Thinking about knowing

I find myself in a teaching situation this year that requires me to emphasize factual recall more than I have done for the past few years. This is forcing me to engage in some serious introspection about what I do, how I’m doing it, and whether it’s possible to have it all.

The balancing act between “facts” and “skills” is a particularly slippery one for historians, more so at this moment in time than for any other discipline except biology, I think.  In physics and math, the things students are asked to know by heart tend to be (a) fairly finite and (b) demonstrably necessary for the ability to do things–I need to know the formula for acceleration before I can calculate the meeting place of two trains. English teachers, on the other hand, have long been comfortable subordinating their “content” to skills: when an English teacher says it is important for students to “know” Shakespeare, she tends to mean something quite different in terms of experience, outcomes, and assessments than when a history teacher says a student should “know” American history.

As a matter of fact, I’m not sure we really know what we mean by “knowing” history, or, if we do, many of us in fact mean different things at different times.  That’s a huge problem for history teachers. Every history department I have ever been in has been split by debates between advocates of “content” or “narrative” and advocates of “skills” or “habits of mind.”

I find myself torn internally by this same debate, by the competing pressures to expose students to the sweeping story of centuries and to help them see history as I do, as a shifting debate in which they can participate rather than a static account of which they are the recipients. I find myself vacillating, in my planning, between these two poles and wondering why they seem so much in opposition in my discipline. English teachers are not driven in the same way to debate the importance of reading the book vs. analyzing it, nor do I hear physics teachers arguing about whether they should teach students to employ formulae or do experiments.  I may be wrong, and I know these disciplines have their own pedagogical challenges, but I feel as though our goals as history teachers more often seem to us to be in conflict than those of my colleagues in other departments.

There are genuine tensions between breadth and depth, between carving out a manageable area for student exploration and emphasizing the fundamental interconnectedness of history, between exposing students to the complexity of expert analysis and inviting them to offer their own interpretations. I think the bigger challenge, though, is to sort out what we mean by “knowing” history. Do we mean that they should have been exposed to it, should be familiar with it?  Do we mean that they should be able to make sense of it at some deeper level, explain or apply it? Do we mean that they should know it by heart and be able to repeat it without prompting?

Are there some historical facts that are so important that students should take them on faith and commit them to memory?  How do we decide what those are? Can we articulate why students need to know them and how they will use them?

Is understanding different from knowing? Can the two stand separately?  In other words, can there be certain things that a student may not be able to produce from memory but, when provided with a memory jogging prompt, can explain and analyze with some complexity?

How do we deal with historical details which may not individually have deep significance in and of themselves but which students will need to “know” (there’s that word again–maybe I mean something here like “have access to”) in order to derive the deeper truths that we do think are important?  How can I give students enough ownership and mastery of these details to let them independently explore the bigger picture without the time spent acquiring these details over-shadowing said big questions?

I propose to spend some time and space in this blog thinking about these questions over the next little while. They are questions without simple answers, but I think that, until we engage with them, we won’t be able to escape the sense that so many history teachers have of being pulled in two directions at once.


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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