This morning at the Historical Society blog, Randall Stephens asks a really common question, “What do undergraduates know about history?” The reason to ask that should be obvious. If students don’t understand the historical background that your lecture is predicated upon it will likely go in one ear and out the other. My fear, however, is that even if students do understand the historical background that my lectures are predicated upon it will still go in one ear and out the other because too many of them simply do not have the skills they need to master the art of historical thinking,
It’s no coincidence that I used that phrase as Randall brought up Sam Wineburg. Here is the quote from Wineburg before the one he uses:
Let me give you a quote: “Surely a grade of 33 out of 100 of the most basic facts of American history is not a grade of which any high school can be proud.” Did this come from the 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress report by Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn? Did it come from the 1976 bicentennial test that Bernard Bailyn did with the New York Times or the one that Allan Nevins did in 1942? No. This is a quote from a study done in Texas high schools by J. Carleton Bell and D.P. McCollum, published in the 1917 Journal of Educational Psychology. It was the first large-scale factual test of American history that we have in American education. Think about who went to high school in Texas in 1915 and 1916; only 10% of the population, the elite, and yet they scored horribly on this test.
In other words, the problem of students lacking specific factual knowledge has been around for a long time. Perhaps the results are more comical these days than they used to be. Nevertheless, we can’t control what students know before they enter our classrooms. We can, however, control what they know after they’re done.
I think there are two ways to address knowledge deficiencies among students. The first would be to cover everything important that you think they’re missing. The problem with that strategy should be obvious. How do you know what they don’t know? Are you going to give them a standardized test at the beginning of class? Let’s supposed you did and that was a perfect indicator of student knowledge (which is an assumption I could spend an entirely different post attacking). How are you going to figure out what they know about the topics NOT covered on the test? Do you really want to spend that much time prioritizing specific factual knowledge?
The other strategy to address knowledge deficiencies would be to ask a different question. My choice would be “What should students know after your history course is over?” More importantly, my answer to that question isn’t a list of facts. It’s a list of skills:
1. How to think like a historian.
2. How to express that kind of critical thinking in a written format.
3. How to read critically.
4. How best to conceive of history in general (rather than memorize specific historical facts).
Ideally, more than a few historical facts will slip in while this teaching of skills is going on. After all, you have to teach your students some facts or else they won’t have any building blocks for their arguments. The difference is that they get to pick the facts. The information they learn that is most useful to their lives will likely be the facts they use in answering my questions, and will hopefully then be most likely to stick.
Thinking and teaching this way has been a gigantic change for me. As a longtime history geek, I’ve always had a very good memory for all sorts of little details that served me well on history tests. I’ve reached the point in my career where I can lecture of a single-page PowerPoint slide list if I have to (even though I prefer more notes to help me through those more than occasional moments when I lose my train of thought). I’ve always prided myself on covering every aspect of American history: social, cultural, political and economic.
Then I ran straight smack into reality. Most students thought what I thought was interesting was actually extremely dull. I had to decide between covering everything badly or covering fewer things well. More importantly, all this talk about assessment got me thinking about the outcomes I wanted from my survey classes, and strangely enough there wasn’t a single specific fact on my list.
Imagine your average freshman survey student. How much are they going to remember about the history you covered in your course ten, twenty, maybe fifty years from now? Unless you’re a historian, facts are fleeting (and they always have been). Skills are forever.