Blog Post #2 Historical Thinking Concepts

The study of both history and art history have always seemed to go hand in hand with memorization. Whether it be dates, places, artists or titles, history classes always seemed to focus on the “what” versus the “why” or “how”. As long as a student memorized that the Civil War lasted from 1861-1865, many of the details of why the war was fought, how it affected the United States were considered secondary facts.

I write this based on my recollections of sitting in high school history classes, followed by college history and art history courses, some 20 years ago. Upon my entering the graduate art history program last winter, I was confident something must have changed in how art history classes were instructed; I had vivid memories of sitting in a dark, quiet classroom as images were projected on a screen and were presented by a professor who lectured the entire class. About half way through my first class session last year, as I sat in a dark room listening to a professor lecture, I realized the only thing had changed over the years were the images themselves- they were now digital versus slides in a projector wheel!

Surely, there has to be a better way! The readings and videos in this week’s module touch upon this frustration and challenge this way of teaching through utilizing different techniques in the classroom, while highlighting some of the difficulties both students and educators encounter in the process. Collaborative learning is one way to engage students and reduce the “one-way flow” of lecture from the instructor. Seems simple enough, but Sam Wineburg goes into detail about just why history comprehension is difficult for so many: “Tension that underlies every encounter with the past: the tension between the familiar and the strange, between feelings of proximity to feelings of distance from the people we seek to understand”. Comprehending history, whether we are working in groups in a class, or listening to lecture, is difficult because we are viewing events in the past through our contemporary ideals, described as”presentism”. With the difficultly of understanding the “why” or “how” we are not really able to grasp the contextual information to allow us to understand the event. No wonder the study of history had been broken down to just memorization of dates!

The video, “What is Historical Thinking?”, lays out a five-step methodology for processing historical information which allows for the student to not simply view an event as one single account. By incorporating a multi-faceted approach to examine historical events, students are more apt to comprehend the whole entity of the event. Stephane Levesque delves deeper into this idea by separating how we understand historical context, by looking at two ways students obtain knowledge. “Substantive content” is quite simply the historical content we pick up from movies, books, folklore, etc. “Procedural knowledge” is how we research and interpret the past. Sounds easy enough, just teach context and students will get it, right? Well, not so fast. Dr. Lendol Calder discusses an important idea that might get over looked in many classrooms; and that is that students need to be taught how to think contextually. Simply being an expert in the field is not enough to allow for information retention- this skill needs to be taught as well.

In 2020, how do we teach lessons of the past? Some questions come to mind:

1. In this age of technology, where quick answers, as well as thousands of opinions and viewpoints are readily available, how do we encourage students to slow down and focus on the details that surround a historical event? In addition to accessing legitimate sources to do so?

2. How do we have students grasp the difficult task of understanding people in the past and that their beliefs and morals might not align with ours today?

3. Specifically related to the study of art history, can we PLEASE find another way to talk about art that doesn’t involve sitting in a dark room listening to lecture? (I would like to add that I have had subsequent art history classes that don’t necessarily follow this model, however for basic survey courses, this still is the protocol).