Why Learn History Book Club // Get your copy and join the conversation!

Drumroll please! We are thrilled to announce our summer OER Conference for Social Studies Book Club pick! This month you are invited to join us in reading Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) by Sam Wineburg (IndieBound / Amazon), who happens to be one of our keynote speakers for the OER Conference for Social Studies. 

Since the 1990s, Sam Wineburg has been one of the leaders in research on historical thinking and the teaching and learning of history. He is also one of the founders and directors of the Stanford History Education Group (sheg.stanford.edu), one of the largest providers of free educational resources in the world. Wineburg believes it is essential to provide students with the critical thinking tools necessary to sort through the incredible amount of information being thrown at them every day, and to do so may require updates to traditional teaching practices. 

Our community discussion about Why Learn History will kick off with our first book club questions on July 14 right here in this thread, located in the OER Conference for Social Studies Discussion Forum. We’ll post a new question each Thursday for three weeks leading up to the conference which takes place August 3-4. So, grab a copy of the book, bookmark this thread so you can return on the 14th, and prepare for some rich discussions with other members of the community.

Our first week of conversations will cover Part One of the book. Let the reading begin!

Why Learn History // Week One Questions 

We are excited to start our book club conversation on Why Learn History (When it’s Already on Your Phone) as we make our way to Sime Wineburg’s August 4th keynote address in the OER Conference for Social Studies. Post your thoughts and answers to the questions below or add your own question. Erik Christensen will be leading the discussion and will be checking in throughout the day to respond to the conversation.  

In Chapter 1 "Crazy for History" Wineburg gives a critical analysis of American testing systems (and their effectiveness) and reaches the conclusion that "...no national test can allow students to show themselves to be historically literate."  Further, Wineburg makes the claim that multiple choice tests "convey the dismal message that history is about collecting disconnected bits of knowledge..., where one test item has nothing to do with the next, and where if you can't answer a question in a few seconds, it's wise to move on to the next. [These] tests mock the very essence of problem solving."   

  • How should teachers of history in 2022 test our students?  
  • How do you determine if your students are learning history?  
  • How do you, to paraphrase Wilfred McClay, make those hard choices about what gets thrown out of the story so that the essentials can survive?

Why Learn History // Week Two Questions 

Bloom's Taxonomy is referenced in many professional development sessions, teacher-admin conversations, and there may even be a poster of this pyramid in your classroom. Wineburg suggests that in a history classroom, Bloom's Taxonomy should be inverted so that knowledge is at the top.    

  • Do you agree with Wineburg's thesis - that Bloom's Taxonomy doesn't work in a history classroom?   
  • What would an inverted version of the pyramid look like in your practice?   
  • Is knowledge the result of critical thinking? Or is knowledge needed to think critically?  

Why Learn History // Week Three Questions 

In Chapter 7 "Why Google Can't Save Us" Wineburg dives deep into the internet's ability to deeply confuse expert and novice historians (and everyone else!). He describes several case studies that highlight how difficult it can be to assess information that we come across online.    

  • As more students are conducting research online, how are you managing the information they are exposed to?   
  • Do you teach digital literacy?   
  • How do you practice online reasoning or claim testing? How do you practice it with your students?   
  • What routines or activities have made the biggest impact to negotiating the power of the internet in your classroom?  

Post your response to the questions in the comments below as we complete our final week of the Book Club. Be sure to join us for Sam Wineburg’s Keynote Address on August 4 at 1:00 PM PDT!  

Top Replies

  • Hi everybody. Figured I wade into this thread because reading everyone's posts and being familiar with Wineburg's book got me thinking. Anyway, I often find myself TL-DR-ing my posts.  I'm sure this…

  • So far, I am enjoying the book...definitely not finished, but I'm on track(ish) to be ready to respond to Part 2 later this week! :) I find Wineburg's tone and style to be straightforward and comprehensible…

  • Why Learn History // Week Two Questions 

    Bloom's Taxonomy is referenced in many professional development sessions, teacher-admin conversations, and there may even be a poster of this pyramid in your classroom…

  •   Well, we conduct a book discussion at our own peril.  Many of the OER participants have read Why Learn History?  A discussion about this book likely piques ire because of its abundance of challenges to conventional practices.  For starters, nothing too objectionable from the book's introductory claim:  students are "unable to discern fact from fiction, substance from tedium."  The call for new ways of "reading" is prudent in our world of infinite social platforms.  The embrace of Jacques Barzun's call of "The role of the school is to remove ignorance" is both brilliant and inflammatory (not in Wineburg, but a fine guiding principle I support).  Our work begins with ideas in the following chapters.  In "Our Current Plight," Wineburg lays out "standardized testing is antithetical to historical thinking."  Yes.  What is our optimal model to assess student proficiencies in historical thinking?  Does the College Board AP History assessments serve our aims suitably?  In the section on "Teaching American History," Wineburg laments the performance of TAH grants:  "TAH did not deliver on improved student achievement."  It is clear to see who profited from TAH programs (post-secondary lecturers, above all), but my questions are:  "To what extent did the TAH program suggest a substantive approach to strengthen student proficiencies in History?"  and "Did the TAH program identify a model for K-12 teachers to emulate?"  And, lastly (for now), why would we wish to cling to the diatribes of Howard Zinn?  Other writers offer strong "people's histories" (Daniel Boorstin and his The Americans comes to mind as a worthy alternative); as we seek to carve new approaches to history, it appears that the time is ripe to dump Zinn and embrace more worthy examples of historical inquiry, even those approaches that reflect "popular history."  And, "more lastly" (another thought comes to mind), an inverted Bloom's taxonomy, one which prioritizes knowledge at the top, is a most curious template, one certain to infuriate veteran and stodgy "schools of education" types.  

    More to follow, but these thoughts serve as a start.

  • You bring up some interesting points for the start of a discussion. First, I have not read Wineburg's book - yet. I am purchasing today. However, your points on the Zinn book - which I have had for a very long time should not be the 'end all' of gaining multiple perspectives and accounts of history. I see the attempt to introduce other viewpoints into the main stream narrative of historical thinking; however, literacy is political by its nature. This makes developing the discerning eye - an inquisitive mind - crucial to understanding history. We cannot simply 'tell about' history or 'read about' history - we have to practice historical inquiry - question to seek truth (at least as near to truth as we can). I was never a part of the TAH grants you are speaking about as a high school teacher, but I agree that they have not improved student achievement in the U.S.  I do believe that a foundational responsibility of schooling in the U.S. - at least public funded schools - is to be sure our citizens understand their civic responsibilities, the government (both state and federal) and systems to which this nation is created - if for no other reason to ensure that our government remains accountable to the people. This is not happening in our schools. Young people do not know the role of the three branches of government nor can they explain the differences in ideology between say communism and capitalism. There are wonderful history teachers in our schools, but they are too few and far between. Today's political atmosphere makes it even more difficult to have the types of inquiry we need to have or to practice the dialogue we need to have. We have put an emphasis on reading and math  within our standardized testing; however, to what end? Decades ago, one state tried to incorporate state standardized testing in social studies and the end result was a test similar to a paper version of Trivial Pursuit. The DBQ on some AP history exams attempts to see what students can do in reading various viewpoints etc. and synthesizing information, but why do we not introduce these practices to all students not just AP history students? I could go on but I would love to hear from others on all these issues. 

  • Why Learn History // Week One Questions 

    We are excited to start our book club conversation on Why Learn History (When it’s Already on Your Phone) as we make our way to Sam Wineburg’s August 4th keynote address in the OER Conference for Social Studies. Post your thoughts and answers to the questions below or add your own question. Erik Christensen will be leading the discussion and will be checking in throughout the day to respond to the conversation.  

    In Chapter 1 "Crazy for History" Wineburg gives a critical analysis of American testing systems (and their effectiveness) and reaches the conclusion that "...no national test can allow students to show themselves to be historically literate."  Further, Wineburg makes the claim that multiple choice tests "convey the dismal message that history is about collecting disconnected bits of knowledge..., where one test item has nothing to do with the next, and where if you can't answer a question in a few seconds, it's wise to move on to the next. [These] tests mock the very essence of problem solving."   

    • How should teachers of history in 2022 test our students?  
    • How do you determine if your students are learning history?  
    • How do you, to paraphrase Wilfred McClay, make those hard choices about what gets thrown out of the story so that the essentials can survive? 

    Post your comments below and let's get the conversation started!  

  • Good morning  ,

    Thanks for kicking off the conversation. I wonder if we can tap into one of you thoughts that relates to our Week 1 questions...

    In "Our Current Plight," Wineburg lays out "standardized testing is antithetical to historical thinking."  Yes.  What is our optimal model to assess student proficiencies in historical thinking?

    This is really the core of what I was thinking about when I read Chapter 1.

  • Hi  . What a thoughtful comment. I agree with you, there is no doubt there is a lot of unpacking to do in the realm of social studies education in the United States. I hope you have had a chance to track down Sam's book. I found it to be a pretty quick read!

  • Yes,  , tap away.  When I saw the posting, I refrained from adding some thoughts from the whole book, sharing some thoughts from the early chapters.  Your focus is a feature I shed during summer months.  In this section on standardized assessments, Wineburg is privileged to lament a practice that many teachers employ.  Is he, though, the only individual so privileged?  May K-12 teachers abandon standardized testing, and, more constructively suggest alternatives or solutions (I regret not seeing solutions in the Wineburg book)?  I encourage teachers to join the ranks of the privileged.  I do not hold up this practice as the "be all end all," but for many years I have abandoned a "standardized testing day" in my History classes.  Please don't tell my administration.  For AP History classes, I provide a sheet with 10 key terms, 5 multiple choice or short answer questions, and one extended response question (which requires an argument, contextualization, use and analysis of specific examples, and employment of a "thinking skill," such as compare/contrast or change/continuity over time).  Each student receives this "quiz" at the end of the unit, such as the end of a unit on the European Renaissance or the Reformation.  This is a take-home item, not completed in class.  And for Big History, each unit is concluded with an investigation-type writing or some cumulative/collaborative project that addresses target material.  I use investigations for midterm and semester-end examinations.  Why?  These items require students to demonstrate knowledge (content, skill) that actual Historians employ.  Are these practices open for criticism?  Certainly, but I am willing to defend our approach in a manner other than over blogging or exchanges such as this one.  I would like Wineburg to suggest, prescribe, solve the testing question by offering optimal examples of practice.  Do we embrace the AP History national assessment approach or hold up another practice?  A lament is not enough.  I find that my students may be learning history if they show good responses to these "assessments," as well as to other activities and assignments that we consider within each unit.  I do not look to "out-standard" my peers, but I find useful definition for instruction with the Michigan Education High School History targets, pages 86-87 (https://www.michigan.gov/-/media/Project/Websites/mde/Academic-Standards/Social_Studies_Standards.pdf?rev=4bab170dd4114e2dbce578723b37ca63).  These two pages direct well our Big History work.  Lastly, more room is needed for a discussion on the contribution of Wilfred McClay.  His choices in Land of Hope:  An Invitation to the Great American Story, indeed, serve some readers very well.  Is it History?  I do applaud his reservation in talking about the work of Woodrow Wilson (racism and discrimination clear to see in his administration), but much of the narrative avoids "critical reading."  I have never been able to cover every topic; we make choices.  But we consider much in high school Big History (freshmen).  Each year the course looks different from that of the prior year; we may read a different work of non-fiction together.  Negotiating "essentials" is an enduring challenge of instruction.  

    • How should teachers of history in 2022 test our students?  
    • 1. A percentage of testing on basic knowledge - who, what, when, where, how or why
    • 2. A percentage on completion of 1-2 short projects related to local standards ( one written and one in another format )
    • 3. A percentage in a  public presentation arguing for the historical background of current events
    • How do you determine if your students are learning history?  
    • 1. They ask germane questions or challenge me or another student.
    • 2. Dad, Mom, guardian, or another teacher/support person tell me so.
    • How do you, to paraphrase Wilfred McClay, make those hard choices about what gets thrown out of the story so that the essentials can survive? 
    • Start from where the students are and begin to build the essentials to move them forward....
  • I like how you think  . What jumps out at me from your response is your approach to diversity in testing or assessment. Certainly there's no "one way" to test students about historical thinking or even knowledge. 

    Again in your determination response - a diversity of sources helps to determine how students are learning.

    And I really, REALLY enjoy your approach about starting "where the students are." 

    As a follow up, how to we determine what those "essentials" are? Standards? Our own convictions? Cool history stuff? 

  • So far, I am enjoying the book...definitely not finished, but I'm on track(ish) to be ready to respond to Part 2 later this week! :) I find Wineburg's tone and style to be straightforward and comprehensible. I may also be a prime candidate for his book considering I am a fan of SHEG's resources. Unsurprisingly, has led off with some thought-provoking questions!

    Ahhh, testing. Even the idea of homework (or 'home learning' as my school rebranded it Unamused ) fits into this line of questioning. I like the idea of a multi-pronged approach similar to what  and  shared. A strictly one size fits all approach will not hit on all concepts we wish to assess. Nor will it provide all students with opportunities to showcase their understanding. From the perspective of diversifying strategies, I think that we teachers all need to use a wide variety of instructional and assessment strategies. I think one thing that resonated with me was the idea that "content sessions" should not be isolated from "pedagogy sessions" so that there are "concrete implications for the classroom." The idea that at teacher PD levels, merely providing a ton of information or lectures from great historians doesn't lead to a trickle-down in more knowledge at the classroom level seems so obvious to me! They either need to occur in tandem or there needs to be time to develop a toolkit of pedagogical strategies which can then apply to content. I think in terms of testing and demonstrating understanding, being able to form connections or look at a set of sources and then come up with an original idea or opinion is a great way to see if students are learning. I also like the idea of a debate or an application of some sort (project, claim testing with additional sources to determine what supports historical facts versus an opinion, suspect website, or propaganda).

    Finally, deciding what to keep and what to toss is so challenging. I think the best way to start is to think about where you will begin and where you want to go. Then, look for connections and bylines to get you from one topic to the next. You also think about who your group of students is and what will engage them. I find that vertical articulation and conversations with teachers at grade levels above and below are helpful. 

  • What a wonderful response Meaghan! I think you hit on some really important take-aways. I really like the connection you make between content and pedagogy. Really, at the end of the day, I think that's why many of us are here. We're trying to find that balance about what to teach...and how to teach it. 

    The questions are, as you suggest, designed to spur further thinking and reflection about how "we" test our students in history (and presumably in other disciplines). "We" refers to both society and classroom. You, Greg and Vince are tapping into those amazing powers of diversification of assessment. Where learning can be demonstrated...and...perhaps even joy experienced!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We'll see you later this week. I'm glad you have a chance to read this important book!

Don't forget
to register!
Sign up now