Freedom Roads: teaching historical skills

In an e-mail correspondence with Steph following her post about high-school transcripts and grading contracts (I can’t seem to link to her post right now), she asked for specific examples of how one might assess skills as well as content. I came up with a few in my reply to her but I thought that perhaps others would be interested. One thing that came to mind was teaching history. As our children get older, how do our expectations of their learning about history change? And what kinds of skills and conceptual knowledge might colleges and universities be looking for in a high-school portfolio?

I have blogged before about Myra Zarnowski’s book Making Sense of History, which sets out a conceptual approach to the teaching of history in elementary school. The concepts and general skills she outlines would be a good foundation for high-school level teaching as well. The three elements of good history teaching that Zarnowski outlines are:

  1. Historical Thinking: What kinds of questions do historians ask? How do we recognize the past as both familiar and alien? What kinds of conclusions can we draw from the evidence we have?
  2. Historical literature: Using good quality non-fiction literature; for high-school, one might start to include primary source documents as well
  3. Hands-on experience: what I might call “doing” history; asking historical questions, searching out appropriate evidence, and presenting it

Zarnowski also sets out 5 historical concepts: Historical context, historical significance, multiple perspectives, historical truth, and historical accounts. All of this would be what I referred to at the end of the review of The Language of Mathematics as teaching the discipline of history in that dual sense of “branch of knowledge” and “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour”.

Making the process of producing history visible to our children becomes increasingly important at the high-school level. Although young children might have a very clear cut sense of “truth” and “lies”, older children should be able to cope with increasingly complex notions of truthfulness and the limitations of our knowledge of certain facts. To return to my comments about epistemology (how we know what we know), it is impossible for us to interpret facts outside of a particular cultural context. Thus in evaluating the evidence and the arguments that are made using that evidence, we need to be aware of the context in which both the evidence and the interpretation were produced, and the context in which we are engaging with the argument. I do not mean to suggest that we cannot work to understand other contexts, but rather that we have to recognize them first before we can even begin to do so, and that our ability to truly understand another context will always be limited. We are thus seeking to approach the truth. That is where the multiple perspectives come in, along with important concepts like “corroboration” — having evidence from more than one source that supports a particular argument. A certain humility is also required though we should not be apologetic about our conclusions.

I am also in favour of being explicit about the nature of scholarly discourse. Scholars in all disciplines are engaged in debate and discussion. When they publish, they are talking to other scholars and to those outside of their field about what they have learned. When they write for children, they are inviting children into their world, introducing them to fascinating stories. What we read is never the final word on a subject but rather a contribution to an ongoing discussion. The discovery of new evidence might radically change the interpretation of what happened at a particular moment in history. More often the change will be subtle, providing a more complex understanding of events. I tend to favour an approach that treats students as novices in whatever discipline they are learning. They are not outside of this debate but need to respect the fact that they are still learning the codes of behaviour that govern it. Sometimes we learn best by participating even if that involves making a few mistakes.

One resource that I have come across which might be useful in teaching about the “doing” of history, with a particular emphasis on the nature of evidence and how it might be interpreted and used to produce historical narratives or arguments, is Freedom Roads: Searching for the Underground Railroad, by Joyce Hansen and Gary McGowan. Using the example of the Underground Railroad, the authors foreground the types of evidence that historians use in constructing accounts about the Underground Railroad. The choice of topic is important for several reasons, not least because it is one that is notoriously difficult to research historically.

The historical events that make up what is called “the Underground Railroad” are an example of such purposely hidden activities. … Over time some of the stories about the Railroad have become romantic adventures with elements of myth and legend, and it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. How can we possibly find proof and evidence of activities that were purposely clandestine? Is there any way to recover a secret past? Perhaps. (pg. ix)

The title link I’ve used is to Amazon, where there is a “search inside” feature that lets you see the table of contents and get a better sense of how the book is structured around different types of evidence, from legal documents, to diaries, to songs. Each chapter includes important details about the history but foregrounds the evidence, raising questions about its reliability while also demonstrating how historians use multiple sources of evidence to decide these questions and construct historical narratives.

For example, when discussing the use of anecdotes and oral histories collected after the fact the authors say:

Even though anecdotes like these cannot automatically be taken for fact, they become much more significant as evidence when the details are repeated in the same way by independent sources.

And on pages 115-118, there is a long account of how an archaeologist went from a hunch, “It seemed like a good idea to go looking for immigrant housing under schoolyards in the inner city.”, to a rigourous investigation of maps, public records, legal documents, and tombstones, etc to unearthing a detailed history of one particular fugitive couple.

Copies of some historical documents are included so students would get a good sense of what they look like. Source notes for each chapter are at the back along with a list of additional resources. Yet the writing is geared to middle school students and thus makes a comfortable introduction to a topic not much discussed in books for children — how we do historical research.

Using this book in combination with other non-fiction books about the Underground Railroad would enable you to critically engage with the other books with your child, making visible the production of those narratives in the context of a historical debate. Zarnowski talks a bit about doing this sort of thing with historical fiction, using historical non-fiction to draw out different notions of historical truth — literal truth, artistic truth, and historical trueness. (see page 136 of Making Sense of History for details). A logical complement to this sort of critical thinking about historical fiction is to delve further into the truth of historical non-fiction. Sometimes we just don’t know certain parts of the story and we use a sense of historical trueness (with important indicators that we know that this cannot be fully verified with the evidence we have) to fill out the argument. Sometimes it is necessary to use “maybe” in an historical account but it is still important to know that this is your best possible guess based on the evidence available and to explain why you think it happened this way.

Questions for discussion (or writing assignments) based on this sort of wider study might include:

  • What is the main argument of [name of specific book]?
  • What evidence is used to support that argument?
  • Could you interpret any of this evidence differently? Why has the author chosen this particular interpretation?
  • Are you aware of other evidence that would either support the argument or raise doubts about the argument or interpretation? What is that evidence?

Sometimes this kind of questioning leads students into a rather negative position about all evidence. They begin to see bias everywhere and come close to dismissing the whole project of history as impossible. While this is probably a necessary first step, the objective should be to move students beyond this to a more complex understanding of history and its production. Critical does not mean negative. It does mean that you don’t just accept things at face value because some apparently important person said so. The fact that someone with considerable background in the discipline, who has been published by a reputable press, has said something suggests that it is probably right. But history, like most disciplines, is about debate and discussion as a means of developing better interpretations of the evidence and a better understanding of the truth. While our students are novices in the discipline, we can give them opportunities to practice engaging in the debate, respectfully.

It is also important to explain that it is perfectly okay for your historical research to raise more questions. In fact, historians expect this to be the case. So if you have a piece of your story that is only a “maybe”, or there is something about a historical account that is not convincing you, the important thing is to formulate good questions that will lead to evidence that might either confirm your best guess or help you work out what really happened. So sometimes you might want to add the following question to your list of discussion questions:

  • What evidence would you need to be more convinced? Where might you find it?

For example, in Freedom Roads, the authors talk about the fact that the enactment of ever stricter laws regarding fugitive slaves indicates that there must have been a lot of slaves escaping.

We learn some basic facts from the existence of this law [the Fugitive Slave Act, 1793]. Because many of the Northern states were in the process of abolishing slavery by 1793, enslaved people had more places to run to. Indirectly from the law, we might conclude that so many more people were escaping and running away in the years after the end of the American Revolution that slave owners pressed for a law to strengthen the article in the Constitution that referred to runaway slaves.

I am convinced by their argument. No one would enact a law unless there was a perceived need for it. But I am somewhat surprised that they make no mention of how we might investigate this interpretation further. Our understanding of the situation would be enhanced by information that must be contained in debates in congress, newspaper opinion pieces, etc. in the period prior to the law’s enactment.

To return to the more general issue of assessing high-school level work, I think that you would want to provide evidence of learning that goes beyond knowledge of a particular historical period or the history of a particular place, though that is important. As your child progresses through high-school you might want to see improvement in the following historical skills:

  • An ability to identify the main argument of a historical text and the evidence used to support that argument.
  • An ability to recognize different kinds of historical evidence.
  • An ability to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of historical evidence.
  • An understanding of the notion of corroboration: can identify the use of corroborating evidence in a historical text; can use evidence from another source to strengthen a historical argument; can use evidence from another source to raise questions about a historical argument

By the end of high school you might want to see essays or research papers that demonstrate a grasp of the uncertainty of much historical knowledge and are able to clearly express the degree of confidence their is in particular aspects of a historical account and raise questions for further study in their conclusions.

I hope that some of you find this useful. I would love to hear comments and examples of things others have done, particularly those whose children are older. I am also interested in knowing about other books suitable for middle-school and high-school students that make these questions of evidence and the production of historical accounts explicit. The Underground Railroad is an important topic in both American and Canadian history, but it is always good to have resources for a range of topics. We never know what is going to really spark the interest of our children and being able to work with that spark makes the whole process so much easier.