Relating to history: using knowledge building to think and learn about the past
Monica Resendes, Maria Chuy, University of Toronto, Canada
Samuel Wineburg (2001) describes historical thinking as “an unnatural act” because it requires students, as Wineburg notes, “to become experts at cultivating puzzlement” (p. 21-22). Repeated studies have shown that teaching history via traditional narratives about the past - such as those found in history textbooks - fail to engage students in the types of “unnatural thinking” that leads to deep understanding of historical ideas and concepts. The active doing of history and the construction of historical knowledge, rather than internalization of historical information, demands a unique type of environment in which students can cultivate the habits of mind characteristic of professional historians, using methods accessible and manageable to students themselves. In this paper I report a study from a classroom that aims to create such an environment.
I have examined a history database showing student efforts to develop their understanding of Medieval History, and provide evidence of students' engaging in the “unnatural act” of historical thinking through participation in an online dialogue. I highlight specific examples that reveal engagement with second-order thinking concepts inherent to historical inquiry such as historical perspective, continuity and change, and historical significance. I will also show how Knowledge Building pedagogy, enhanced by the Knowledge Forum software environment, engenders lines of historical questioning that are highly contextual, probe direct connections between the past and the present, and that expose deep problems of understanding.
I conclude by offering suggestions as to how knowledge building environments such as Knowledge Forum can complement other tools in digital history to provide students an innovative and inquiry-based environment for knowledge-building in history education.