Review: Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone)

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

For the last four years, the McCormick Foundation has been privileged to partner with Sam Wineburg and his colleagues at the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) to develop “critical online literacy” assessments. An offshoot of the category-leading work SHEG has done with “Reading Like a Historian” and its related assessments, the critical online literacy research attracted significant national attention in the aftermath of the 2016 Election and rise of the now ubiquitous term “fake news.”

Wineburg recounts this work within a larger, book-length narrative about the current challenges of teaching history titled Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) [University of Chicago, 2018]. He begins by documenting century-long concerns about the lack of historical knowledge among our youth and the population as a whole. In modern times, the sporadic National Assessment of Education Progress in History reveals low levels of historical proficiency among students, results designed by modern tests to produce a predictable distribution of results.

These tests, and our obsession with declarative knowledge about history and civics, distract us from more meaningful ways to teach and learn about history. It’s true that the modern textbook, while more inclusive than in the past, provides superficial, even inaccurate, accounts of history, and it remains central to many current classrooms. Some teachers have experimented with alternative accounts of history like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Row, 1980), but Wineburg is sharp in his critique of Zinn’s own one-sided and empirically-thin tome.

The key, according to Wineburg, isn’t to seek truth through a plethora of ideological and superficial sources, but instead engage students in the process of historical thinking and debate through examination of primary documents and accounts of pivotal events. SHEG has gained incredible traction among social studies teachers using this approach, and the pivot to critical online literacy is natural given that history (and seemingly everything that is knowable) is “Googled.”

The challenge of teaching history in the Information Age centers on discerning the accuracy of sources accessible in a millisecond at the command of our fingertips. It’s true that students are digital natives and have mastered the intuitive features of their handheld devices. The natural reaction of teachers who are a generation or two older is admiration and delegation. But we mistakenly conflate students’ digital prowess with their ability to scrutinize the sources they are encountering.

SHEG’s critical online literacy assessments are helpful to this end and have since been integrated into the work of media literacy organizations like the Center for News Literacy in partnership with Maine East High School in Park Ridge, IL. SHEG is also busy designing a curriculum to assist teachers with classroom instruction called MediaWise. It will be tested in partnership with the Poynter Institute in classrooms across the country in the coming months.

Teacher professional development has long been central to the McCormick Foundation’s work in Illinois to strengthen school-based civic learning, and we plan to recommend a grant to SHEG in February to develop online teacher professional development modules for dissemination of the MediaWise curriculum.

Wineburg’s book is a must-read for social studies teachers and other educators seeking to integrate media literacy across the curriculum. The parallel work he oversees at SHEG is also of utmost importance and should be immediately considered for classroom adoption. Perhaps ironically, historians have a great deal to offer in helping to navigate the Information Age. Tried and true tactics of multiple, primary source scrutiny translate incredibly well to the digital domain.

No comments :

Post a Comment