"Insider Questions in History "
By Doug Buehl
When did the stock market crash, resulting in the “Great Depression”? Who did the nation turn to as president during these desperate times? What was the name for the governmental response to the Depression instituted by this president? How were people who were out of work helped by the federal government? What government programs were established? Where were important public works projects undertaken? Why did some Americans oppose this president’s efforts?
Let’s see . . . the stock market crashed in 1929, and Franklin Roosevelt was elected to lead our country out of the Depression. His program, called the “New Deal,” offered unemployment assistance and government jobs, such as the CCC, to support struggling Americans. Social Security was started, and public works such as dams on the Colorado and Tennessee Rivers, as well as libraries and post offices, were built. Some opposed Roosevelt’s programs as being “big government” and socialistic. Um . . . what else?
Who, what, where, when, why . . . those ubiquitous questions of studying history. We can probably all remember “interrogations” such as these as we scratched out answers to textbook questions. Learning history sometimes seemed an exercise in remembering a never-ending litany of who’s, what’s, when’s, and how’s.
Instead, imagine turning the tables, you interrogating the textbook. Who is telling me these things? Why does this person think I should know this? How will it help me to learn something in this area? What sense can I make out of this information? How will becoming more insightful about this facet of history help me understand myself, and my world, better?
Last month’s Reading Room emphasized “insider questions,” those questions that guide the thinking within a specific academic discipline. Insiders – people who are well-informed and experienced within a domain of knowledge – rely on posing a core of meaningful questions to organize their understanding. What would be the questions that a doctor would ask to understand the state of your health? What would be the questions an auto mechanic would ask to understand the operating condition of your car? What would be questions a meteorologist would ask to understand the coming weather? What would be the questions a nutritionist would ask to understand a person’s diet?
And what would be the questions a historian would ask to understand an event in history? Insider questions in history extend far deeper than the superficial “5 Ws” presented above. Historians would likely wonder: Why did the Great Depression occur, and what does that tell us about future economic conditions? Why did Roosevelt do what he did, and how did it work? In what ways did the New Deal change America? Who benefited from these changes? Who didn’t? What interpretation of these events makes the most sense, and what corroborating support can be identified from the facts? And how does one’s perspective influence how one regards the New Deal?
Certainly historians, like experts in other knowledge domains, know a lot of facts; they know the who’s, what’s, and when’s. But they are more focused on using facts, on examining the pertinent information to help them understand – understand historical events, actions, and phenomena. Insider questions guide historians, like other subject experts, into marshalling and organizing information so that they can make generalizations and draw conclusions.
As discussed in the last Reading Room, each academic discipline relies on its own unique set of insider questions. Certainly, more global questions can launch student learning from subject matter texts (What is the author trying to say here? What is the author’s point in telling us this? What does this author expect readers to already know? Why does the author think this is important? What perspective does the author bring to this topic?). These “generic” questions can be applied across content disciplines.
But to become accomplished as learners within a content discipline, students need mentoring in how to think like an insider, especially in generating meaningful questions. The Dialogues with Democracy project, a collaborative effort of the Cooperative Educational Service Agency 2 (CESA 2), the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and the Wisconsin Historical Society, has developed a framework for guiding students into the questioning that underlies the thinking practiced by historians. In contrast to a textbook approach which is preoccupied with the “what’s” of history (the facts), project director Nikki Mandell of the UW-Whitewater emphasizes that the study of history begins with significant questions.
Step 1: Model for students the types of questions that guide historians as they investigate the past. The Dialogues with Democracy project identified five critical questioning themes that frame historical thinking: cause and effect, change and continuity, turning points, using the past, and through their eyes (CESA 2, UWW, WHS, 2005).
- Cause and Effect. Perhaps the most elemental question in studying history is “why” – What do we know to have happened, and why did this happen? This questioning area asks students to look for results, consequences, and effects, and to clarify why they occurred. What actions did people take, and what resulted from these actions? Did something change for people, and how did these changes impact them? Did people’s actions turn out the way they expected, or were some effects unexpected? Are there different theories about what the evidence indicates happened and why?
- Change and Continuity. Historians are particularly interested in the dynamics of change. Living conditions change. Populations change. Ideas change. Technology changes. This focus area asks students to be vigilant in tracking any variables that do not remain constant for people. What changed and what remained the same? Why do some things change and other things remain much as they are? How do changes affect people? Is a particular change positive for some people and negative for others? Could these changes have worked out differently for people, if they had reacted in some other way?
- Turning Points. Some events in history are hugely influential in determining the course of future events. Historians are especially tuned into these “turning points,” when the future unfolds in a certain direction due to particular actions or changes. How were people’s lives different after this turning point? Were some people’s options and choices expanded, and others narrowed?
- Using the Past. One compelling reason for studying history is to gain insight into our present circumstances. Our experiences of today, of course, have their antecedents in the past. What are some similarities between current situations and past times? How can these similarities help us understand the present? Are there lessons from the past that we can apply to the decisions we need to make today?
- Through Their Eyes. A common “flaw” of historical study is to evaluate people through the lens of modern values and conditions. As a result, students can become quite judgmental, but not terribly insightful. How did the past actually look to the people alive at a point in history? How did the reality of their lives and times influence people’s thinking and perspectives? How did their ideas and beliefs intersect with their behavior and actions?
As you model these prototypical questions, you are inculcating the kinds of thinking central to history insiders. Instead of becoming immersed, and perhaps lost, in historical details, students are prompted to first ask questions that lead them to consult information in order to develop an interpretation of what these facts might mean.
Step 2: The logical next step, then, is to broach the questions that historians would use to identify and evaluate factual information. What do we know to be true, and how do we know it? What kinds of information would help us answer our questions, and how can we access it? Are we missing some information that could make a difference in our thinking? If so, where could we obtain this information? Are multiple interpretations of the information possible? If so, what might they be?
This step asks students to regard historical facts as critical pieces that can be assembled to a larger understanding, rather than details that must be remembered in and of themselves. Granted, some facts constitute historical literacy; students will encounter references to such facts and be expected to make some meaningful associations. However, such facts are memorable only in the context of larger understandings of history. For example, a student who remembers FDR as the president who initiated the New Deal, but who has no sense of what the New Deal was intended to accomplish and how it changed our country, has not achieved a satisfactory understanding of this period of American history.
Step 3: A third realm of historical questioning centers on authority. Students read history that is a reflection of the ideas and perspectives of specific historians. Therefore, students need to bring a critical literacy awareness to their study of history. Who is offering this “version” of history, and what perspectives does this interpretation reflect? Are other perspectives available? What information is used as a basis for this historical perspective? What information is not used or overlooked?
A particularly powerful strategy at this stage is to provide students with opportunities to do their own historical research, especially through the use of targeted primary sources. As students examine authentic documents of history, they not only put their own questions into play, but also become sensitive to the process followed by historians as they attempt to understand historical phenomena.
Students tend to ask superficial questions about historical information that do not necessarily lead them to an understanding of what they are reading and studying. Asking questions through the lens of a history insider cues students to strive to make sense of what a pattern of factual details might mean.
- Students are more motivated to approach historical study as an inquiry process rather than a discipline that emphasizes the memory of historical details.
- Students are given practice in using factual information to make generalizations and draw conclusions.
- Students are encouraged to study history by connecting events of the past to an understanding of their lives and world.
- Students are less inclined to conceptualize the study of history as a static, cut-and-dried retelling of events, and more likely to view history as dynamic and open to reinterpretation.
CESA 2, UWW, WHS (2005) Thinking Like A Historian. Dialogues With Democracy Project, funded from a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Mandell, N. (2006) Thinking Like A Historian. MMSD Social Studies Workshop, Madison, WI, October 26.
Doug Buehl, teacher, Madison East High School
Wisconsin State Reading Association.
Reading Room archives
Posted November 28, 2006