Monday, January 28, 2013

Inquiry-Based History Class

If you listen to too many of the jargony phrases in education, your head might explode. Or you’ll design a tic tac toe board with educational jargon in preparation for a big conference. Either way… But despite, or maybe because, talk about education can become buzzword-y, it is always a good idea to know what people in your field are buzzing about.

I have seen (thanks Twitter) a lot of discussion about inquiry-based learning. In some ways, it was fascinating reading about these classes, particularly science classes. To have students do experiments to learn scientific phenomena (as opposed to learning about these phenomena out of a book and then experimenting to prove that they are true) is a darn cool way to teach, and intuitively it seems very ‘sticky’: kids seem more likely to remember what they have deduced from their experiments.

In other ways, reading about inquiry has been incredibly frustrating. As a history teacher, I don’t have tangible objects to manipulate to determine the laws of nature. This makes the type of inquiry that goes on in science classrooms difficult in history classes. Still, there has to be a way to teach an inquiry-based history class, right? I think there is. In the conversation around what history teachers should be doing in their classroom, flipped or not, it seems like there is a way - a necessity, I’d argue - to base history classes around inquiry.

In short, I believe historical inquiry means having our students do the work of historians in class. Students receive (or find, depending on the teacher’s preference and/or students’ abilities) multiple primary and secondary sources about an era or event and figure out why and how things happened in the past. By doing this, students analyze the past by creating meaning, not being handed facts. With historical inquiry, students synthesize disparate interpretations of events to create their own unique understanding of the past. They are also given opportunities to connect events that happened in the past and in a particular place to what is happening now around the world.

Focusing on historical inquiry pulls to the fore the content skills students learn through history class, skills that are absolutely essential for any functional member of a democracy. (For example, how to find bias, analyze meaning behind and within a source, or make meaning from conflicting accounts of the same event to name a few.) By doing this, historical inquiry also pushes the knowledge of historical content a bit to the backburner. Students still need context (the basic facts around a historical event) to do the work of historians but how they use these facts becomes far more important than if they remember when World War I started.

So what is historical inquiry? What does it look like in a classroom? A great place to start, and a source on which I base much of my thought on historical inquiry, is this book by Sam Wineburg.