Tag Archives: historical thinking

Malleability of the Past

Educators today have a tremendous opportunity to engage their audiences or students precisely because of the malleability of the past in the digital world. Chalana and Coslett cited Tilden’s assertion in regards to educating audiences and promoting historical thinking, “the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.” In addition, we should also consider the quotation by Thomas Sowell posted at the WM-NHS entrance ‘‘Cultures are not ‘superior’ or ‘inferior.’ They are for better or worse adapted to a particular set of circumstances.’’ While Tilden invites incitement as the process of historical thinking, Thomas Stowell promotes tolerance. As Chalana and Colsett point out, current demographic, cultural, historiographic, and professional circumstances are changing; therefore our approach to understanding and presenting our shared heritage must also change. The digital world that accompany our physical surroundings not only connect audiences, but also have the potential to reveal perspectives and engage us in a conversation that could change our current perception of history.

A fresh perspective could easily provoke audiences and be perceived as a false interpretation. So, one of the challenges for educators of history is which perspective to choose and how to present it. That is exactly why the digital world, while perhaps complicating the work of history educators, forces them to rethink what they do, say, or show that will become a historical interpretation of students of history. I can’t help but think of my own children’s fourth grade history (actually part of social studies) project about the California missions. They have read the standard story about the Spanish establishing missions, helping the Natives, teaching them by bringing religion and in general civilization. To better understand the historical significance of these events, each student built their own mission to represent the grand vision of this historical success. Classes have also visited and toured various missions. This history class was also part of a religious education as my children were attending a Catholic school at a time. Although, their severely outdated history book may have mentioned occasional mistreatment of the Native Americans, no complicated or provoking questions were discussed or even dismissed. Students simply did not question the mission of this expansion. The Spanish Empire had the right to expand and evangelize the Native Americans. A few years ago, however, when these fourth graders were in my eight-grade Literature class, Junipero Serra was nominated for sainthood by the Pope, which created a string of controversy. Since our latest efforts in writing focused of argumentation, I had presented my students with several articles that discussed both sides of the issue. They have read and probably already heard about Serra’s efforts in the church, but they also examined the Native American perspective. One story detailed two brothers, one that vehemently opposed Serra’s elevation to sainthood and the other who actually became a guide at one of the twenty-one missions. I have obtained a verbal permission from our deacon and religion teacher to actually have students think and write about this issue. Students read the articles, took sides, and argued in small groups citing examples from the articles. As the final step, they shared the essays in small groups and concluded this unit with a whole class discussion. I have also encouraged them to engage their parents and my fellow teachers at the school. Although, visions of the Holocaust and practices of slavery peppered our discussions and were cited in the articles, including primary sources, more students felt that Junipero Serra deserves to be a saint. In this case, the past did not seem so malleable rather stale and incomplete. Since this was my last year teaching this Literature class that followed themes of prejudice, persecution, segregation, slavery, Holocaust, and the Civil Rights Movement I was not able build on it or improve my strategies to provoke a more critical historical thinking. It seemed that avoiding bias or examining sources needed a deeper and broader research.

What complicates history educators’ work is what has been missing from past interpretations of history and the constant evolution of interpreting it. In addition the challenges of incorporating present perceptions of wide-opened, often outlandish opinions that perhaps have no historical relevance or truth may complicate understanding. Educators should use digital tools to expose these complications, provoke, and facilitate in order to foster historical thinking that questions, facts, sources, and is willing to evaluate alternate views as historical truths. Such practices and challenges need not only be explored in parks, articles, or museums, they should populate classrooms to begin the creation of digital sites that accompany them where others may contemplate the views they offer. These disputed and evolving patterns by which Americans remember, rewrite, and contemplate our civic traditions allow us to meet new challenges and ultimately inspire tolerance.

Works Cited

Coslett, Daniel E., and Manish Chalana. “National Parks for New Audiences. Diversifying Interpretation for Enhanced Contemporary Relevance.” The Public Historian 38, no. 4: 101-128. November 2016

Sowell, Thomas, Ethnic America: A History (New York: Basic Books, 1981).
Tilden, Interpreting


National Parks for New Audiences

The article “National Parks for New Audiences” paints a picture of a slowly changing landscape of NPS properties that maintains and preserves aspects of American history and identity. It also attempts to educate visitors, therefore their interpretive programs require change to be more inclusive of all their “contributors and constituents.” While these NPS units are typically “overshadowed by the nation’s increasingly popular flagship wilderness parks,” these venues offer a more comprehensive interpretive techniques to promote historical thinking.

How well, if at all, do Coslett and Chalana incorporate ideas we’ve discussed in our work on teaching historical thinking in their essay?

Coslett and Chalana discuss two NPPS sites by tracing their origin, historical background, and development over the years. They explore ways to rewrite the one-sided, predominantly white perspective of the Whitman Mission National Historic Site and the San Juan Island National Historical Park. They point out several challenges for each site to broaden their historical perspectives, such as diversity in staffing to engage historically marginalized groups. Both parks draw disproportionately white audiences/visitors even though the complete history at those sites came to exist because of a conflict between whites and Natives. They also voice that the NPS is “committed to both diversity and equity, and to better conveying to all visitors the full richness of American cultural history.” However, as they examine the sites, at each turn, and from every angle, thees goals seem to fall short. Coslett and Chalana raise important questions that challenge authenticity and interpretation. They attempt to bring a new kind of historical thinking to light when they reflect on both online and on site of the WM-NHS as it tries to update and modernize its presentation of the past, but “occasionally still suffers from inconsistent and sometimes even contradictory interpretation.” Further examining the website,  Chalana and Coslett, also point out that it both redeems and criticizes, “explicitly tether[s] the site’s past to the lived present” by pointing out that in the Cayuse attack, the federal government found ‘‘an excuse to set up reservations and restrict the movement of Native Americans.’’ The NPS not only attempts to acknowledge the problematic nature of the site’s history and interpretation, but features the larger ramifications of events. Moreover, Chalana and Coslett approves the site’s interpretation of Native American voices as they, unlike the physical site partnered with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. In the end, they conclude that ‘‘regardless of the changing judgments and interpretation of westward expansion, the Whitman story continues to be one of courage, commitment, and sacrifice for an ideal.’’  Thus, by laying out several other examples of controversy and conflicting viewpoints, Chalana and Coslett incorporate ideas we’ve discussed in our work on teaching historical thinking in their essay. One that weaves the specific examples together is the controversy of historical thinking or representation. Although, by the end of the article they cite one NPS historian who has suggested that “the agency staff should ‘step back from the position of authority and become provokers, facilitators and encourage the public to engage with … [historical] material, consider multiple perspectives, and make their own choices.’’’ In their essay, Coslett and Chalana question perspectives, raise awareness of interpretation, and examine a variety aspects of the historical function NPS carries in representing the nation’s history. Although, they include the words of Marie Sanchez of the Northern Cheyenne regarding the infamous Sand Creek massacre, which resonate at WM-NHS and other NPS units with difficult pasts, in it she says that she knows ‘‘it won’t alleviate alcoholism and drug abuse and crimes of passion or suicides, but it would help our children understand what happened to us as a people.” Thus, the perspective of the Native is still largely lacking, the research from Native American Scholars, their view on the NPS as opposed to what NPS plans to change to better represent them as part of the complete history.

Given what you’ve learned thus far, what advice would you give the National Park Service on how best to use their historic sites to teach to a more diverse audience?

First and foremost, it is crucial that both perspectives of history are represented. When a historical site is presented from the perspective of the winners or the details their heroism, sacrifice, and commitment, it diminishes other views and makes those cultures less significant or valued as past of the existing society. The National Park Service must make it its own mission to facilitate by investing in research to equalize its representation of both perspectives. Then the sites will challenge or even provoke visitors to think critically and analyze the past by reflecting on it from the present perspective they hold. I believe that digital tools hold an important role in fostering this way thinking and interaction as they invite comments to further expand views.

Coslett, Daniel E., and Manish Chalana. “National Parks for New Audiences. Diversifying Interpretation for Enhanced Contemporary Relevance.” The Public Historian 38, no. 4: 101-128. November 2016

Historical Thinking and Digital Media

Given the current discussion about facts, real or “alternative”, how should we use what we know about historical thinking, public perceptions of the past, and what we can do with digital media, to promote a more accurate understanding of the past? Write a blog post that explores these questions.

Wineburg points out the effects of change in how the public receives history and by that how it perceives and thinks about it. While “Back in the uncomplicated pre-Web days, libraries and archives were places of quiet stability and authority,” (Wineburg) today “The Internet has obliterated [this} authority.” Does this allow the public to know more history? Does easy and instant access to information promote a broader perception of history? Wineburg shows the pitfalls and dangers of real or alternative facts as they are circulating in the media. Surprisingly, digital natives do not seem to question the facts presented. When anyone who wishes to comment or contribute to past or present history is able and allowed to do so, our level of caution and skepticism should rise.

I can personally relate to Wineburg’s example of high school students being persuaded by articles floating on the web that the Holocaust never happened or it was  Jewish propaganda. Several years ago, after having 6th grade students read Behind the Bedroom Wall by Laura E. Williams, they gave presentations about Nazi camps that resembled a youth summer camp today. They believed that people who were imprisoned had a fairly good life, having food, bed, and friendship. The fictional account of the Holocaust, the hunting of Jews, and their research in the Internet did not paint a “real” picture. As a person who was born not so long after the war and grew up in Europe surrounded by reminders of it, I could never ignore or not know the atrocities of the Holocaust. It was ever present and never doubted. I was simply shocked by my students’ interpretation. How could they not see the obvious facts? What was missing? What aspects of their readings derailed the thinking and perception of history? What could I do to enable their thinking and ability to question and have an opened mind? Wineburg iterated historical thinking by explaining the “treshold concept,” when he discussed students’ difficulties making sense of the past. He noted thatwe are called to expand our conception and understanding of what it means to be human and examine seemingly irrelevant material to discover the relevance of the past. Thus the question arises, How could we make, for example, the Holocaust relevant to their present?

Wineburg refers to Thomas Jefferson in his article, “Historical Thinking is Not About History” saying that Jefferson “argued for the wisdom of the yeoman farmer, a person who would think, discern, and come to reasoned conclusions in the face of conflicting information. Teachers of history should keep this in mind as they set students free on the Internet for historical research and educate them about what informed citizenship means in the digital age. They should question the credibility of sources, what information should be believed, and caution them about the massive amount of facts and the equally large amount of bias. Using his two highly recommended tools (whois.net andwww.website.com) to incorporate in student research should be a must for history teachers. We must teach students a critical/analytical approach to media, the Internet, and historical research in general to avoid becoming a “a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both”. As Wineburg concludes, knowledge is power, and we should empower our students to seek that knowledge above popular belief. We must teach historical thinking, the query, the analysis, the discussion of facts so students will become informed citizens who are able to make sense of history in the digital age.

 Wineburg, Sam. “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.” History News 71, no. 2. 2016.

Fourth Piece of the Puzzle

Select an image or video file that is related to your final project idea. Post it in your blog and describe why you chose it and how it might be difficult for students and others to make sense of.

The image I consider using as part of my  final project is the photo of a young 16-year-old German boy being captured. He was an German anti aircraft soldier of the Hitler Youth.

This photo appears on the World War II Pictures in Details blog that hosts hundreds of WWII photographs from around the world. However, the photo also appears on the Rare Historical Photos site. I chose this image as an introduction into the war and its uncommon and uncomfortable details. Students will be reading Unbroken, learning about the U.S. presence in the war not just from the political stance, but also from the human perspective, and they will be considering how it connects to their hometown and its flight training school. I feel that this image will first parachute students in the middle of the events of the war.

Step 1: Students will be asked to examine the photograph and create their own details  and narrative of it. I will ask them to think about, Who is on the photo? Where was it taken? Who took the photograph? They will then share and discuss their findings. I anticipate that students might be confused about the identity of the young boy. However, if they guess his German uniform, they might have a variety of explanations of why he is crying. Dating the photo might also be difficult, although if students study the timeline of WWII, they might place the photo toward the end of the war.

Step 2: I will ask students to revise their narrative based on the discussions they had after the first look at the photo. Then I will provide them with a variety of clues to expand the narrative. At this point, it would be interesting to see if dividing the class into four groups and giving a different set of clues to each would make a significant difference in the outcome of the narratives. I might ask each group to formulate one common narrative they agree on as a group.

Step 3: Groups  will share their narratives and as a class discussion, we will discuss and decide which one seems most likely. Then, I will share the websites and the full story with students along with a few more of the photos taken of the same young boy, which in turn will create the final discussion of the photo. I am interested in hearing how after viewing the other photographs, they would consider adding on to their narratives.

Step 4: Student will write a reflection on the process of thinking about the image and what assumptions they may have had. I will be interested in seeing how their historical thinking manifests in viewing the photo from the understanding of the present and perhaps reflecting on how they would have behaved or made choices of their own. Also, I would hope to see their thinking as they consider living in Germany during WWI in contrast to looking back on it from the 21st century. Additional questions might be reflected upon: Does the fact that the boy is crying make him seem more innocent? How would students’ opinion of the boy be different if he were resisting, showing anger, or smiling?

Step 5: Students will write a journal entry or a letter home from the boy’s perspective in which they relay the events leading up to the photo being taken.


History Teaching

How have external expectations constrained teaching and learning in history, and how might the digital turn disrupt those constraints?

The readings in Module 3 directed our attention to the elements of historical thinking in regards to how they have remained at the heart of history teaching over the past decades of the 20th century. They also painted a vivid portrait of a stagnating discipline that is in dire need of change. In Everyman his Own Historian Becker lays out the essence of history and how it has been and should be approached in teaching. As he explains, “that every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.” Thus, he encourages teachers and professors of history to not only consider the rigid facts, but also allow for the historical thinking process, model and have students practice this thinking, which may yield a variety of interpretations. Furthermore, he alludes to history being  an “imaginative reconstruction of vanished events.” Becker elaborates on how, “It is thus not the undiscriminated fact, but the perceiving mind of the historian that speaks: the special meaning which the facts are made to convey emerges from the substance-form which the historian employs to recreate imaginatively a series of events not present to perception.” Keeping these ideas in mind, external constrains, such as knowing the facts and showing progress in historical thinking based on standardized test greatly undermined the success of teaching history.

Kelly’s article of Teaching History in the Digital Age, points out again that our teaching methods have not changed over the past century. Students’ struggles in the 21st century seem to ironically echo students from the 1917. He quotes Bell saying that “Too many other students take all statements with equal emphasis, keep all parts of the discussion upon the same level, and become hopelessly confused by the multiplicity of details.” Kelly then adds, “If Bell’s description of his students from 1917 sounds much like descriptions we often hear (or purvey) of our own students, at least some blame should lie in the fact that our teaching methods have not changed much since 1917.” The common vein that runs through these readings is the focus on factual understanding, not necessarily the promotion of historical sense, thinking, or practice. Moreover, some general assumptions of teaching history also presented constrains in student learning. As Kelly notes, “factual knowledge is often conflated with correct understanding—we assume that if our children know the facts, they will understand the facts.” In addition, students also assume that they know history whether it is the knowledge of main events in the nation’s history or the understanding of people who played part in it. I agree with Kelly’s recommendation that we should “destabilize their assumptions about the past” not to make it strange, but to force students to grapple with historical evidence on its own terms, “not based on stereotypes they bring to that analysis,” so they can begin to question the broad generalizations and formulate their own views. A dangerously misleading aspect of the same assumption is what James Axtell calls assuming self-knowledge, when students assume that because they are women, blacks, immigrants, or Republicans, they have a unique insight into how these groups of people thought and acted in a certain time in history. Thus, the recent attempts in teaching history guide students in the direction to “alienate the familiar.”

I believe that the digital turn does offer a disruption in the assumptions, stereotypical thinking, and false knowledge and offers a new way to investigate history with an open mind and with a fresh look at people even if things don’t make sense at first. Wineburg, in addition, offers his assessment of the changing scene for teaching history in the future: those who teach it must know it, the “great human interest” of history must translate into the classroom activities, and reconsider the way we assess historical thinking. Teaching history in the digital age allows access to multitudes of information, documents, primary sources, interviews, images, and more at a mouse click away. The abundance that surrounds factual history not only makes it more interesting or makes history come alive, but it also enables students to expand their thinking, the way they experience, compare, or question certain aspects of events or reactions of people.

While Levesque offers a definition: “Historical thinking is, indeed, far more sophisticated and demanding than mastering substantive (content) knowledge, in that it requires the acquisition of such knowledge to understand the procedures employed to investigate its aspects and conflicting meanings …”He also adds that “To think historically is thus to understand how knowledge has been constructed and what it means. Without such sophisticated insight into ideas, peoples, and actions, it becomes impossible to adjudicate between competing versions (and visions) of the past.” Technology aids us in helping students achieve that desired sophisticated insight, as Kelly concludes in his article, “The best way to use digital media to teach them[students] … to create learning opportunities that make it possible for our students to do history—to practice it as we practice it—to help them make history, using their own creative impulses, rather than simply giving us what they hope is the correct answer to a question we have posed.” Although technology is not the sole solution for eradicating teaching problems, it could however offer more resources and a new way of teaching, learning, and assessing historical knowledge that may direct our children to become the kinds of citizens we want and need for the future.


Becker, Carl L. “Everyman His Own Historian.” American Historical Review 37, no. 2. December 29, 1931. p. 221–36.

Kelly, T. Mills. “Teaching History in the Digital Age.” Digital Humanities. 2013.

Wineburg, Sam. “Crazy for History.” The Journal of American History 90, no. 4. March 2004.

Historical Thinking

Questions and tentative answers about teaching history that I hope to answer as the semester proceeds.

Question #1: What is historical proficiency and how is it measured?

Consideration that historical knowledge and historical thinking are the aims of survey courses, I recall Calder’s remark on his impossible final assignment, “impossible tasks call for the utmost one is capable of.” Students in most cases respond to meaningful tasks, even if they are challenging, so restructuring the way history is taught is a hopeful promise that could offer a more contemporary way to think about historical events, people who shaped them, and the results they produced for the generations following.

One of the ways I believe learning happens is by discovering. In my education, I was presented with the “traditional” ways of teaching of history both in high school  and college courses. It was an unending list of disconnected dates, places, and names, presented in textbooks, rarely questioned but soon forgotten. I was not asked to do the impossible, to think critically and analyze historical documents, they were already given meaning and assigned a place in history.  Often they lacked connection to the present. A few years after I graduated from high school and began preparing to study for the entry examinations in History and Literature for my double teaching major at a  Hungarian university, I was notified to discard all that I had learned from my high school textbook after 1945. Our textbooks were being rewritten – more accurately this time. The year was 1991. I can’t help but be skeptical about other’s interpretation of history, whether it is presented in a textbook, during a lecture, or explored in a scholarly journal. Students might feel more comfortable taking the prepared historical thinking in an introductory course and shy away from questioning facts, motives, and implications. Others might feel overly empowered to impart their own views on the rest. It is easy to envision a chaotic and clashing or silent and timid class. This takes us to consider how we feel about history, how were we affected by history in our own experiences. So, can we truly measure the success of Calder’s signature pedagogy? Will it lead to a sort of critical knowledge historians and teachers hope to impart on students of history?

Question #2: How should teachers manipulate primary sources included in survey courses?

I have found an intriguing parallel between teaching literature and historical thinking.  Wineburg, Lévesque, and Calder discuss stepping outside of the factual nature of history, which correlates with teaching literature by stepping outside the text and making connections to author’s biography, historical events, artistic, social, and cultural movements to gain a deeper understanding of the reading. It seems to me that the teaching of history is expending in that direction by examining primary sources the way they were not considered before. Context of history is more than how conflicts developed in a certain period of time, it is the personal and professional critical commentary surrounding them that allows us to see a more complete slice in time and ultimately question what we can learn. Thus, my second question is whether we can safely choose those primary sources to be included in the survey without inadvertently introducing an automatic bias. Students may conduct their own research and  could supplement the sources being considered. In additions, drawing parallels in between other nation’s history and our own could inform students.

Question #3: Could cross-curricular strategy work in promoting historical thinking?

My own experiences of teaching literature, more specifically close reading and critical analysis, using methodologies similar to Calder’s six moves and asking questions that lead us to a discovery of moral self-knowledge and knowledge of life made me wonder about expanding the investigation of history into other disciplines. Just as the interpretations of literary pieces are informed by history and culture, correspondingly, historical events may be viewed, questioned, reexamined through the lens of fiction.  Social, cultural, and political commentaries are frequent, if not a constant fuel for writers. Investigating history as what is included or left out of novels, what is prophesied, satirized,  or written as propaganda could ignite students thinking of history and connect to the humanness of this discipline. In his article “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts”, Wineburg mentions Schindler’s List and the profound experience he had as the final credits rolled. Literature could provide another piece of the puzzle in the understanding of times before ours and the motivation of people we question. Writings of  Rachel Carson, Mark Twain, and Arthur Miller come to mind. For instance, my juniors have just finished reading The Great Gatsby and in their final essay they were asked to discuss the following questions, “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in 1925, and here we are reading it so many years later. Why? What makes this book a “classic”? Use specific details from the novel, Fitzgerald’s life,  and from the articles you have read to support your answer.” Although students noted Fitzgerald’s style of writing, the focus of relevance argued moral issues, class, race, and how the author’s own life experience during the Roaring 20’s presented a view, which is hard to capture in textbooks.