Teaching and Learning History - 100416

Classroom Applications


Nurturing Historical Thinking in 4th Graders:
Some Personal Reflections

By Jeffery D. Nokes
Brigham Young University

In July 1776, about 2,000 miles from where the Declaration of Independence had recently been adopted, two Franciscan priests led an expedition out of Santa Fe, Spain’s capital of New Mexico, searching for a route to the newly established Catholic mission at Monterey, California. Reports of deep, impassable canyons carved by the Colorado River discouraged Fathers Dominguez and Escalante from taking a direct route. Instead, they traveled north, passing through what is now southwestern Colorado and into eastern Utah. As they continued west, early winter storms in central Utah raised doubts about their potential for success. Seeking to know divine will, they cast lots and determined to return to Santa Fe. Turning south, the Fathers encountered the canyons of northern Arizona. With great difficulty they eventually found a place to approach the Colorado River, made a successful crossing, climbed the perilous cliffs to the south, and continued home to Santa Fe. In spite of their failure to achieve their mission’s objective, Dominguez and Escalante left behind a journal and maps that gave information to Europeans about an unfamiliar region.

Map of the Dominguez and Escalante 1776 Expedition Route.

The story of Dominguez and Escalante is part of the dynamic history of Utah, a subject studied by all fourth-graders in that state. As my son entered fourth-grade, I volunteered to go into his class each week and teach document-based lessons on the history of Utah. Although I had taught using primary source documents at the middle school, high school, and university level, and had even experimented with document-based lessons in upper elementary grades, I had never before tried to use primary sources with students so young. My experiences with these delightful children, though not formally researched, showed me that with the correct scaffolding, even nine- and ten-year olds can begin to question, read, think, talk, draw, and write about history in surprisingly sophisticated ways. One way that I provided scaffolding was by using the metaphors of historians as detectives, jurors, imaginers, and decision-makers to elicit different elements of historical thinking and historical consciousness.

Student-historians as detectives
For example, after telling the story of Dominguez and Escalante I reported to students that in September 1776 Escalante recorded in his journal that they camped for three days with Ute Indians near a lake they called Laguna de los Timpanogos. Students were given the challenge to work as detectives to try to identify that lake. I explained that they would be given more clues from Escalante’s journal along with a Utah road map to help them figure out which lake it was.

Several students had heard of Mount Timpanogos and assumed that Laguna de los Timpanogos would be located nearby. They searched their maps, found Mount Timpanogos, and saw seven or eight nearby lakes. The class developed hypotheses and debated before receiving a clue from Escalante’s journal that described four large rivers flowing into Laguna de los Timpanogos from the east. Students, working in small groups, turned to their maps and began to reconsider the possible lakes, looking for a body of water that had several streams that flowed into it. They reviewed their former hypotheses, ruled some lakes out, and narrowed down the possibilities to four or five lakes.

The subsequent clue was a map created by Miera y Pacheco, who accompanied the expedition. The map showed Laguna de los Timpanogos in the upper left corner connected to a similarly sized, unnamed lake to the north. It also gave clues about the position of the lake compared to other landmarks such as the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Students again turned to their road maps and debated their theories.

Miera Y Pacheco's map from the Dominguez and Escalante 1776 Expedition

Finally I gave the last clue, also from Escalante’s journal:
“The Laguna de los Timpanogos is connected by a river with a larger lake to the north. This larger lake occupies many leagues [is very large] and its waters are very harmful and salty; the Laguna Indian assured us that anyone who moistened any part of the body with the salty water would at once feel the part bathed greatly irritated.”
This clue made it clear that the mysterious lake was connected to the Great Salt Lake by a river. Referring to their road maps, students quickly concluded correctly that Laguna de los Timpanogos was modern Utah Lake.

This lesson showed that framing history as a mystery and positioning students as detectives could lead them to use evidence to develop, test, and defend theories and interpretations. The metaphor of a detective, coupled with the design of the activity, promoted the use of primary sources as evidence. Throughout the course of the school year several other activities were provided that used primary sources to answer similar types of questions. However, as these types of lessons promoted some elements of historical thinking they discouraged others. For instance, historians, unlike detectives, do not generally look for one, universally agreed upon, correct answer to a simple question. I determined that a different metaphor, used at other times during the school year, might help students engage in other aspects of historical thinking.

Student-historians as jurors

In the activity on Dominguez and Escalante, the evidence all pointed to the same conclusion. However, historians often face conflicting accounts of an event. To introduce this concept to the fourth graders, I modified a lesson developed by the Stanford History Education group based on a hypothetical cafeteria fight that the principal of the school investigates (see http://sheg.stanford.edu/lunchroom-fight). I asked students to imagine that there had been an incident on the playground involving five or six students. If their teacher wanted to understand what had happened she might have each of the people involved tell her one-by-one what had happened. The descriptions that these children would tell their teacher would be called “accounts.” The class discussed whether each of the accounts would be exactly the same and why there would probably be differences. When given this scenario, these nine- and ten-year-olds understood sophisticated elements of historical thinking, including the impact of a witness’ perspective on their account, choices about what to include in or exclude from an account, and the possibility that two differing accounts might both be accurate from a particular point of view. We talked about why some accounts might be more trustworthy than others. Eventually, I used the metaphor of historians as jurors in a trial. They hear accounts from different witnesses and have to piece together a story from conflicting stories that represent multiple perspectives.

Throughout the course of the year several activities were conducted during which students were given conflicting evidence from multiple perspectives and were asked to develop an interpretation. Students considered, for instance, whether a violent encounter at Bear River between a volunteer army and a band of Shoshone Indians should be called a battle or a massacre. During a different lesson, students looked at conflicting accounts of the conflict between Johnston’s Army, sent by President Buchanan in 1857 to put down what he viewed was a Mormon Rebellion, and the Utah territorial militia, sent by Governor Brigham Young to delay the army’s arrival (an event referred to as the Utah War). We studied different accounts that explain why statehood was delayed for Utah Territory. We considered who was to blame for the 1900 mining disaster at Scofield Mine using conflicting accounts of the incident. Repeated practice with contradictory accounts, and repeated reminders about the hypothetical incident on the playground and of their role as a juror, helped students develop increasing skill in considering the source of an account, comparing across accounts, thinking critically about accounts, and making judgments about the reliability of accounts.

Student-historians as imaginers

Tapping into the creative energy of these youngsters, I sometimes gave them opportunities to work as historian-imaginers. I taught them the vital role of imagination in historical study, suggesting that historians have to imagine contexts that are very different from our current conditions. I explained to them a few rules of historical imagination—that historians’ imaginations were constrained by the laws of physics, by the available technology during the time period they studied, and by historical evidence. I spoke with students about inference making, an imaginative process, helping them understand that good inferences are usually simple, based upon evidence, and based upon accurate background knowledge. To illustrate, I explained that if historians had evidence that Abraham Lincoln was in one city one day and in another city the next day, and there was no train between them, they could imagine that he took a carriage between the two cities. However a historian could not imagine that he had flown in a pink helicopter because that technology did not exist at the time, nor was it the simplest explanation. The pink helicopter image stuck with the students.

Students had opportunities to engage as historian-imaginers on a few occasions during the school year. After learning about the development of mining in Utah, students created their own turn-of-the-twentieth-century mining community. Students explored primary sources associated with the mining town of Bingham (now abandoned), including a sketched map of the town, memoirs from former residents, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century photographs. They also looked at Google Earth images of several other mining communities to discover patterns in the nature of mining towns. They discovered that most mining towns were built in the mountains and had a winding main street that followed the canyon floor. Other winding roads connected scattered neighborhoods.

Photograph of Highland Boy, a mining community located in Bingham Canyon

After studying evidence students were given a large sheet of butcher paper and, in small groups, mapped out their mining town. Students had an easy time imagining the physical context, placing their town in the mountains and creating winding roads with scattered communities that represented various ethnic groups. Students had a much more difficult time imagining the social context. They did not want to follow the previously described rules constraining their historical imaginations, creating streets lined with toy stores and candy shops that contrasted starkly with the photographs of hardware stores, inns, and saloons we had looked at as evidence. One group even had a heliport designed specifically for pink helicopters, an obvious rebellion against the constraints of historical imagination I had tried to establish. In the end, I appreciated their creativity, acknowledging that children, many of whom still believe in Santa Claus, may need to be given extra latitude when it comes to historical imagination.

As an additional element of historical imagination, I often asked students to develop original explanations for the historical evidence we viewed. For example, during one class, students looked at census records and made inferences about the patterns that they saw. One student noticed that the 1870 census showed 403 Chinese people living in Box Elder County. This number stood out because there were only 43 Chinese living in the rest of the state. Further, it was viewed as an oddity that the Chinese made up the third largest immigrant group in that county when English and Scandinavian immigrants populated every other county in Utah. The young man who made the discovery wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery. After a few minutes of brainstorming, another young man grabbed the edges of his desk and jumped to his feet and exclaimed, “I got it!” He then explained how the photographs that we had analyzed the previous week had shown a lot of Chinese railroad workers. The golden spike completing the transcontinental railroad had been driven in Box Elder County in 1869, the young man explained, and many of the Chinese railroad workers were still there when the census was completed the following year. This student’s interpretation met the rules of historical imagination by being simple, by accounting for the evidence, and by incorporating accurate background knowledge.

1870 Utah Census

Student-historians as decision-makers

A fourth metaphor, and a role that students cherished, was that of a decision-maker. On many occasions I asked students to work as a decision-maker, using the mistakes and successes that people have experienced in the past to help us make better decisions today and in the future. For example, during one class we used lessons learned from hosting the 2002 Winter Olympic Games to make a decision about whether to attempt to host the games in the future, specifically in 2026. We considered both quantitative evidence, such as charts showing tourism dollars, as well as historical evidence, such as a brief recording of one of the ski races from 2002. (Students watched the 1-minute race found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBnHYCElEsQ counting twelve different times that a viewer would read “Salt Lake” on a banner or uniform.) The pros and cons of tourism and other aspects of hosting the Olympics were then debated. In the end, most students supported Salt Lake City’s bid to host the 2026 games.

Using historical antecedents to establish wise policies is an example of historical consciousness, the use of the historical past to interpret and understand the present and future. Although I didn’t talk explicitly about historical consciousness with the class, I did try to find opportunities to apply lessons learned from the past into their lives. One opportunity to do so came when students in small groups analyzed photographs related to the construction of the transcontinental railroad, using a t-chart to record observations and inferences. Students subsequently explained their group’s analysis to the class with their photograph projected for the class to see. Working as a class, we subsequently analyzed a famous photograph celebrating the completion of the transcontinental railroad. With my prodding, students realized that the Chinese workers, so prominent in many of the other pictures, were absent from the celebration photograph. We then talked about why they might be absent—why might they have been excluded from the celebration and/or the photograph? Students were upset that a racial group would have been left out as they were. Applying the lessons from history to today we spoke about how we sometimes still exclude people based on their race, gender, religion, or other traits. Students left the lesson more committed to be aware of the way they might be more inclusive of others, particularly those viewed as different from themselves.

Photograph taken to celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railroad, 10 May, 1869

I had a unique experience teaching fourth graders history with primary sources, much different from my experiences working with middle school, high school, and university students. At the start of the year I was uncertain whether students so young could engage in historical reading, thinking, and writing. I found that given the right scaffolding they could not only engage in these processes but could do so in surprisingly sophisticated ways. Sure, they were still fourth graders, with their accompanying wiggles, tears, and boundless imagination. But they could also make sense of political cartoons, decipher complex numerical charts, analyze video evidence, consider the source of journal entries, and think critically about photographs if given the proper support. At the end of the school year, their teacher reported that many students recalled the Utah History lessons as some of the most exciting activities they had done all year. Framing their work as detectives, jurors, imaginers, and decision-makers, in addition to providing other types of scaffolding, was instrumental in eliciting historical thinking from these children.

References and Resources:

Barton, K. C. (1996). Narrative simplifications in elementary students’ historical thinking. In J. Brophy (Ed.), Advances in research on teaching vol. 6: Teaching and learning in history. Greenwhich, CT: JAI Press.

Barton, K. C. (1997). “I just kinda know”: Elementary students' ideas about historical evidence. Theory & Research in Social Education, 25(4), 407-430.

Brophy, J. E., & VanSledright, B. (1997). Teaching and learning history in elementary schools. Teachers College Press.

Fertig, G. (2005). Teaching elementary students how to interpret the past. The Social Studies, 96(1), 2-8.

Levstik, L. S., & Barton, K. C. (2005).  Doing history: Investigating with children in elementary and middle schools.  3rd ed.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Nokes, J. D. (2014). Elementary students’ roles and epistemic stances during document-based history lessons. Theory and Research in Social Education, 42, 3, 375-413.

VanSledright, B. (2002). In search of America’s past: Learning to read history in elementary school.  New York: Teachers College Press.


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