In my AP U.S. History course, we have begun to discuss the concept of Historiography. Students are now reading secondary sources with a critical eye — analyzing them for argument and evidence and spotting what has been left out of the secondary source all together. Students are starting to see that History is written by mere humans, humans with biases, slants, and opinions just like the rest of us.
They have had fun with this realization. Just last week we read two differing perspectives on why the U.S. entered World War I, and students assessed both of these historians’ arguments and realized that both had failed to mention the Zimmermann Telegram, a pretty integral part of the story in their view. Why hadn’t either historian mentioned that, they asked? What evidence did these two historians offer? How did they differ? How did they support their arguments?
After ample practice with this, I’d like to see my students move a step further. Dr Bates explains that in the digital age within which we now find ourselves, “the key shift is towards greater emphasis on skills, particularly knowledge management, and less on memorising content.” He continues, “We need teaching methods for teaching and learning that lead to the development of the skills needed in a digital age.”
In my course, I am trying to teach students the skills of real life historians and am trying to get them to use digital resources to do so. I like to get them investigating and drawing their own conclusions. I, of course, do provide them with enough information, or scaffolding, on a given topic (usually through interactive lectures) that they feel equipped to investigate it more on their own. Ultimately it is the students who are assessing the primary documents and analyzing the historical arguments, however; they are the true historians in my classroom.
Unsurprisingly, I was compelled by Bates’s description of Ralph Goodyear’s HIST 305 Historiography course at an unnamed public university in the central U.S., in which students are expected, for the last third of their course, to engage in their own research projects about city histories and present their research to the rest of the class. According to Bates, Goodyear was delighted by the quality of the work and reported “What I liked was that the students weren’t learning about history; they were doing it.”
In order to get my students thinking like historians, I need to get them to do history. I need to prepare them to do historical research first and foremost; they need to know what digital research tools and databases are available to them that will allow them to engage in archival research within the school building and even in the comforts of their own homes.
I have already found several historical research databases I intend to show my students to get them started in independent, historical research. Some of these digital archives are local in nature — including historylink.org and the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project — and some national — including the Library of Congress’s online resources.
One database I have found particularly comprehensive is Fordham University’s Internet History Sourcebooks Project: http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/index.asp. The website offers a variety of historical sourcebooks, organized by time period and space, or historical topic. Students can click around such historical topics to find primary documents through which to sift. The website founders have already organized the sourcebooks to ensure that all documents and external websites are of high quality.
Importantly, the website also includes a “Studying History” tab that offer students guidance on how to best use primary sources, engage in historiography, and write effective research essays. All of these tools are intended to help students critically evaluate the historical information they are gathering through this site and others. See these additional tools at: http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/mod/modsbook01.asp.
I foresee suggesting that students begin their research with a database such as this, and let it lead them to additional resources along the way. Hopefully this will allow them to piece together the history they are researching in their own way, which will allow them to read secondary sources with a more critical and independent thinking eye!
The best way to learn history is to do it. As an educator, I plan to use online databases to help students do history. They’ll investigate sources, conduct research, and make their own judgements as to how all of the pieces fit together. They’ll be the historical detectives of their own studies, and they’ll get to decide what it is that makes history history.
The digital age, and its varied online resources, can help us as educators entrust our students with the responsibility of their own learning, and instruct that our students learn by doing.
Bates, A.W. (n.d.). Fundamental change in education. In Teaching in a digital age (4). Retrieved from http://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/part/chapter-1fundamental-change-education/.