How Students Learn History in the Classroom IV

Some students think alternative historical accounts are created when people deliberately distort the truth, usually because they are ‘biased.’ The everyday idea of bias as something like taking sides allows students to attempt to solve the problem by looking for accounts written by someone neutral. This approach makes sense for everyday clashes between two people with clear interests in some practical outcome (Who started the fight?), but it does not work for history, where alternative accounts may have nothing to do with taking sides over a practical issue. The ideal of neutrality is sometimes broadened into writing from a ‘perspective-free’ stance.

Such ideas will cause difficulties for students until they can see that stories are not so much copies of the past as ways of looking at it. The key notion here is that stories order and make sense of the past; they do not reproduce it. There can be no ‘complete’ story of the past, only accounts within the parameters authors unavoidably set when the decide which questions to ask…. All this means that accounts demand selection, and therefore a position from which selection is made. A point of view is not merely legitimate but necessary; perspective-free accounts are not possible. Research suggests that some students already understand this point by the end of eighth grade. They know we can assess the relative merits of alternative accounts by asking the right questions. What are the accounts claiming to tell us? What questions are they asking? Are they dealing with the same themes? Are they covering the same time span? How do they relate to other accounts we accept and other thing we know?”

Excerpted from: Donovan, M. Suzanne, and John D. Bransford, eds. How Students Learn History in the Classroom. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005.

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