History and Social Science
III. Reasoning, Reflection, Research, and
Content in History and Social Science
To become well grounded in history and social science, and to continue learning for themselves long after they have finished school, students need to acquire both core knowledge and a firm grasp of reasoning and practice in inquiry and research. They must learn how to frame and test hypotheses, to distinguish logical from illogical reasoning, and to grasp the superiority of reflective thinking and evaluation over the impulsive and uninformed rush to judgment and decision.
In the course of helping students to identify, ask, and begin to answer important questions in history, geography, economics, and civics and government, knowledgeable teachers decide which specific content and skills merit greatest emphasis and practice. Teachers ought to give sustained, consistent attention to distinctions among the following: knowledge (judgment verified, proven, demonstrated, or confirmed by evidence); informed opinion (judgment supported by evidence); uninformed or mere opinion (belief without evidence); bias and prejudice (belief in spite of contravening evidence); scapegoating and stereotyping (prejudice based on radical and unfair oversimplification); open mindedness (receptiveness to new evidence); narrow mindedness (receptiveness only to evidence in favor of one's opinions, special pleading); and closed mindedness (unwillingness to seek, heed, or listen to evidence). Over time, students who have become familiar with these distinctions will learn to reflect thoughtfully and to conduct reliable research.
Good teachers explain such distinctions explicitly, as developmentally appropriate, but they illuminate them also by concentrating on the specific "how to" knowledge students need in order to understand subject matter content:
- how to understand and use maps, globes, and visual representations of quantitative data (including graphs, charts, and tables);
- how to speak and write clearly and accurately;
- how to understand and distinguish cause, effect, sequence, and correlation; long-term and short-term causal relations; and limitations on determining causes and effects;
- how to gather, interpret, and assess evidence from multiple and sometimes conflicting sources; how to distinguish relevant evidence from irrelevant information; how to assess the applicability of different forms of analysis, such as costs and benefits, to specific cases;
- how to distinguish knowledge from various forms of opinion; how to minimize avoidable error; how to identify valid and fallacious arguments; how to test hypotheses; how to identify and avoid bias and prejudice; how and how not to compare present and past and infer lessons from the past; how to distinguish sound generalizations from false oversimplifications;
- how to enter in thought and imagination the point of view of others; how to memorize with understanding rather than merely by rote [Teachers may find it useful to refer to p. 36 of the English Language Arts Curriculum Framework: "Memorizing poetry, speeches, or dialogue from plays can engage students in listening closely to the sounds and rhythmic sequences of words. Young children delight in making a poem their own by committing it to memory. Since memorization and recitation or performance require repeated reading of a poem or speech, these techniques can often help older students find layers of meaning that they might not discover in a single reading. As many adults know, the poems, songs, and speeches learned in the classroom often last in memory long after they graduate." The same points hold for history, social science, and other subject areas.];
- how to distinguish intentions and intended consequences of action from unanticipated and unpredicted effects; how to recognize and appreciate the force of accident, confusion, oversight, error, and unreason in human affairs;
- how to pay sufficient heed to the limits of our understanding and knowledge in matters of great complexity without underestimating the extent to which we may come to know, or at least to reach, judgments supported by evidence.
"How to" knowledge cannot be acquired in a vacuum divorced from subject matter content. Skills must be learned through the detailed study of subject matter. A map has to be a map of someplace, whether real or fictional. An hypothesis is intended to explain specific phenomena. The limitations of our knowledge vary with the particulars of specific casesthe availability of specific artifacts, documents, and records; the survival of particular ruins; the specific technology needed to reach a particular sunken ship. The relevance of a form of analysis depends on the specific questions to be answered, just as which sources of information are useful varies with the specific subjects and issues to be addressed. Comparisons of present and past require concentration on parallel details of each.
Knowing how to frame a problem or conduct research in history and social science depends on knowing that some important facts are well establishedwhen and where certain events occurred, who was involved or affected, and other matters of consequence that students need to learn. Students must also learn proper definitions of words and concepts. This curriculum framework deliberately emphasizes both knowing "how" and knowing "that," because becoming knowledgeable and adept at learning calls for both.
Knowing when and how to apply a particular technique of research in inquiry is achieved in the course of acquiring relevant factual knowledge in the subject area. A good curriculum develops how-to knowledge hand in hand with the learning of specific and detailed subject matter content. Students who study such a curriculum come to understand enduring questions and emerging issues in history and social science in progressively greater depth. By properly designing curricula, courses, and instruction in history, social science, humanities, arts, languages, natural sciences, and mathematicsand paying heed to their integration and natural overlapteachers can lead students toward understanding of humanity and human events.
As students practice applying intellectual skills to academic content, they are positioned to discern our common humanity and our individual differences as well as the importance of individuals and associations of individuals in the drama of history. By learning the rights that governments should be designed to secureand forms of government that have trampled human rightsthey are enabled to grasp the responsibilities of citizens in exercising and protecting human and civil rights for everyone.