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Strategic processing in history and historical strategy instruction

Historians provide insights into who we are as people, and about how humans have functioned in the world over time. Engaging in such work requires deep conceptual understandings about the nature of history, as well as disciplinary ways of thinking. Since the late 1980s, educational researchers have studied strategies used by historians as they investigate the past, uncovering disciplinary norms regarding how history is constructed. Standards exist for gathering and investigating evidence, reconstructing narratives, promoting interpretations, and crafting arguments. Knowing these ways of thinking gives researchers and teachers insights into historical inquiry that impact classroom instruction and teacher preparation.

We begin this chapter with a review of observational studies that have identified core conceptual understandings and strategic processes used by historians as they work with evidence in various genres and within different historical fields. We then describe observational studies of novices’ strategic processing in history, with obvious differences that reflect a lack of experience as well as general naivete about the discipline. Because teachers and researchers have attempted to address these challenges, we consider research on classroom interventions, recognizing the accomplishments as well as issues and limitations in the existing studies. We conclude by suggesting future areas for research on historical strategies, identifying new topics and lines of inquiry, for example, civic engagement.

Throughout this chapter, our focus is on cognitive strategies associated with historical inquiry. We define cognitive strategies as mental processes/processing employed during reading, thinking, speaking, and writing tasks. We address these strategies broadly, making little distinction between what some have considered skills (Affler-bach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008), schematic frameworks (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking,

2000), dispositions (Tishman, Jay, & Perkins, 1993), or social strategies (Gee, 1989). Strategy use often involves metacognitive executive functions and automatic processing (i.e., strategies that have become so habitual that they are used without conscious awareness). Further, we distinguish between cognitive strategies, the thinking processes used by those studying history, and instructional strategies, the teaching methods used by teachers. Additionally, we do not dedicate much time to a discussion of generic cognitive strategies, such as summarizing a text passage, questioning, or monitoring comprehension or pre-writing strategies (see Chapters 7-9, this volume), which are well developed in skilled historians, instead focusing on those strategies that distinguish historical thinking, such as analyzing and using evidence to support in writing a historical interpretation (Monte-Sano, 2010; van Drie & van Boxtel, 2008).

Before considering the strategies historians use to study the past, it is necessary to consider epistemological issues concerning the discipline of history. How is historical knowledge produced? In his landmark work, The Idea of History, Collingwood (2005/1993) explained the constructed nature of historical understanding. He suggested that all historical work was imaginative to some degree, with historians weaving a network of interpretations on a framework of agreed upon “facts” and evidence. Just as “it is the artist, and not nature, that is responsible for what goes into the picture,” he argued, it is the historian and not the past who constructs history (Collingwood, 2005/1993, p. 236). Holt (1995) provides applications of Collingwoods ideas, discussing the ways historians (and, by extension, history students) might use fragmentary and imperfect evidence to construct defensible interpretations. Thus, the strategies described here are based upon the epistemological stance assumed to construct historical interpretations, with differences in historians’ and students’ cognitive strategies often traced to epistemological issues.

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