Classroom Conversation: The Use Of Discussion-Based Strategy In The History Classroom

Introduction

In Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Sam Wineburg argued that historical thinking “in its deepest forms, is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development” (2001: 7). He proposed that in order to understand and grapple with the past, we must change our existing mental structures. In reality, however, Singapore teachers often find themselves “telling history” to their students, as if particular stories about the past can be told in a linear manner or told through a given narrative. The idea that students would need to learn how to mentally wrestle with unfamiliar content, and to also become competent at requisite examination skills that demonstrate proficiency in managing the specified content, may perhaps seem an unfeasible expectation. But, as Wineburg maintained, historical thinking is “an unnatural act” – it requires students to think about the past in a way that goes against how they ordinarily think. Such an approach involves getting students to think about the past in a methodical way and enabling them to make sense of the past using disciplinary lenses. The inability to take on this approach in the history classroom may lead teachers to resort to the very familiar strategy which is to “tell history”, or what I would call “shouting history” at students.

As a history educator, “shouting history” may seem like a terrible notion but it has become a necessary method in our bag of tools. When we teach history to some of our weaker learners, we may find ourselves spending a lot of time getting these students to repeatedly recall materials already covered in previous lessons. When faced with such challenges, it may be easy for us to make certain assumptions about these students: that they are struggling with the subject because they do not read history sufficiently, or that the content is too much for them to digest in a short time, or that they lacked the language skills to comprehend historical sources. These difficulties are indeed real issues that confound students and impede their ability to learn history well. Yet, there are students who also may be “too lazy to think” as they prefer to simply wait for the teacher to give them the “correct answer”. The fact that they are working with the notion of “correct answers” not only points to certain flawed assumptions these students may hold about history, but also their understanding about the nature of historical study. So, why is learning history challenging for students? Is it challenging because it involves the learning of an overwhelming amount of factual details, or is it challenging because it is difficult to interpret sources in their specific historical contexts? I strongly believe it is the latter.

In this article, I am going to make two assumptions: first, that learning history is challenging because the past is not easy for students to picture or imagine; and second, that engaging in historical thinking is challenging for students because of the “unnatural” way students are expected to view the past. As history educators, we need to make this “unnatural act” more intuitive and instinctive so that we can develop students who are discerning in judgement and are able to think independently and critically about the world around them.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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