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Historical Discussions and Debates

As reform efforts in teaching history shift away from a dependence on textbooks and teacher lecture to more epistemically mature ways of constructing meaning from primary and secondary source documents, researchers have explored the benefits of discussions as a means for activating student interest and promoting disciplinary thinking (Nussbaum & Edwards, 2011). MacArthur, Ferretti, and Okolo (2002) employed debates on 20th-century immigration to facilitate sixth grade students’ historical thinking and content learning. Recognizing the role of perspective taking in historical thinking, the researchers hoped the debates would afford opportunities to consider the perspectives of both immigrants and people opposed to immigration. Students showed an improved understanding of multiple perspectives, but their arguments were characteristic of everyday discussions rather than of historical reasoning. Students seldom used specific evidence to substantiate their claims. Researchers concluded that more instruction on historical argumentation was needed. However, findings indicated that students with disabilities participated fully in the debates, suggesting that debates are viable ways to support students’ learning.

More recently, Wissinger and De La Paz (2016) examined whether middle school students could use argumentation schemes proposed by Walton, Reed, and Macagno (2008) as heuristics during discussion to learn content and write historical arguments. Though originally conceptualized for philosophers, two common forms of argument are both consistent with strategies that historians use and observed in the historical writing of strong secondary students (De La Paz, Ferretti, Wissinger, Yee, & MacArthur, 2012). The argument from expert opinion was therefore used as a model for teaching sourcing and the argument from consequences scheme prompted students to consider causal relationships of historical events. Teachers used critical questions to help students test the strength of their argument or its premises (Macagno & Kon-stantinidou, 2013) similar to those used by Nokes et al. (2007). The researchers found benefits for students in the experimental condition in sourcing, assessing causation, and understanding competing perspectives. They demonstrated increased levels of substantiation, perspective recognition, contextualization, and rebuttal in their written arguments.

Instruction on Historical Writing

Several studies describe interventions that address argumentative historical writing, ranging from research on the benefits of teacher-provided feedback (Leinhardt, 2000; Young & Leinhardt, 1998) to the general use of explicit strategy instruction (e.g., Stoel et al., 2015,2017). Across studies, only sustained instruction, such as cognitive apprenticeships, has consistently led to substantive improvements in student writing.

Cognitive Apprenticeships

In a series of studies that focused on historical writing instruction, De La Paz (2005, De La Paz & Felton, 2010; De La Paz et al., 2014, 2017) and her colleagues used cognitive apprenticeships to embed explicit instruction on writing, argument, and thinking. Cognitive apprenticeship became both an instructional model that helped teachers organize the learning environment, and an approach to learning that revealed otherwise hidden cognitive processes to students. Researchers created inquiry lessons that gave students multiple, developmentally appropriate opportunities to practice historical reading and writing. Teachers moved through several stages of instruction, helping students set learning goals and develop metacognitive strategies. In keeping with the cognitive apprenticeship model, teachers taught historical reading and writing heuristics and modeled them by thinking aloud (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991), then gradually released responsibility to students who applied the heuristics with reduced scaffolding. Scaffolding included tools to use while reading, planning, and writing, and tools for teachers to monitor students’ progress (Monte-Sano, De La Paz, & Felton, 2014a, 2014b).

De La Paz s work collectively shows that when implemented with fidelity, even when controlling for students’ entry learning characteristics (e.g., reading proficiency), academically and culturally diverse middle school students improve in their ability to analyze evidence, acknowledge others’ perspectives, contextualize, write substantiated historical arguments, and rebut counterclaims. Further, their general writing ability improves. Interviews suggested that many students gained a more sophisticated epistemological approach, though to varying degrees and in ways that correlated with their incoming reading abilities. Although more work needs to be done to replicate this research with different learners and tasks, this program of research clearly establishes the viability of cognitive apprenticeships to teach historical reading, thinking, and writing strategies (De La Paz, 2005; De La Paz & Felton, 2010; De La Paz et al., 2014, 2017).

Recognizing that students learning English often need additional linguistic supports to advance their knowledge of written language, Monte-Sano and a team of researchers

(2018) developed a two-year intervention for sixth and seventh graders with varying academic and linguistic profiles. Their approach, while similar to De La Paz et al.’s use of disciplinary literacy tools to support students, is unique in their use of model essays designed to help English learners develop language structures. These model essays initially provided a fully formed example of the kind of text students were expected to write on the same topic, with blanks to indicate where students were to bring their own claims, evidence, and reasoning. Later, this model became less “template-like,” with the writing sample on a related, rather than the same, topic. Older students received only a procedural facilitator, offering options for introducing claims, evidence, and reasoning. Unfortunately, while appearing promising, the authors have yet to disseminate detailed findings on students’ linguistic advances (i.e., syntactic development), beyond describing the level of thematic development of ideas.

Wissinger et al. (2017) evaluated the benefits in teaching fourth through sixth graders a reading strategy (“I3C”) and a writing strategy (“PROVE IT!”) in concert. I3C prompted students to (a) identify the authors stance, (b) identify 3 ideas supporting the authors stance, and to (c) check for limitations in the authors argument. PROVE IT! prompted students to focus on text structure and the skills of historical argumentation, reminding students to (a) provide background information on the historical problem, (b) report their interpretation, (c) offer 3 evidence-based reasons, (d) voice the other side’s interpretation, (e) establish a rebuttal, then consider (f) is the argument convincing, and (g) total up what you know by adding a concluding sentence.

This intervention was designed to be developmentally appropriate for younger students. Because elementary students were presumed to know less about history than secondary learners (VanSledright, 2002), the authors integrated timelines, historical cartoons, and excerpts from newspapers into secondary sources. Digital images, audio, and other video media were integrated into the lessons. Each historical investigation was taught in five days, allowing teachers time to provide background information, model, facilitate guided practice, and hold discussions on the qualities of strong writing. After controlling for gender, ethnicity, and pre-test scores, students in the intervention scored higher in historical writing and overall writing quality (a holistic writing measure), and wrote longer essays after instruction and on maintenance probes. Moreover, students with disabilities benefited to the same degree as students without disabilities, after controlling for students’ initial reading proficiency.


A growing body of literature examines instructional strategies that help novices begin to develop the cognitive strategies used by historians. While some posit the importance of new cognitive frameworks to help novices understand the discipline of history, and others provide instruction in multiple cognitive strategies, a common theme is the evaluation of evidence through sourcing. Moreover, with the exception of short intervention studies, students who were taught through a combination of explicit instruction, metacognitive modeling, writing samples, and class or small group instruction improved in their disciplinary reasoning. Additional benefits occur when teachers provide feedback on students’ progress in reasoning and writing. While it might be reasonable to hope that such improvements could be realized through a singular focus on one or a few cognitive strategies, this idea is not supported by the research, neither is it likely given the complexity of cognitive processes observed of historians. In fact, the strongest evidence for learning appears when teachers use a cognitive apprenticeship approach to instruction.

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