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Observing novice’s historical thinking strategies

As some researchers have identified strategies historians use, other researchers have considered how students approach historical thinking. For example, Lee and Ashby (2000) observed the unsophisticated strategies used by students. When faced with multiple sources that contain conflicting accounts, the youngest students, lacking any strategies, admitted that they could not know what happened in the past. Older, middle-school aged students arbitrarily labeled some accounts as deliberate falsifications, agreeing with others. Slightly older students ruled with the majority of the accounts. Rather than creating a synthesized interpretation that relied on the best evidence from multiple documents, they discounted some accounts and accepted others as factual.

Wineburg (1991) observed gifted high school students as part of his 1991 study. They skillfully applied generic reading strategies such as summarizing, monitoring comprehension, making connections to background knowledge, and rereading. However, the historical thinking strategies they used were as unsophisticated as those Lee and Ashby (2000) observed. For instance, most students sought a non-existent objective source that lacked bias, being enticed by a textbook account. Students’ flawed strategies are not confined to traditional historical reading. Seixas (1993) found that when evaluating historical movies, tenth grade students judged as more reliable a movie that portrayed characters who thought and acted like the students would. Movies that showed characters who remained true to the historical context rather than modern norms were considered unrealistic. These studies show that students instinctively apply strategies when engaged in historical reading and viewing, but their strategies focus on present values and fact finding rather than constructing an interpretation—epistemological approaches that interfere with historical thinking.

Stahl and his team of researchers (1996) observed advanced tenth grade students engaged in an investigation of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. After a series of preassessments, students received 11 documents to choose from. They took notes as they read, then wrote either a description or an opinion essay on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and resolution. The researchers used students’ notes to identify a range of general reading strategies (i.e., copying information verbatim, paraphrasing, reducing multiple ideas into a single thought, or capturing the gist of complex ideas). Aware of Wineburg’s (1991) earlier study, the researchers also watched for sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization in students’ notes and essays. Researchers found that students frequently chose secondary sources over primary sources. Researchers speculated that students may have valued the seemingly objective account, a finding that corroborates the trust students placed in the textbook in Wineburg’s (1991) study. Students’ purposeful selection of a seemingly unbiased secondary source demonstrates a strategy, of sorts, though not a strategy that mirrors the thinking of historians. The researchers concluded that students approached the task with an unsophisticated epistemic stance, failing to understand the process of constructing historical knowledge. Presenting students with multiple texts, in the absence of instruction on history’s constructed nature, did not spontaneously produce historical thinking.

Some researchers observed novices’ reasoning strategies when asked to assume the role of a historian or a juror (Kuhn, Weinstock, & Flaton, 1994). They found that teenage and adult novices faced similar struggles whether playing historian or juror. For example, they were inappropriately certain of their interpretation. Less than half spontaneously cited evidence to support their conclusions. When pressed for evidence, many elaborated on their interpretation but still failed to provide evidence. Kuhn and her colleagues concluded that novices’ unsophisticated epistemic stance (i.e., looking for a single, objective interpretation) played a major role in the strategies they employed—a finding common in research on novices’ reading in history.

Researchers who studied older novices observed somewhat more mature strategies. For example, Rouet and a team of researchers (1996) found that undergraduate students used a number of strategies to evaluate the reliability of a document. These researchers labeled the students’ rationale for trusting or distrusting a text author justifications, document-type justifications, content justifications, and opinion justifications, with the latter strategy based on personal opinions. These findings suggest that older students, under the right conditions, classify documents, engage in sourcing, and establish valid criteria for evaluating evidence.

The term “novice” has a wide range of meanings, with one recent study casting history doctoral students engaged in their dissertation work as novices—apprenticing historians. Schneider and Zakai (2016) suggested that doctoral students held some expertise in historical reading, but were novices in historical writing, which if remedied would lead to greater proficiency. The researchers conducted three interviews and two surveys with ten students at various stages of the dissertation writing process. They identified four “tensions” that developed as students wrote.

First, the writing process was complicated by ongoing research. Research and writing were recursive, with the writing process revealing gaps in understandings and promoting new research. Second, students struggled with the concept of historical imagination, aware of their role in constructing interpretations but fearful of taking too great a liberty with evidence. The students were often overwhelmed by the number of conflicting tidbits of evidence, using the strategy of chunking to create manageable patterns in the data. Third, dissertation writers struggled to know when to defend an emerging interpretation or to bend to contradictory evidence. Like the historians described above (Nokes & Keiser-Lund, 2019), students recognized the need for humility, knowing that eventually they would have to defend their conclusions with certainty. Finally, the doctoral students understood the foreignness of past contexts but had to make them coherent to modern readers. These expert-novices may have developed an awareness of the epistemology of history but lacked strategies for navigating this novel (for them) way of constructing knowledge. In response, they developed a number of unique strategies including identifying patterns, telling engaging and plausible stories, modifying their positions, and empathically translating the actions of historical characters into terms understandable today. This study reveals the problems of classifying research participants as novices or experts, suggesting that further work should be done to map the development of historical expertise.

Ongoing research is lengthening the list of strategies students employ when thinking historically. For example, Kim (2018) explored the strategies high school students used to distinguish between important and trivial historical information, a process sometimes called ascribing historical significance. Kim found that students used the narrative template of “tragedy and the struggle for freedom” to appropriately, and sometimes inappropriately, ascribe significance. Events that fit into the narrative of Koreas struggle against Japan, for instance, were deemed to be historically significant, reflecting both omissions and distortions in students’ understandings. In a different study, Merkt, Werner, and Wagner (2017) used logs of ninth grade students’ moves on a computer platform to observe their behaviors, making inferences about their strategic processing during a historical reading task. Students had to intentionally click on a link to access documents’ source information, providing behavioral indicators of their cognitive processing. Researchers found that students who engaged in sourcing and corroboration more skillfully navigated a multiple-document task. In Samuelsson and Wendell’s (2016) analysis of sixth grade Swedish students’ standardized tests, they found that students critiqued sources, in this case artifacts, by reasoning about time (i.e., when an artifact was created in relation to the era it was being used to study); reasoning about authenticity (i.e., whether an artifact was original); reasoning about usefulness (i.e., whether the artifact helps them understand the past); and reasoning about deficiencies (i.e., weaknesses in the evidence).

To summarize, novices who engage in historical reading, thinking, and writing are strategic in their processes. However, most of the strategies novices use differ markedly from those used by experts, and often inhibit historical thinking. Students’ unsophisticated epistemic stance may explain some of the immaturity in strategic processing. To be fair, there is evidence that older students exhibit rudimentary historical thinking strategies such as classifying documents and sourcing. Yet even doctoral students experience some of the frustrations of novices when engaged in historical writing. Admittedly, with the exception of the doctoral students, the observational studies cited here are dependent upon the students’ task. Across studies, novices are especially influenced by the way that they are asked to demonstrate their thinking (Monte-Sano & De La Paz, 2012).

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