Publication Date

March 24, 2022

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting, AHA Online, Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

K–12 Education, Teaching & Learning


Teaching Methods

How did you learn historiography? When did you realize that historiography existed in the first place? Maybe it was in an undergraduate history class, introduced as an “ongoing conversation” among historians working toward a collective interpretation of the past. Maybe it was studying for comprehensive exams in your MA or PhD program, the sheer volume of text immersing you in a Matrix-like moment of clarity.

American Historical Association 135th annual meeting new orleans January 6-9, 2022 logo. Picture of alligator, bird in water, birds flying, with river at center and New Orleans in background.

Learning to think historiographically is another endeavor entirely and trying to teach it a harder one still. Yet, this is the task a team of researchers have set themselves: teaching historiographic thinking to high school students. In a series of three sessions, they presented the preliminary results at AHA22 Online, where attendees tested curriculum materials, learned about the researchers’ findings so far, and signed up to help with the project as it continues.

With backgrounds in history, high school teaching, and educational research, Lightning Jay (Univ. of Pennsylvania), Agnieszka A. Marczyk (Yale Univ.), Abby Reisman (Univ. of Pennsylvania), and Brenda J. Santos (Univ. of Rhode Island) set out to solve a set of problems that will be familiar to history instructors. First, they wanted to help students engage with secondary sources as scholars do, as parts of an ongoing debate, sometimes occurring over decades, rather than treating published work as established truth. Second, they wanted to help students gain a deeper understanding of how arguments are constructed: the use of evidence that undergirds historical scholarship, how arguments might change in light of new evidence, and how scholars evaluate each other’s arguments. In short, they want to teach students to deploy “a rigorous skepticism of secondary source material that interrogates the relationship between the historian and their claims and evidence, situates the historian in time, place, and intellectual history, and considers the potential audience of the secondary work.” They want students to think historiographically.

Draft materials comprise sample lectures, argument maps, and simplified excerpts to illustrate historians’ debates.

To do this, the researchers created a set of curriculum materials that tackle significant historiographic problems—interpretations of the past that have changed over time or that have differing interpretations about why or how something happened in the past. Meant to be used by instructors in classrooms, these materials are modeled on the Stanford History Education Group’s “Reading Like a Historian” materials that Reisman helped develop. The draft materials comprise sample lectures for teachers to introduce key topics, “argument maps” that simplify concepts in order to make a framework for student understanding, and simplified excerpts from scholarly publications to illustrate historians’ debates.

In one example, students examine how historians’ answers to a specific question have changed over time. The question is simple: Did the Bolsheviks have popular support in the Russian Revolution in 1917? Students are introduced to four schools of argument, which overlap in time. Within the “Soviet Propaganda” school (1917–89), Bolsheviks were portrayed positively as the founders of the Soviet Union. Within the “Coercive Coup” school (1945–60s), some saw Lenin and the Bolsheviks as manipulative of ordinary Russians and laying the groundwork for Stalin. During the “Revolution from Below” (1960s–80s), the Bolsheviks were seen as helping Russians escape tsarist rule; they only turned coercive after taking power. Finally, there has been a reappraisal since the 1990s. When the archives opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, earlier interpretations have been complicated by new evidence and new ways of doing history. With this framework, students evaluate excerpts from different historians, repeatedly probing the relationship between a historian’s use of evidence and the arguments other historians previously made.

In another exercise, students explore historians’ debates on a resounding historical question: Why was there limited resistance against Hitler and the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s? The students are given simplified argument maps, with two causal explanations. With fear: even if Germans disagreed with Nazi policies, the government successfully terrorized the populace into obedience. With cooperation: fear is not a sufficient explanation; even with effective terror tactics the government needed “the cooperation of ordinary citizens.” These “maps” are not presented as fact—they are arguments to be tested. To do so, students read simplified excerpts from scholars drawing on diverse sets of evidence, which they use to deconstruct the ways historians build arguments and deploy evidence to engage with each other.

Even with carefully crafted tools, teaching historiography is quite complicated.

Of course, even with carefully crafted tools, teaching historiography is quite complicated. Attendees over the course of the sessions raised questions that an ambitious project like this must address. Even with excerpts, mapping, and scaffolding, much of the instructional material attendees saw might be beyond the literacy abilities of some high school and college students. For other students, learning disciplinary thinking might seem like a waste of time. “Why don’t you just give me the answer?” they might ask. And the researchers themselves highlighted how introducing the materials into the classroom was not enough—teachers needed in-depth professional development to practice the facilitation techniques that would enable students to dig into the historical arguments without being overwhelmed.

But across these three sessions, as attendees learned about and provided feedback on the materials, was the possibility that these materials might point the way to the current holy grail of history teaching: helping students distinguish between opinion, a belief that might be supported by evidence, and argument, an ongoing conversation among experts with agreed upon standards of evidence. History, of course, is the latter. It’s not a quest for “truth” and few historians claim to know “what actually happened,” but we do agree on evidence, even as we disagree on what the evidence might mean. We agree on what is knowable and delight in the pursuit of the ineffable, the constantly changing way that the past is reinvented in the present. If these techniques can get students to begin thinking about history differently, it will be a success.

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Emily Swafford
Emily Swafford

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor