Your brain is a bucket full of holes. Sam Wineburg can help

I get the chance to work with all sorts of teachers, across the state and around the country. We’re all different. But when the conversation turns to teaching and learning social studies, I often hear the same thing:

“I have to lecture (or have students read their textbooks out loud, create outlines from the chapter, complete fill-in-the-blank worksheet packets, or watch a 30 year old video converted from 16 mm film) because the kids have to know their facts. It’s not fair asking them to think historically without the basic facts.”

I get it. And I don’t disagree. Kids do need the facts. But I think for too long we’ve just assumed that acquiring foundational knowledge and historical thinking are two distinct and different activities. We fill up their heads with facts and then, if we have time in the school year and after the state assessments are over, then . . . we can try some of that historical thinking stuff.

We need to stop doing that.

The brain is not a basket that we can just fill up with stuff. The brain is a bucket full of holes. The brain works very hard to find ways to forget things and if something is not important enough to be useful, it’s gonna find its way out one of the holes.

Our task is not to fill brains with facts. Our job is to make the facts so important that they’re become too big to fall through the holes. Our job is not to try and fill brains with lots of little facts that kids can Google on their phones. Our job is to find ways to make a few facts so important that the brain has to find a place to put them.

And when we ask kids to solve problems, to use facts for more than just completing a worksheet, the facts get big. The brain sees the facts as useful rather than something that can be allowed to drain out the bottom of the bucket once the test is over.

So what does that look like? This combining of collecting foundational knowledge while thinking historically? What does it look like to make facts big?

shegOne great place to start is at the Stanford History Education Group website. Headed by history education stud Sam Wineburg, SHEG has spent the last few years developing both instructional units and formative assessments that are perfect for helping kids gather facts while at the same time using them to think in deep, historical ways.

The Reading Like a Historian curriculum engages students in historical inquiry. Each lesson revolves around a central historical question and features sets of primary documents designed for groups of students with diverse reading skills and abilities.

This curriculum teaches students how to investigate historical questions by employing reading strategies such as sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading. Instead of memorizing historical facts, students evaluate the trustworthiness of multiple perspectives on historical issues. They learn to make historical claims backed by documentary evidence.

Using brain research and years of tweaking in actual social studies classrooms, Wineburg and his staff have developed an incredibly rich source of free and ready to use teaching materials.

“I’m thrilled that I found this site! I have wanted to try this methodology in my classroom, but I was overwhelmed about where to start. Your lessons have been a wonderful way to introduce me to this teaching format while providing me the tools to actually practice the pedagogy in my classroom. It has also given me confidence to create my own lessons using historical thinking and investigation as a basis for learning.”

Bobbi Young – Colorado Springs, CO

So. It’s gonna be okay.

You’ve got some time this summer. Browse through the lessons. Find some that fit your content. Slowly weave them in to your plans next fall.

Facts. Historical  thinking. It is possible to do both at the same time. Sam Wineburg can help.

About Glenn Wiebe

I work as a social studies specialist at ESSDACK, an educational service center in Hutchinson, Kansas. Before coming to ESSDACK, I taught middle school US History and higher ed social science classes.

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