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Instructional approaches for teaching novices historians’ cognitive strategies

Observational research makes clear that historical reading and writing present challenges for novices. Such processes are reliant on the strategies young people use and are contingent upon fragile and emerging understandings of the nature of history as a discipline and upon their epistemic stance. For instance, students might not only lack sophisticated strategies for formulating a compelling historical argument, but they might fail to understand why argumentation is needed in history. Further, students face challenges analyzing and using historical evidence. Finally, students who struggle with literacy in general, such as English-language learners and students with learning disabilities or other disabilities, may have additional linguistic, cognitive, or emotional needs that impact the strategies they use to engage in historical reading, thinking, speaking, and writing.

Fortunately, a growing body of research conducted internationally suggests that teachers can nurture students’ historical thinking strategies and improve the resulting products (such as argumentative historical writing) by building background knowledge, teaching skills, and addressing students’ understanding of historical inquiry. We now review exemplary studies from this body of research, highlighting instruction developed to teach students historians’ cognitive strategies. While less common in the literature, recent work focuses on younger students (e.g., Wissinger, De La Paz, & Jackson, 2017), and on English learners (Monte-Sano, Schleppegrell, Hughes, & Thomson, 2018).

The majority of the instructional approaches reviewed here are complex, often lengthy multi-component interventions, each with more than one heuristic, strategy, or procedural facilitator (e.g., the use of model texts) to teach students more sophisticated historical reasoning. In addition, researchers define the primary focus of their interventions differently. Some study the cognitive frameworks that influence students’ conceptual understanding of the processes of historical inquiry. Others attend to cognitive processes (e.g., reading and writing); still others study how class discussions impact student reasoning. We review studies according to the authors’ emphasis, theoretical framing, and choice of student learning outcomes, noting at the same time where overlapping methodologies occur.

Instruction on First- and Second-order Concepts

Some educational researchers in the UK (Lee, 2005; Lee & Ashby, 2000), Canada (Seixas & Morton, 2013), the Netherlands (van Drie & van Boxtel, 2008), and the United States (VanSledright, 2002) suggest that students need a cognitive framework for understanding the discipline of history. They label substantive concepts (concrete events, concepts, dates as well as abstract concepts such as nationalism and imperialism) first-order concepts. In contrast, metaconcepts or second-order concepts are related to historical methodologies—evidence, accounts, traces, significance, and perspective, for instance, carry specialized meanings. As a correct understanding of and fluency with these concepts are foundational in historical inquiry, some researchers have studied how to best foster them.

Because argumentation within history carries certain nuances, van Drie, Braaksma, and van Boxtel (2015) explored the effects of teaching domain general or domain specific argument text structure. They provided advanced 1 Ith-grade students with one of two sample essays during instruction on historical significance. They found a positive effect on historical reasoning for those who viewed the essay that followed nuanced disciplinary norms. Those students were more adept at ascribing significance, identifying causation, and noting change, all historical metaconcepts.

In related studies, Stoel, Van Drie, and Van Boxtel (2015, 2017) explored the effects of explicit instruction or implicit instruction on causal historical reasoning. Explicit instruction, provided by the teacher, focused on causal links between actions and motives of historical actors and contextual factors that explain, limit, or motivate their actions. Students in the implicit condition received no such instruction. Students in both groups were then asked to evaluate the significance of causes and provide arguments for their evaluation. Students in the experimental conditions scored significantly higher at post-test on causal-reasoning strategies and second-order concepts in both studies but no differences were found between conditions in the overall quality of students’ written explanations. Small (and inconsistent) changes were found with students’ epistemological beliefs. This research suggests that even advanced high school students need instruction in second-order concepts related to causal thinking.

Instruction on Reading Historically

As noted above, historians engage in strategic and purposeful recursive reading and writing processes when engaged in inquiry, critically analyzing the purpose behind texts written by others as they consider their own purposes, plans, and goals for writing (Nokes & Keiser-Lund, 2019). Moreover, intervention researchers outside of the field of history report that teaching students cognitive reading and writing strategies can transfer across processes in a manner that makes it productive to teach them together (Graham & Hebert, 2010). While recognizing benefits to integrating opportunities to read and write about the same historical topic with instruction on each process, some of the earliest studies on nurturing students’ historical literacy focus solely on historical reading strategies without attention to writing. Britt and Aglinskas (2002) used cognitive apprenticeships (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989), formed through a computer application called the Sourcer’s Apprentice, to teach students to source and corroborate when reading multiple documents. This interface modeled how experts analyze documents, then gradually shifted responsibility for completing tasks to students, providing them with structured opportunities to practice. The results indicated that after minimal training, students in an experimental condition demonstrated better sourcing and wrote better essays than those in a control group. Their writing contained more document-based content and more explicit references to sources. This early study demonstrated the potential of providing students with explicit instruction in sourcing and corroboration along with a set of increasingly difficult reasoning tasks. However, few students were involved in the study and no multilevel statistical analyses were conducted.

Nokes, Dole, and Hacker (2007) found that direct instruction on sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization helped high school students use sourcing and corroboration in their writing. The researchers manipulated whether students read multiple texts or a traditional textbook, and whether the instructional focus was on content or historical reasoning. In contrast to prior studies, students engaged in sustained, connected practice, during which they considered critical questions (e.g., which two documents would you rank as the most reliable? Why?). The results showed that the use of multiple texts was the most important factor in learning historical content, and that strategy instruction was central in establishing students’ use of sourcing and corroboration. Students showed little improvement in contextualization in spite of multiple lessons, a finding Reisman replicated (Reisman, 2012). Unfortunately, the post-test did not investigate students’ overall historical thinking, merely their strategy use.

In 2011, Goldberg, Schwarz, and Porat conducted a descriptive study with Israeli 12th graders. Students grappled with controversial questions about the responsibility and morality of Zionist institutions. The researchers provided a lesson on source reliability and corroboration, similar to Britt and Aglinskas (2002)’s approach. Students then discussed the issues, employing substantiation, the use of evidence to support an argument. Students’ essays, written after discussions, were evaluated for students’ analysis of evidence, sourcing, and epistemological stances. Data revealed that differences in students’ ethnic backgrounds were associated with differences in source evaluation, with students less critical of sources that mirrored their personal views. The implications of this finding for history instruction and preparation for civic engagement are profound and considered below.

In a year-long experiment on the effects of document-based activities from the Reading Like a Historian curriculum, Reisman (2012) found that explicit strategy instruction in sourcing, contextualization, close reading, and corroboration improved both struggling and proficient students’ sourcing and close reading (but not contextualization or corroboration). Reisman proposed that contextualization and corroboration required a deeper epistemological understanding of the discipline, concluding that her instruction was not sufficient for students to internalize these skills. Despite these findings, whole class discussions that were part of the instruction students received gave them opportunities to defend their claims in the face of peer critique. Showing positive effects for sourcing and close reading, Reisman’s (2012) work suggests that discussions can bridge everyday and disciplinary arguments if used to critically evaluate evidence.

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