Sunday, February 9, 2014

Historical Thinking Skills

With the adoption of Common Core standards, history teachers are becoming more concerned with historical thinking skills. Many of us are happily leaving behind the long lists of content to be memorized. In fact, many history educators on Twitter blogged about that very topic on the new History Blog Circle, proposed by Joe Taraborrelli. I contributed to last month's topic here.

This month we are discussing how we plan for historical thinking. Recently the historical skills of my students have been put to the test through the National History Day competition. Students have been working on these since October and now I am assessing them. Over the past several months they learned new research skills. They learned more advanced Google searching techniques, they learned how to use library databases, and they had the opportunity to use the University of Washington's Graduate Library.

They were able to find great sources and analyzed them by using pre-made questions based on source type. However, as it came down to crunch time and I read their outlines, they struggled to put those sources to use in a historical argument. When I recommended they find a few primary sources to "beef-up" their arguments, they reverted to basic Google searching strategies.

They were asked to create Annotated Bibliographies and I was surprised at how much they struggled to make accurate citations. They turned entries in a total of four times, each full of red marks, and I am happy to say that most of them now have a better understanding of how to work with citations. Some of them even discovered Easybib for the first time.

At the heart of this project is a historical argument which they have showed competency in, in the past. Typically, they are able to do this with a "formulated" topic and given several resources. It certainly is more challenging to create your argument on your own in the midst of a vast array of sources. Some did it beautifully. However there were some that hardly incorporated the primary sources that had found (a certain number were required at checkpoints). One student did not use a single primary source.

It is hard to say if the students lacked the skills to complete this project well or if they did not commit the amount of time necessary to do this project well. Either way, I have learned a few things about what I would do differently in the future. An experienced NHD teacher advised that we incorporate the skills students need for this project in the content we are teaching all year. A few thoughts of what I can change:

  • As a class we often look at primary sources together, but I think I should assess them more on an individual level. I know I already do this to a point, but I can always step it up.
  • I also think I should regularly ask them to find scholarly articles and primary sources for class. 
    • We often have inquiry questions and I allow students to do outside research, but I could include more detailed standards for those sources.
  • Already in my "flipped mindset" of planning I am always trying to think of ways to gets students active in discovering their knowledge, not just sitting and hearing what they "are supposed to know for the test." But I think I need to open things up a little and allow them to develop historical arguments based on areas they are interested in. Like I said, I may be interfering too much, setting up the questions and often providing the resources.
I am excited about these changes and hope they will lead to improved historical thinking skills for my students.

On a related note, I think it may be a sin that I have not read Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Chartign the Future of Teahing the Past by Sam Wineburg. Although I have read many similar books, I think I need to order it immediately.