Reading Like a Historian

In the August 8, 2012 edition of Education Week I read History Lessons Blend Content Knowledge, Literacy, a report on an instructional program for social studies called Reading Like a Historian from the Stanford History Education Group.  It’s been designed by historians to use in schools, and is wrapped around the use of primary source materials to teach students the analytical and reasoning skills of a trained historian.  As a former Social Studies teacher and department chair, I am impressed with this program and with the related research that EdWeek describes as a part of the early reviews in schools where the program has been implemented.

A major element of school reform, in most states, is teaching students to think critically, to navigate the ever rising flood of information that is inundating contemporary society, and to develop sound reasoning strategies that can guide their adult lives.  I’ve frequently debated with my colleagues about what constitutes proof that American schools are failing, and for me one of the biggest failures is the lack of critical thinking demonstrated by adults across the nation.  We don’t recognize, and therefore don’t expect, quality thinking or logical reasoning from our elected leaders or from our media outlets.  We tolerate the polarization of almost every broadcast news source and we can no longer separate truth from fiction on our public airways.

We have no figures like Walter Cronkite on TV today.  We expected decent information from Cronkite, and when he editorialized (as when he expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War) it was clearly identified as an opinion–a separate commentary with reasoned argument explaining his opinion.  Today, we have lots of commentary and opinion–rarely backed by thoughtful analysis–interspersed with information, and the information is frequently slanted to suit the politics of the station’s target audience or corporate backers.  If we were all good critical thinkers, I believe we would expect more.  If we have the luxury of seeing news broadcasts from other nations, we can see the stark contrast between our infotainment and their news.

But I digress from the  “Reading Like a Historian” program.  Those of us who follow the Common Core Standards know that our ELA standards are entitled  “Learning Standards in Literacy, Social Studies, Science and the Arts,” and are heavily invested in reading informational texts of all kinds in order to expect students to learn appropriate skills in understanding, evaluating, and critiquing the information around them.

Reading Like a Historian appears to be perfectly suited to the Common Core.  Students are exposed to basic source materials from the past, and are engaged in evaluating these materials in the context of real world settings, even comparing the source material with the content of their textbooks.  From the website description of the program:
“This curriculum teaches students how to investigate historical questions employing reading strategies such as sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading. Instead of memorizing historical facts, students evaluate the trustworthiness of multiple perspectives on issues from King Philip’s War to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and make historical claims backed by documentary evidence.” 

“…make … claims backed by documentary evidence.”  There’s the key, and the intellectual behavior change that we as educators need to support among our students everywhere.  Critical thinking is hard work, and we’ve taught our students too little of it for too long.

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