History, social studies: Critical in preparing students for civic life
Editor’s note: Joel Breakstone is the keynote speaker at the Best Practices in Social Studies Summer Institute.
Breakstone directs the Stanford History Education Group. He received his Ph.D. from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Along with Mark Smith and Sam Wineburg, he led the development of SHEG's assessment website, Beyond the Bubble. He received the Larry Metcalf Exemplary Dissertation Award from the National Council for the Social Studies in 2014. He holds a B.A. in history from Brown University and a M.A. in Liberal Studies from Dartmouth College. After college, he taught high school history in Thetford, Vermont. His research focuses on how teachers use assessment data to inform instruction.
Why does history and social studies matter in today’s world?
History and social studies classrooms are the best venues to prepare young people for civic life. Students learn to conduct research, analyze evidence, develop arguments, and engage in constructive discussions with their peers. These are exactly the skills that young people need in an age of information overload and intense political partisanship. Moreover, meaningful engagement with the historical record cultivates in students an intolerance for simplistic answers and a deeper understanding of the complexity of the past.
Historically, rote memorization was the hallmark of teaching history. How has that changed? Why has that changed?
There has been a nationwide movement to shift history instruction towards inquiry and disciplinary literacy. Instead of asking students to memorize names, dates, and facts, teachers now help students to learn how to read historical documents like historians in order to answer historical questions. This approach reflects the actual discipline of history. Moreover, it equips students to analyze evidence, develop arguments, and express themselves verbally and through writing. For example, our Reading Like a Historian curriculum helps students to use the same historical thinking skills that historians deploy when they’re reading archival documents. Students ask questions such as: Who wrote this? When? Why? How is this document similar or different from other sources? What was the context in which the document was created? How does that context affect its content? Students use these historical thinking skills to analyze documents and gather evidence to answer questions like, Was the New Deal a Success? Did Pocahontas save John Smith’s life? Research in San Francisco Unified School District showed that students in Reading Like a Historian classrooms not only became more skilled historical thinkers, they also did better on assessments of historical knowledge and reading comprehension.
Your work revolves around teaching students how to credibly use credible sources from the internet. How is this an important skill set in the 21st century?
Beginning in 2014, the Stanford History Education Group broadened its work beyond history to address issues related to digital literacy. We have created curriculum and assessment focused on helping young people become more discerning consumers of digital information. This work is based on research that shows how professional fact checkers from some of the nation’s largest news organizations evaluate online content. They prioritize asking three questions: 1) Who’s behind the information? 2) What’s the evidence? 3) What do other sources say? Unfortunately, our research has shown that young people, and many adults too, are not familiar with strategies for answering these questions effectively. Given the overwhelming amount of information that bombards students on their digital devices and the ease with which misinformation spreads, it is crucial that students learn skills for effectively evaluating digital content. If they do not, they are easy targets for those who seek to mislead them online. This represents a threat to our democracy since democracies depends on individuals’ access to trustworthy information.
The internet has given way to collecting more information than ever. How does that help the study of history? How does it hinder it?
Students now have access to unprecedented amounts of historical information. In the past, if students wanted to read historical newspapers, they would have to go to a library, request microfilm, use a microfilm reader to view the newspapers, and then make grainy copies of the newspapers. Now millions of pages of archival newspapers are searchable online. In fact, there has been an explosion of digitization of archival resources. Unprecedented numbers of historical sources are now available to anyone with an Internet connection. This makes it much easier to conduct historical research. On the other hand, the internet has also allowed for the proliferation of historically inaccurate accounts of the past. Wildly inaccurate historical accounts based on misrepresented or counterfeit historical sources can now reach vast audiences.
How does analyzing and/or critiquing history help make students future ready?
Historical inquiry prepares students to analyze evidence, develop arguments, consider alternate viewpoints, challenge simplistic interpretations, and engage in rigorous, fact-based discussions. These are skills that will be useful for students far beyond the history classroom.