Historical thinking is learnable, but not every student learns the same way. Much of the scholarship of historical thinking is dedicated to the particularities of how students learn historical thinking skills. Students’ beginning points are of special interest to researchers because their initial approaches to history provide a baseline for evaluating the effectiveness of pedagogical strategies. If educators and researchers know what students bring to historical study when they first enter the classroom, it’s easier to see how specific interventions succeed or fail to grow students’ historical thinking skills.
While some research focuses on students’ practices and processes within the history classroom, a rich strand of the literature explores how socioculltural forces impact students’ study of history. In his 1994 dissertation, Keith Barton captured the essence of this strand of historical thinking, writing: “Understanding historical thinking means examining the social contexts in which that thinking takes place.” Barton and many other researchers detail the public, familial, and national roots of students’ approaches to history.
Encountering History Outside the Classroom
Experiences of history outside the classroom impact students’ expectations of history education. Roy Rosenzweig and his colleague David Thelen found the American adults they surveyed took immense pleasure in learning family histories, visiting museums, and watching documentaries about history. By contrast, survey participants experienced history in the classroom as almost universally boring. Their encounters with history in day-to-day life were enjoyable and purposeful, and they expected history in the classroom to be the same.
Family Stories & Collective Memory
Family stories and collective memory can be especially powerful influences on students’ perceptions of the meaning and worth of history in a school setting. Sam Wineburg showed the myriad ways fifteen high school students crafted meaning about the events of the Vietnam War. Presented with archival photos from the war, students rarely reached for information provided by their teachers to explain what was happening in the pictures. Instead, parents’ stories, popular films like Forrest Gump, and visits to historical sites such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. proved more influential on students’ dominant narrative of unwilling and misunderstood veterans abroad and protests at home. This narrative made it more difficult for students to adapt to more nuanced interpretations of the 1960s and 1970s, but Wineburg et. al. nonetheless concluded that knowing the narratives students bring to the classroom ultimately benefits educators:
“Once educators become acquainted with the shape and influences on the narratives students bring to class, they are better equipped to engage these stories, to stretch them or call them into question when necessary.”Sam Wineburg, et. al, “Common Belief and the Cultural Curriculum.”
In addition to family stories and values, students’ identity markers exert a powerful pull on their perceptions of specific historical content. Because history is often used to mark out a collective identity, historical narratives create in-groups and out-groups. Students who do not fall within the “we” of a given historical narrative connect with history very differently than those who do. Terrie Epstein notes the impact of racial identities especially. The African-American and European-American high school students who participated in her 1994 study selected vastly different examples when asked to choose significant events and people in American history.
Their choices of historical figures largely aligned with their race; their explanations for significant events differed (equality for African-Americans versus “nation-building” for European-Americans). Students’ interpretations of everything from the Bill of Rights to the causes of slavery diverged along racial identities. Racial identity even influenced which sources students perceived as most credible. Access to the same sources and the same teachers did not produce a unified narrative within the student body. Instead, identity markers molded students’ historical perspectives.
In both Wineburg and Epstein’s work, disparate influences and haphazard communication of stories formed the foundations of collective memory and identities. This is common in the United States where a large population and decentralized education contributes to the formation of a multitude of historical lenses in any given classroom. In other national contexts, the government’s needs, values, and fears play a stronger role in shaping students’ approaches to history.
In Ghana, Linda Levstik and Laura Groth found Ghanaian high-school students’ accounts of history toggled closely with the national curriculum. Regardless of their ethnic identity, students emphasized struggle and sacrifice, the importance of unity, and pride in both their national and ethnic identities. Levstik and Groth praise the inclusivity of the Ghanaian history curriculum, noting that “the emerging ‘official’ history includes rather than excludes vernacular histories.” Still, the inclusivity of the story has not produced diverse historical interpretations. Instead, students internalized the singular historical narrative crafted by educators and political officials.