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Issues and limitations in research on cognitive processing strategies

Observational studies of historians and novices have teased out important differences in the types of cognitive strategies that each engage in when making sense of historical evidence. To be clear, not all of the differences can be attributed to procedural knowledge, as historians also possess richer conceptual and factual knowledge. And, the type of cognitive strategies that historians engage in depends, in part, on their evidence, their specialization, and their task (c.f., Nokes & Keiser-Lund, 2019). In contrast to the literature on historians’ practices, we know less about how novices can be instructed in historical thinking, in part because it is impossible to frame developmentally appropriate tasks for youngsters without dramatically changing the nature of the historical inquiry. For instance, to our knowledge, no studies consider students’ independent research, which is fundamental to true historical inquiry. Further, students in KI2 settings learn multiple subjects, which restricts the depth of exploration in history or any other discipline.

The results from intervention studies reveal that students as young as fourth grade can be taught to engage in sourcing and to write interpretations when tasks are structured for younger students and for those who are not fluent speakers in the dominant language, with varying rates for releasing responsibility to the learner. To illustrate, studies investigating cognitive apprenticeships ranged from two lessons with advanced high school students, to 25 lessons with fourth through sixth graders. To be sure, older students are more capable of understanding the goals of historical inquiry. However, the degree to which teachers gave students support and feedback while attempting new tasks has also varied in this literature, with concomitant differences in outcomes. Finally, researchers have yet to consistently parse their findings by type of student learners, so we have limited knowledge about educational outcomes for students with different learning histories.

In addition to the existing quasi-experimental and experimental intervention literature, recent descriptive work illustrates how innovative teachers provide instruction in cognitive processes and strategies in naturalistic settings. Nokes (2014) and VanSle-dright (2002) each provided instruction to fifth graders that led to more sophisticated understandings of historical inquiry. Nokes introduced 31 document-based activities into an otherwise traditional social studies curriculum, with positive results on students’ thinking. After this work, students spontaneously questioned their textbook sources and demonstrated a greater understanding of historians’ inquiry processes. Similar, in-depth work with older students has been done by researchers associated with the federally funded, multi-discipline Project READI (Reading, Evidence, and Argumentation in Disciplinary Instruction), which focused on the English language arts, history, and science over a five-year period (Litman et al., 2017; Shanahan, Bolz, Cribb, Goldman, Heppeler, & Manderino, 2016). While Project READI focuses on teachers, without information on learners or learning outcomes, it provides a vision of instruction that nurtures evidence-based argumentation. We anticipate information on outcomes to be forthcoming, and encourage others to explore similar sustained curriculum interventions.

Collectively, current intervention research findings are highly contextualized. Conclusions relate in part to differing levels of access to the curriculum (i.e., whether districts welcome in-depth inquiry or a few lessons), topic, field, level of authenticity in source (e.g., adapted or original documents), text genres (generally argumentation rather than multi-modal texts), and other idiosyncratic factors (e.g., participants’ incoming abilities or whether researchers obtained research funding). We expect that the list of cognitive strategies demonstrated by experts and novices will grow as research teams investigate strategies historians use in unexplored authentic settings (e.g., use of print and nonprint, language-based and non-language based representations in Draper et al., 2010). Researchers might explore supporting students’ use of digital media (similar to the United States’ National History Day inquiry project) or argument-driven webpages, as ways to bridge more sophisticated historical writing. Finally, we recognize the need for continued attention to the topic of assessment of cognitive strategies. Nokes (2017) exploration of eighth grade students’ sourcing provides one such example, as does work by Smith and Breakstone (2015), VanSledright (2014), and Seixas, Gibson, and Ercikan (2015) in a variety of educational contexts.

Present and future directions

Ample evidence shows that historians are unusually strategic readers. The strategies that they employ, including the way they approach a reading task, sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization, skepticism, perspective-taking, questioning, and others, make them stand out. Increasingly, history education has accepted the objective of helping young people read more like historians. While some have questioned the utility of this (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Heller, 2010), others claim that the strategies associated with historical thinking have numerous applications in an Information Age when online sources must be vetted, information must be cross-checked, and multiple conflicting accounts are becoming the norm. Some assume incorrectly that historical reading transfers easily to the study of current issues using online sources.

Wineburg and colleagues (2018) conducted pioneering work on the application of historical thinking strategies to online reading. They asked Stanford University students, historians, and professional factcheckers to evaluate two webpages on school bullying for accuracy and trustworthiness. The historians struggled. Some judged the website of a small extremist group to be more reliable than that of a large and respected organization. Pressed to justify their evaluation of the webpages, one historian discussed the text font used. Another admitted she had no idea how to identify the source. Citing “negative transfer,” Wineburg concluded that the strategies historians applied in reading documents, particularly vertical reading (proceeding from the top of the page to the bottom), may interfere with strategic online reading. The university students, a generation raised on the Internet, fared no better than the historians. In contrast to historians and students, the professional factcheckers efficiently aced the task. Using lateral reading, the factcheckers opened numerous tabs and used outside sources

(including Wikipedia) to investigate the creators of the Internet sites they evaluated. Once the source had been identified, the bias became apparent in the content of the webpage.

Wineburg’s (2018) study suggests that the future of teaching historical thinking should include instruction in online reading. Americans increasingly obtain historical knowledge from Internet sources. The strategies of sourcing, corroboration, perspective-taking, humility, and approaching a document with mild skepticism could transfer to online reading. Wineburg concludes, however, that history teachers must intentionally teach for this transfer, with specialized instruction in online searching and reading strategies. Such research is lacking.

In addition, many people see history classrooms as the best place to prepare young people for civic engagement. Civic engagement demands many of the strategies of historical reading, thinking, and writing. For instance, Kuhn et al. (1994) found great overlap between historical reasoning and juror reasoning. Both the historian and juror reconstructed an event, piecing it together from incomplete, biased, and positioned stories of varying credibility. Both processes required sourcing, corroboration, and mild skepticism. Still, questions remain about whether nurturing historical strategies prepares young people for a life of researching issues, making an appeal to government representatives, voting, or serving on a jury.

Ongoing studies identify other strategies that historians use that may have applications for civic engagement. Historians’ humility and the manner through which they explore plausible alternatives, even those that do not fit their interpretation at the moment, before arriving at a conclusion, may be useful in civic engagement as citizens work together and with elected officials to find mutually beneficial solutions. Ultimately, argumentation, which is at the heart of historical inquiry, is central to citizenship. In its essence the argumentative process is an ongoing conversation bringing together what multiple voices say in an effort to construct an evidence-based and reasonable interpretation (Graff, Birkenstein, & Durst, 2015). To date we know of no interventions that have explored how to teach students to apply their historical argumentation skills in ways that promote civic engagement. Much work remains to be done on the best ways to prepare young people for 21st-century historical and civic reading, writing, and thinking.

 
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