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…

  • 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…

  • 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…

  •   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.

  • 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.

Reply Children
  • 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.  

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