Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 12:40 EDT

Historical Inquiry in a Methods Classroom: Examining Our Beliefs and Shedding Our Old Ways

February 9, 2006

By Fragnoli, Kristi

Key wards: reflecting on social studies goals, social studies methods strategies, teaching with primary documents

Historical inquiry is a multifaceted phenomenon. S. G. Grant describes it as “the passion for pulling ideas apart and putting them back together” (2000, 196). Historical inquiry as an instructional strategy benefits students and the classroom dynamic. It promotes students’ appreciation of their personal histories while they are exploring others’ histories. Students are more engaged in the subject than they would be in a class in which the teacher requires only rote memorization of minute facts. According to Levstik and Barton (1997), the memorization of isolated facts rarely advances students’ conceptual understanding. Historical inquiry introduces students to the tools of historians and requires them to question, explore, test, and argue their thoughts and opinions. Foster and Padgett capture the essence of the approach, noting that “genuine historical inquiry demands that students learn to ask authentic questions, to select and examine historical evidence, to appreciate historical context, to evaluate divergent perspectives, and to reach, albeit tentatively, logical conclusions” (1999. 2). The study that I report in this article concerns the way in which preservice teachers negotiate historical inquiry-based teaching and learning in relation to their preexisting conceptions of social studies as a discipline. Another concern was finding whether having an understanding of historical inquiry influences pedagogy.

Design and Method

The study took place in a four-year college located in New York State, and participants were students in the childhood education program who were seeking initial certification for grades one through six in New York State and reciprocal states. Two undergraduate classes in methods for teaching social studies and English language arts in the elementary classroom participated in the study. Class A consisted of fourteen undergraduate students, and Class B had twenty-four undergraduate students.

In this article, I present a case study of how preservice teachers negotiate their preexisting conceptions of the discipline and instructional practices of social studies with new and innovative techniques that are based on historical inquiry. I examined the thoughts and opinions that form preservice teachers’ historical understanding at the start of a semester and compared those to the students’ thoughts and opinions at the end of the semester. The goal was to introduce instructional strategies and new historical understandings. I surveyed the students at the start of the course to learn their various perceptions of elementary social studies by using two instruments, an information sheet and a reflective journal, and I collected the journals at the end of the semester. I asked the students to reflect in their journals after specific method classes and videotaped five class sessions during the semester. I also kept a journal in which I laid out the goals for each session. After the students viewed the videotape, they added more reflections to their journals.

My journal reflections and those of the students, along with the videos of specific classroom experiences, were analyzed holistically. I was looking for patterns, trends, and categories in the data to uncover how preservice teachers negotiated their historical understanding in light of the instructional strategies they had experienced.

The Interplay of Conceptual Understanding with Instructional Practices

The data collected throughout the semester were analyzed using a portion of activity theory presented by Grossman, Smagorinsky, and Valencia (1999) in Appropriating Tools for Teaching English: A Theoretical Framework for Research on Learning to Teach, an article that contains a framework for illuminating the process that occurs in teaching teachers how to teach, and in turn, the process that occurs when teachers are learning how to teach. The authors describe the activity theory as one that “emphasizes the importance of settings in learning to teach, focusing on the social and cultural factors that mediate development in particular contexts” (1). The activity framework helps in organizing the data that allow for a focused view on how elementary school preservice teachers develop conceptual understandings and specific practices for teaching social studies. For the study, I used three components of the activity theory framework: individual characteristics of the learner, apprenticeship of observation, and knowledge of content.

Individual Characteristics of the Learner

According to Grossman, Smagorinsky, and Valencia (1999), the varied reasons that lead preservice teachers to want to teach are likely to mediate what they expect to learn from their professional preparation. Each student needs to examine his or her personal makeup by asking the following questions:

Why did I enter teaching as a career?

How do I learn and where do the ideas come from?

How do I feel about social studies?

How was I taught?

What kind of teacher do I want to be and why?

During the initial class meeting, students reflected on their past experiences and responded in their journals to the motivating factors leading to their decision to enter teaching. The following are excerpts from a sampling of students’ reflection journals to the question: Why did you enter teaching?

This is a career change for me. After I had my son, I observed the learning at every stage, it was the most remarkable thing I have ever experienced. I just knew that I wanted to play a role in helping students reach their fullest potential.

I enjoy the ideas of having each work day be completely different from the one before; I enjoy being active and creative, and thinking of ways to present information to capture student interest and increase motivation.

It was evident that many students enter teaching in hopes of “making a difference” and described the difference as having an “impact on children and/or impact on changing society.” Teaching is seen as a powerful tool of transformation. For some students, the concept of transformation may have influenced the decision to enter teaching, but policy and bureaucracy have tainted that view, as some students reported.

I had this wonderful idea of being a role model and making a difference. This was before I was put through test after test, formatted lessons and unit plans, and all of the other wonderful things to make sure that I fit into elementary schools that (1 now found out) are filled with test after test.

I liked the idea about making learning fun and interesting; then I found out about the standards, testing, and pacing guides.

To learn the preservice teachers’ goals and perceptions of social studies pedagogy, I asked the students to write in their journals about how they believed social studies should be taught in elementary classrooms.

Students need to be “brought” into that time, place, or country and interact with it to understand how and why things were done.

Very hands-on. There will always be the boring content needed to be taught but always reinforce them with hands-on activities. Make the past come alive again for them. They will never forget it.

Time and time again students made reference to the importance of “hands-on activities,”"immersing the students within a time period,” and “making it relevant” to their lives.

Apprenticeship of Observation

The apprenticeship of observation, according to Grossman, Smagorinsky, and Valencia (1999), is the accumulated years that a student spent observing the teacher’s role and methods. According to Grossman (1991) and Lortie (1975), one’s apprenticeship of observation influences one’s beliefs and classroom practices as a teacher. It involves comparing and contrasting personality and methods of one teacher to another, while the student is, in a sense, developing a connoisseurship of teaching. Those views affect how preservice teachers appropriate new or different pedagogical ideas. The students reflected on particular teachers who had made lasting impressions:

I have had a few teachers whom I remember very well. These teachers were fun and showed me they really cared about their job. They were willing to make the material a little bit fun, and they also cared about me and the other students.

The one social studies class I remember is [the one in which] he allowed us to dress up as different presidents of the United States, and we could guess who everyone was. I remember the activity because it stands out from all of his typical worksheets!

The sample of excerpts demonstrates that the students remembered social studies classes that were pedagogically interactive and the positive affective disposition of the elementary teacher.

Some students had difficulty remembering positive experiences, and others had none from which to draw. Therefore, many had few positive memories of elementary social studies instruction, a theme captured in the following description: “Social studies were taught to me strictly as direct instruction. No doubt about it, it was painfully boring!” Some students wrote that they only remember roundrobin textbook reading and, according to one, is “something I do not \like to think about today. This type of instruction killed my desire to go to school!” Another student wrote, “Skills and drills-this created a hole in my stomach, horrible stress. I could not re member all the facts and [the teacher] would just call on you and humiliate you in front of the class. I hated social studies.”

Knowledge of Content

According to Grossman. Smagorinsky. and Valencia (1999). knowledge and beliefs about content are a “critical factor affecting the appropriation of conceptions and practices for teaching English/ language arts” (23). The same theory can be compared to social studies content. The following excerpts are preservice teachers’ reflections on their level of content knowledge:

I feel [as if] I need to run out and buy one of those ‘History for Dummies’ books, because I did not learn anything the first time around.

Boy. oh boy, do I need a refresher in what are social studies!

Further into the semester, I asked the students again to reflect on their knowledge of content, and one student offered the following:

After our many discussions. I am starting to feel a bit more comfortable with the content. I do think I will be doing a lot of research for each of my lessons, but now 1 know that multiple source research is a good thing.

Some growth in content confidence was evident, but most students still felt uneasy about entering the classroom and creating standard- based lessons.

Historical Inquiry

In addition to collecting students’ personal reflections and conceptions about the discipline. I introduced a variety of instructional strategies that focus on history as an inquiry-based discipline. Students had multiple opportunities to read, reflect, and participate in a variety of instructional strategies. Primary documents and historical objects were the main curricular material used within all the pedagogical techniques. The following are summaries of the classes and excerpts from students’ reflective journals.

Primary Document Slave Simulation Versus Textbook

In this lesson, I handed students a blank chart and asked them to examine many elementary social studies textbooks, which I provided, to see what specific information concerning slavery in the United States could be obtained from the texts. Next, as a class, we examined the photos within the texts that dealt with slavery. To their surprise, the textbook dated 1963 used the same picture as the textbooks dated 1974 and 1976. The photo showed a group of African Americans sitting under a tree along the side of a field; it seemed that they were enjoying an afternoon picnic. The textbooks dated in the 1980s and early 1990s used similar painted illustrations that were colorful and pleasant to view. One preservice student compared the drawings to a Disney production. We then viewed multiple copies of primary documents, which included slave population statistics, run-away slave ads, patents for Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, amounts of processed cotton grown on the southern plantations, and descriptions of slave quarters. At that point. I introduced the instructional strategy of simulations, which is a technique in which the teacher creates a specific environment and then allows the students to react to the created environment.

For the activity. I divided the students into groups of three and handed out a blindfold, a pair of gloves, and three bolls of cotton to each group. Their mission was to pick all the seeds out of the boll and remove any leaves or dirt particles. I designed the simulation so that each student took part. One person in the group wore a blindfold, the second had one arm tied to the chair, and the third wore gloves. We discussed that each restriction represented a physical disability that a slave may have had to deal with while working. Other handicaps included exhaustion, working late at night with little light, or working with multiple injuries or ailments. When the students started on their task of removing the debris from the cotton boll, I read through numerous first-hand slave narratives, each centering on one of the ailments or handicaps. For example, one of the narratives included a slave who had to pick seeds out of the cotton boll after his master removed his finger nails as a punishment; another centered on the long hours of work and the difficulty of seeing the cotton under the moonlight. At the end of the simulation, I asked the students to reflect on their thoughts and emotions from the experience. Next, we viewed additional primary documents that showed that the use of the cotton gin caused an increase in the use of slaves in the production of cotton. At the end of the lesson, I asked the students to write in their journals their reflections about comparing the use of a textbook to the primary document simulation. Some of the students’ entries follow:

This method is about hypotheses-forming answers and conclusions- this is what learning is all about.

Letting your students become the historians by exploring a bunch of primary documents. Students will love to solve the mysteries.

However, some students responded in a similar vein but then added the following caveats:

Even though I know deep down [that] this is an effective strategy (it worked for me today), I am questioning my ability as a teacher to put this all together.

It is great, but as a new teacher, will I have the resources to put this together?

You have to know history to send the students on this trail of exploration. I do not think I could create this packet.

Object-based Inquiry: What Can We Learn When We Touch History?

The classroom contained four centers with artifacts and primary documents. Within each center, the group had a challenge or essential question that they needed to answer, using the objects, documents, and their prior knowledge.

The first center was Guess the Object and was filled with a variety of historical objects, such as butter churns, cobbler tools, tooth extractor, and more. Students had to observe, form a hypothesis, and then demonstrate how the object was used.

At the second center, there was a World War II collection of items that included postcards of concentration camps, military uniforms, a carrier pigeon holder, a diary entry of a soldier, photos of what was occurring on the home front, and letters about salvage campaigns.

At the third center, which included material focusing on children in the 1800s, the students were to pretend that they were museum curators who had to decide what all the objects and documents had in common and to create an exhibit for their museum. The items were butter churns, weaving cards, hoop game, ball and cup, Jacob’s ladder, paper dolls, sampler, and a child’s diary entry.

The last center was titled Medical Center: Oh! How Far We Have Come. I asked the students to answer scaffolded questions and then reflect on the information learned throughout the process of analyzing the provided material. Included in this center were death census records from 1860, medical books for reference material, student health textbooks, a variety of medicine jars and tins, and a few advertisements for cure-all medicine.

After students had completed two of the four centers, the class as a whole group discussed the historical objects. I asked for reasons for using objects in an elementary social studies classroom, and the students provided multiple reasons for the strategy. They mentioned motivation, critical thinking, teaching justification, testing and proving hypothesis, and providing equal opportunity for all students to succeed in activities that were not based on reading level. We concluded the class with a reflection on this strategy. The general themes, repeated in many journals, are reflected in the following excerpts:

It is a great opportunity to motivate the children by somewhat placing them in the time period.

Trigger curiosity, use other skills rather than reading, manipulating, touching, observing. Relate to how things change over time = all of this accomplished with artifacts.

I made the following note in my teacher reflection journal at the completion of the class experience:

Students were all on task through out the entire period. Some students struggled with picking up the objects and playing with them, it is as if they were trained not to touch and just observe from afar. I am glad I spoke of children’s natural propensity to explore, touch, smell, and even taste. These college students seem to have lost (or had driven from them) their natural tendency towards curiosity. An activity like this allows elementary students to use these natural tendencies to develop historical understanding and historical analysis skills. This process may be difficult for preservice teachers to latch on to.

The students struggled with the actual lesson but reflected that they believed it was an important strategy in teaching elementary students. A gap seems to appear between their beliefs and their comfort level in dealing with this particular strategy.

Final Class Reflection

After the end of the semester, students reflected on their previous beliefs in relation to their beliefs and knowledge at the conclusion of the course. A sample excerpt follows:

My thoughts of how social studies should be taught have been reinforced by/in this class. I will be sure to use simulations in my classroom! Wonderful ideas have been presented and shared in this class.

Some students stated that although the class did not change their thoughts about social studies as a discipline or their goals and aspirations as social studies teachers, it did provide instructional strategies that match to their preexisting thoughts. One student’s comments follow:

Did the class change this view or alter or create it, not really. I have always thought I wanted to spice it up, in hopes that my students would develop a love of learning. This class demonstrated different strategies on how to spice it up and make the materiala bit more relevant to the typical elementary student.

Then, there were the students who struggled with their ability to implement the strategies on a regular basis within an elementary classroom. For some students, it was a lack of content confidence; for others, it was a lack of ability to put together components of the strategy and apply it to another topic within the field of social studies. Their comments follow:

I think this is great. I enjoyed it, but will I use this in my classroom? I do not think I could.

I would not know where to start in creating my own activity like this. I would think you have to know your content of the topic you are teaching pretty well to be able to get this all together.

Yeah, objects are great for kids, but where would I start? I wish T could buy a kit.

Final Thoughts and Implications

From the preservice teachers’ reflective excerpts, I decided that the methods course was a success because new instructional strategies were introduced, practiced, and reflected on. However, gaps appeared in the data of student reflections. Students noted that they enjoyed the experiences of using primary documents, object- based instruction, and simulations but lacked confidence in their abilities and their content knowledge to be able to create a historical inquiry activity using these sources. The preservice teachers’ prior knowledge of content and their comfort level with the content will affect the instructional strategies used in their teaching. It is crucial that teachers feel comfortable with and confident in the content for a particular lesson. With high confidence in one’s knowledge of content comes the ability for preservice teachers to manipulate and break down the content into workable units for their students. In addition, more confidence in content area allows the teacher to identify interdisciplinary or thematic ties to the material, which adds to the effectiveness of a lesson.

Students reported that object-based instruction added multiple positive aspects to teaching. Many, however, struggled with acquiring them or even knowing how to connect specific objects with specific pieces of curriculum. Take a preservice teacher struggling with the causes of the World War II. That student might incorporate primary document use. as he or she was taught to do in the methods course, but when the preservice teacher does not understand the contextual knowledge analyzed from the document, then he or she will not be an effective facilitator for the students. The content knowledge has to be mastered by the teacher before he or she can provide what Vygotsky (1978) called “scaffolding” the students along the knowledge spectrum.

The apprenticeship of observation became evident when the preservice teachers compared and contrasted methods strategies that they have observed along their educational spectrum. The process developed a sense of connoisseurship of teaching for the preservice teachers. In their reflections, they demonstrated that they were experiencing a form of internal discourse with the method class learning experience and their life experiences. Through this process one might think that preservice teachers would enter their own teaching classroom promoting strategies that they deemed to be the best practices. The preservice teachers’ reflections, however, demonstrate that they did not feel empowered or confident to move those instructional strategies to their classroom.

Teaching is a complex and personal process, one filled with expression of knowing and assisting in developing others’ knowledge. Professors in methods classes must remember that defining a best practice cannot be a sweeping generalization but must be based on the individual characteristics and goals of the preservice teacher. Teachers’ practices can be informed through reflection on their goals, but still many questions or obstacles will subsequently arise.

Teachers may not be conscious of the reasons or the motivations behind their actions, be they curricular or instructional based. From this study. I concluded that that it is important for professors of preservice teachers to stress the reflective practice necessary for the improvement of social studies education. Preservice teachers need to experience the process of articulating their goals and beliefs in relation to new knowledge gained through course work. They need experience and practice in making that typically unconscious act conscious and reflective. Through that process, preservice teachers can identify the gaps between their beliefs and practices.

This study is evidence of preservice teachers identifying their belief in the use of primary documents in elementary instruction and the feasibility of implementing that strategy. It offers a view of the relationship between theory and practice, once viewed as the means and ends and now as a melded union of parts (Dewey 1904). The view represents a dialectical relationship, in which theory and practice interact (Clandinin and Connelly 1998). Elbaz’s (1993) description complements Dewey’s dialectical relationship in demonstrating how the world of practice continually shapes the teacher’s knowledge and, conversely, how the teacher structures the practical situation in accordance with his or her knowledge and purpose. Decisions about curriculum and instruction tend to be based on more practical theories that guide teachers in their decisions and actions within the classroom setting (Dewey 1904).

It may be that reflecting on the contrasts between the different contexts of beliefs and understanding will stimulate preservice teachers to articulate and define their own beliefs further. How preservice students mitigate their beliefs and personal contexts, when mingled with their social studies methods course, may greatly affect the instructional strategies used within elementary classrooms. The key to this reflection is preservice teachers’ identification of the contradictions between their theories and practices and movement toward self-awareness and improvement. As Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education, “The things which we take for granted without inquiry or reflection are just the things [that] determine our conscious thinking and decide our conclusions” (Ross 1994, 40).

Teachers use objects in elementary social studies classes to promote critical thinking and for testing and proposing a hypothesis. Use of objects provides an opportunity for all students to succeed, no matter their reading level.


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KRISTI FRACNOLI is an assistant professor of education at the College of St. Rose in Albam; New York.