Recent News - Virtual Gazebo

Bias Bugaboo

July 28, 2009 - 3:59 PM

It's a blue sky day in Iowa.  The sort of blue that frequently bows across western landscapes, but is more often muted by humidity in our corner of the Midwest.   I need to head to the farmer's market for salsa ingredients, but decided to first start the day in the gazebo, cup of coffee on the shelf to my left, our red heeler, Sage, lying by my chair. 

This morning I contemplate a problem that seems all but endemic in how students perceive the nature of historic evidence.   British researchers, American researchers, Portuguese researchers all have identified the problem.  It is this:  When students learn that historic sources/evidence have authors and that those authors have particular perspectives, students often react by deciding that such evidence is hopelessly tainted by that perspective.  The assumption follows that since all sources are untrustworthy, historians' interpretations of those sources must be undefendable.   

Bruce VanSledright situates this student reaction within what he calls the "interpretive paradox" that lies at the heart of how we construct history (2002).  The paradox is that historians' claims are human interpretations of human interpretations of events.  Denis Shemilt of Great Britain has his own name for this conundrum; he calls it the "hazard of infinite regress" and compares the construction of historic claims to the construction of a house in a swamp.  The foundation pilings never reach bedrock; they can only reach a point of stability to support a particular structure at a particular moment in time (1987).  Peter Lee, labeled one dimension of the student misunderstanding of the paradox a case of treating evidence as Testimony: the past is reported either well or badly.  To determine which camp a piece of evidence falls into, students use a simple binary criteria; a source is either "right or wrong" rather than topical or perspectival (1993).  

The interesting thing about this student misconception is that it seems to accompany growth in awareness about the nature of evidence, namely that evidence is created by people whose perspectives and motives must be taken into account if we are to make accurate use of their records or artifacts.  Bruce VanSledright articulated this eloquently in his 2002 descriptions of working with 5th grade students.  By having the students explore a mystery in colonial history that cannot be solved given the available evidence, he hoped the students would learn that there is no factual single story of the past magically pre-existing in a book.  He hoped the students would come to understand that history is an interpretive process in which claims are considered more or less defendable based on their relationship to evidence.  Instead, the students exchanged one misconception for another.  While they were at first oblivious to the authors of evidence and hence uncritically took everything they read at face value, once the students realized evidence has a human source, they skeptically decided nothing could be believed. 

In her 2003 essay, Ruth Sandwell addresses this issue.  She describes activities she uses in her college history courses to move students past the paradox pothole. 

What does all this mean for Bringing History Home, for teaching history in grades K-5?  I've reached the conclusion it means we need to purge history instruction of the words "bias" and "reliability", at least when we are discussing evidence (or historian's accounts -- but I'll save that related issue for another meditation.)   I propose we replace the banished terms with concepts such as "perspective" and "values" and "experiences".  And that we always place responsibility for how to use evidence in the hands of the reader rather than the author.  By wondering, "What can we ask of this document (or letter or image)?"  rather than "What does this document tell us?", we never have to enter territory where we discard a document purely on the grounds that its information is tainted by "bias".  It's only tainted if we ask the wrong questions. 

Virtual Gazebo

June 28, 2009 - 9:18 PM

Welcome to a virtual gazebo for exploring the literature of history teaching and learning.  Any comments herein are purely my opinion and don't reflect some meta-position on the part of the larger BHH community.

With that disclaimer established, I'll try to explain the origin and purpose for this blog...

The blind man feeling the elephant is an apt analogy for how I've developed a relationship with the history ed literature.  Over the years I've scaffolded an understanding of the major frameworks that have been developed to explain how children make sense of the components of history.  But I was a spectator to the texts I read, a bit like the novice reader of history in Sam Wineburg's On the Reading of Historical Texts (2001).  I read them largely as received wisdom, though I would make notes in the margins, such as "This is BHH!" or "I see this in our 2nd graders!"  My relationship with the literature began to change when I one day said, "Wow, the students I've observed in BHH classrooms can do so much more than this research team is saying children of this age can do."   And while the study that triggered that reaction was particularly ill-conceived and interpreted, and shall be nameless in this particular blog post, it nonetheless provided a service.  It shifted my relationship to the literature from receiving to participating.  I use "participating" loosely -- I only just submitted my first piece for peer review publication last year -- as a description of how I read.  

While my book margins have always been messy places of musings and connections, they've now become sites of affirmation and argument unbeknownst to the writers that filled the spaces between those margins.  I frequently reach the end of a paper or chapter and wish I could invite the author to my gazebo for a glass of sangria and an evening considering the permuations of their studies, their data and their interpretations and conclusions about said data. 

Given that there is no time to even share such conversation with fellow readers much less the authors, I've resorted to beginning this blog.  I want to see if a virtual gazebo is a workable surrogate for the real thing.  I have my doubts.  Essentially, I'm still scribbling in the margins.  But at least if others are looking for a bit of information on a paper or two, maybe they'll find their way here and make some use of my musings. 

I will try to include in each entry a link to a bibliography on the web that may be of use to members of various parts of the history ed K-PhD community.  In that spirit, I start off with the bibliography of Works on the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning History:    This is on the site of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History.  Several leading British history ed researchers of the late 20th and early 21st century aren't included on the  bib.  But the SOTL-H site includes an open invitation for members to send in additional titles, so it's a work in progress. 

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