn–a New York Times story, two photographs of Native Americans who were somehow involved (Sitting Bull and one of Custer’s Crow scouts), and a map of the battle area produced for later public consumption. Watching another teacher trying to figure out whatever she could about these sources was very illuminating for everyone else in the room and generated a much more energetic conversation about teaching and learning than I’ve had in the past.
From there we moved on to an essay by Lendol Calder that recently appeared in the Journal of American History on “uncoverage” in history teaching. Lendol’s argument is that teaching history should be about uncovering that which is worth knowing about the past rather than covering as much as possible in a given term. In the essay, Lendol talks in detail about the ways he uses think alouds with his students to help them see for themselves how they and their peers learn about the past. Given the success he’s had, intend to expand my own use of think alouds in the fall. Read his article for yourself–I think you’ll find it compelling.