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.

  • 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. 

  • 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!

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