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Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)

I borrowed this provocative blog title from Sam Wineburg’s compelling book by the same name. I initially came upon Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) when I was reading the March 24, 2019 Mindshift article by Katrina Schwartz, “How to Teach Students Historical Inquiry Through Media Literacy And Critical Thinking.” The article referenced a now famous 2016 Stanford study that I had never read before. The overview is as follows:

  • Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) conducted the study January 2015 - June 2016

  • SHEG administered 56 tasks to students across 12 states

  • 7,804 student responses were collected and analyzed

  • Field testing sites included under-resourced, inner city schools in Los Angeles and well-resourced schools in the Minneapolis suburbs

  • The college assessments, which focused on open web searches, were administered online at six different universities ranging from Stanford to large state universities

When I clicked on the link to the study, I was drawn into the different civic online reasoning assessments (pages 9, 16, and 22) that were administered to middle school, high school, and college students. The competitive side of me wanted to see how I would fare on each assessment. Given the students’ dismal results summarized below, I sincerely hoped my results would be much better.

“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. ...when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

A rubric defining mastery, emerging, or beginning for each response as well as real examples of student responses are provided after each section of the assessment. The questions and responses are thought-provoking and illuminating. I am relieved to report that I demonstrated mastery at the lower grade levels and nothing below emerging at any of the college-level questions. Phew! I highly recommend everyone taking the short assessments and especially young people. My thirteen year old’s competitive streak was also activated, viewing the assessments as a game to be mastered. In fact, he asked me if there were more questions to answer as he was having so much fun with them.

After taking the assessment and reviewing the free history teaching resources Wineburg and his Stanford associates have made available for anyone desiring to help students develop broadly applicable critical thinking skills through historical inquiry, I ordered two of his books - Why Learn History and Historical Thinking.

In the introduction of Why Learn History, Wineburg states that we “are living in an age where changes in how information is created and disseminated outpaces our ability to keep up.” Furthermore, “the Internet has obliterated authority.” Although these are not revelational statements, they have important implications for how schools teach history. The approach of reading and memorizing historical facts from one source -- a textbook -- has come under fire given the ubiquity of information available on the Internet and the potential for biased perspectives when only one source is referenced. Wineburg points out that history textbook biases occur from both sides of the political aisle. He describes how Howard Zinn’s, The People’s History, told predominantly from the perspective of the oppressed is equally problematic as many traditional history textbooks told predominantly from the perspective of the victor. Monolithic perspectives negate the complexity of history and our world and prevent people from seeing the important shades of gray. Likewise, I think the adage, “There are two sides to every story,” has the tendency to over-simplify and polarize issues, including historical events.

Furthermore, the deluge of information coming from sources with widely varying degrees of reliability makes it essential for students to develop skills to seek out, validate, and compare different information sources, regardless of the form they take -- textbooks, original documents, websites, etc. Wineburg convincingly demonstrates that these historical thinking skills are the same skills that enable students to effectively navigate social media.

Wineburg provides a vivid description of how “in the midst of [technology driven] transformations, school, and what we teach there remains stuck in the past.”

“Teaching students to separate fact from fiction by reading textbook narratives purged of ambiguity is akin to preparing a swimmer who’s never ventured outside a wading pool to navigate the torrents of a raging sea. Facing waves of claim and counterclaim (that is, the world outside of school), current practice prepares today’s students to drown.”

Many of the points Wineburg makes in Why Learn History relate to Pathways High work in EMPOWERing young adults to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens. Specifically, Wineburg highlights the importance of questioning and being open to different perspectives. “At their best, questions signal the unfinished nature of historical knowledge, the way its fragments can never be wholly reassembled.” Furthermore, “Shouldn’t we welcome, at least sometimes, new facts or interpretations that lead to surprise, disquiet, doubt, or even a wholesale change of mind? Wineburg describes the dangers of our susceptibility to favor a particular historical interpretation because it aligns with our point of view. “Too often, whether we like someone’s politics determines whether we like their history. Many of us find ourselves reading the present into the past, especially with issues we care about deeply.” Wineburg confesses doing this himself and is not proud of that fact.

Finding ways to fight confirmation bias reminded me of the work of the Heterodox Academy, a non-partisan collaborative of more than 2,500 professors, administrators, and graduate students committed to enhancing the quality and impact of research — and improving education — by promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning. Their brief video explaining viewpoint diversity echoes Pathways High’s goal of diversity of thought through our Diverse by Design model. Only through diversity of thought do we believe we can find the best solutions to the world’s complex challenges. For example, a current humanities seminar, The Other Sides of History, developed by Pathways High teacher Jess Ehrenberg is designed to help students develop critical thinking skills by analyzing different accounts of historical events, and viewing events from different perspectives. At Pathways High, rigor in school curriculum is derived from grappling with the real world complexity of information sources, stepping outside one’s comfort zone to understand issues through multiple lenses, not the memorization of facts, dates, and other information that can easily be retrieved. This work can be messy and uncomfortable, just like the real world, but that’s also why it’s so important for young people to master.

As the Heterodox Academy states in their video, “Although it may not always be comfortable when ideas collide,

We learn.

We grow.


Everyone gets smarter.”

Will you join us?


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