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a born-digital, open-review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki

Building a Better Textbook (Fall 2011 version)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Digital technology can revolutionize the history textbook as we know it, and it should. Publishers are already rolling out digital editions that incorporate opportunities for interactivity and media supplements; while undeniably useful, they fall distressingly short of the mark of genuine innovation. Current digital technologies, put in service of the research into historical thinking by Stanford psychologist Samuel Wineburg and others, offer the opportunity to rethink the history textbook in radical new ways. What if a textbook could be a vehicle designed not just to deliver content but to give students the opportunity to do something with that content? What if a textbook could bridge the gap between how historians do their own research and how they teach by modeling and teaching the methods of historical inquiry? This essay will explore how historians and educators might create new models for history learning that use digital tools to foster historical thinking skills, as well as deep understanding and inquiry into historical content.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 U.S. history textbooks provide two things: synthesis and survey. No one will argue that both aren’t necessary, but an increasing number of instructors are eschewing textbooks entirely or using them sparingly. At the high school level, teachers are encouraged to use primary documents; at the college level, many instructors assign monographs instead. The textbook is frequently treated as a supplement, a way to give students a basic sense of chronology and the names, dates, and places basic to U.S. history. There is a reason that textbooks are tangential in many U.S. history classrooms: in their current form, textbooks don’t help most students learn very effectively. But the need for synthesis and survey remain. Primary documents absent a sense of context, or the ability to fit them into a coherent account that explains something about the past, are of limited use. And even the best monographs don’t have the connective tissue across the survey that a good textbook can supply. The National History Education Clearinghouse (teachinghistory.org), a site developed by Wineburg and his colleagues, has an entire section devoted to helping teachers use textbooks critically to support the kinds of historical thinking skills that he and others champion. Many of these exercises have to do with teaching students to challenge the authority of the textbook and the seamless narrative it presents.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 What if, instead of relegating textbooks to the sidelines or teaching students to read them more critically, we could use digital technology to make them better? The path to improvement has been well mapped out. For more than two decades, cognitive scientists and education researchers in the U.S. and around the world have been studying how people learn about the past. In the U.S., Wineburg is the leading light; his Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past and two notable history education projects on the web (Historical Thinking Matters and the Stanford History Education Group) have gained wide recognition among history educators. Other notable researchers in the field of historical thinking and learning include Peter Seixas, Robert Bain, Nikki Mandell, and Bobbie Malone.1 This body of research has demonstrated that scholarly historians approach evidence differently from novices by attending closely to source information, reading for detail, considering multiple perspectives, corroborating information, and testing hypotheses. Identifying and making transparent these “historical habits of mind” is the foundation for devising ways to give students the tools they need to engage in the disciplinary processes of investigation and interpretation. Growing numbers of history educators have embraced the work of Wineburg and others and are undertaking the difficult and exhilarating work of making historical thinking explicit in the ways they teach. As Wineburg’s research (and our own firsthand observation) tells us, students aren’t born with historical thinking skills; they must be taught, and precious few arrive in college classrooms already possessing them. Textbooks and conventional curricula aren’t helping much; they typically include primary documents as supplements to the main narrative, but do not show how historians use such evidence to construct complementary, and sometimes competing, interpretations.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 The impulse to create a digital history textbook is not unique to the twenty-first century. In 1993 the American Social History Project at the City University of New York (ASHP) embarked on an attempt to produce the first digital U.S. history textbook, in the then nascent medium of the CD-ROM. In a moment fit for a tv movie (in that parallel universe where television makes movies in which a history textbook drives the plot), Bob Stein, a founder of the multimedia publishing company Voyager, picked up a copy of the ASHP’s print textbook Who Built America?: Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, and Society in an airport bookstore.2 Intrigued by the book, he contacted ASHP and proposed that they transform it into an electronic book. ASHP and Voyager eventually produced two Who Built America? CD-ROMs, covering the 1876-1914 and 1914-1946 sections of the original text. They used the existing textbook narrative as the spine then created numerous “excursions” off of it, which dove deeper into topics as wide-ranging as violence against German Americans during World War I, the social and cultural experience of early Hollywood films, and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Each excursion consisted of a more detailed narrative than the constraints of the main text allowed and a variety of primary sources—text, illustrations, photographs, cartoons, oral interviews, period songs, speeches, radio programs, and film clips—of the kind that historians use to construct their narratives and which, in a pre-internet age, remained largely unavailable to all but academic researchers. In some cases, excursions delved into historiographical debates among scholars. Functionally, the CD-ROM allowed users to jump to particular pages or chapters, review search history, conduct key word searches, take notes, and cut and paste text. ASHP wanted to use the new medium to do something that textbooks by their nature generally don’t do: instead of providing a seamless narrative of the past, it sought to highlight the seams and the constituent materials that went into creating the textbook’s authoritative synthesis.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 The palette of digital tools for presenting and publishing information has expanded dramatically since the days of the CD-ROM. Using current digital media, many textbook publishers have already created digitized versions of their books. Some publishing companies, such as CafeScribe and CourseSmart, are developing apps that will allow users to access e-textbooks directly on mobile devices. These e-textbooks and apps for e-textbooks allow students to search, highlight, and annotate text, and they also include built-in glossary functions. Inkling produces e-textbooks designed specifically for the iPad; they hold the promise of greater interactivity and effective use of the medium, but the company has yet to release a history textbook. None of the current history e-textbooks or apps take advantage of the interface provided by touchscreen mobile devices to allow users to manipulate information, access archival materials, or to view or listen to film or audio recordings. Neither do these e-textbooks include discipline-specific tools that might allow users to weigh historical evidence, or note examples of cause and effect or change and continuity over time.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 A new generation of digital textbooks, transformed by what we now know about how people learn history, can give students a genuinely problem-based and inquiry-based approach to learning history. Historians ply their trade by identifying a problem, surveying available evidence to see what addresses the problem, and creating an account of events that encompasses not just what happened, when it happened, and where it happened but also offers interpretations of why it happened and what people thought about it. A good history textbook should help students learn to do the same thing. Instructors routinely ask students to make such historical arguments; they bemoan the fact that their students frequently lack the skills to accomplish it. The genuine interactivity of current digital technology offers more effective ways to teach students how to make historical arguments; or, in Wineburg’s words, to think historically.

Permalink for this paragraph 5 New digital textbooks will accomplish this by solving some significant instructional problems. In the hierarchy of values of U.S. history survey textbooks, coverage tops the list. With every passing year, more history happens, and more editorial trimming and squeezing takes place to maintain comprehensive coverage while not exceeding a reasonable page length (not to mention poundage) in a printed book. Of course digital media provide an obvious solution to the physical limitations of paper, glue, bindings, and sore backs. Put that third, fourth, fifth example of a strike back in—page limits are no problem! No one wants to see digital textbooks that merely expand in length because they can, but it makes sense to shift the decisions about what to include and what to pass over to instructors, thus freeing textbook authors from the need to make draconian cuts to fit the entire survey into a predetermined page limit. Cognitive research also tells us that not all people learn most effectively or easily through reading text (although it is safe to assume that most historians do, having succeeded in traditional academic settings). Digital design affords multiple methods for presenting information and enabling students to move through it in ways that work for them rather than being dictated by the layout of a physical page. New digital textbooks can make extensive use of data visualization, an emergent literacy that students will need to master and a terrific tool for making conceptual information accessible to many learners. What holds the most promise for creating textbooks that can truly teach historical thinking skills is the opportunity to provide students with structured feedback as they make their way through the book’s evidence. A truly effective digital textbook will help students develop the cognitive skills to select evidence and make arguments while they are learning about the past. In short, a textbook that isn’t just about reading but about constructing knowledge, evaluating evidence, and developing coherent accounts of the past.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 So, what would this model digital history textbook look like? Like the excursion model of the Who Built America? CD-ROM in many ways, but far more driven by student inquiry and grounded in the abundant research we now have on historical thinking. One possibility would start by defining a problem for each unit of study. These units of study would still cover the breadth of the survey, but each unit would pose a problem or set of problems, guide students through a series of readings—some synthetic and context-setting, others primary source documents with checks for understanding—and give students the tools to assemble evidence for a summative account that they will construct. There might be regional variations—how did the same problem of, say, contact and conflict among European settlers and local Indian tribes play out in Massachusetts and Virginia? This is how historians think about history. Teachers would have the flexibility to assign one or all such units; students might even be interested enough to explore a comparative case study on their own.

Permalink for this paragraph 3 For a sample unit of study, take the example of a key question in U.S. history, “Who freed the slaves?” From the start, students would “think like a historian” by choosing one of three interpretations that scholars have brought to bear on the question of “Who freed the slaves?” After selecting their initial hypothesis, students would explore a range of evidence and viewpoints on emancipation via a map interface organized around the geography and chronology of the Civil War. The interface could also feature metrics that indicate the respective work force and troop strength of the Union and Confederacy for 1861, 1862, and 1863. Each piece of evidence would be presented with visual and textual clues about the source and context: vocabulary that can be turned on and off as needed, short biographies of the creator and other people referenced, and a distinct document style that indicates whether, for example, the evidence comprises an official military policy or the private observations of an individual soldier. There would also be comprehension questions for each piece of evidence. Rather than taking the form of open-ended “for discussion” questions often found in textbooks and document readers, these multiple-choice questions would be designed to assess basic understanding. If answered incorrectly, a screen pops up with the relevant portion highlighted so that students can focus their reading.  Once the questions have been answered correctly, users would be prompted to classify the evidence in reference to their chosen hypothesis. Because the selected evidence can be used to support more than one interpretation there is no “right” way to classify the evidence. But the textbook would indicate when a classification is questionable. For instance, if a student classifies evidence relating to abolitionist advocacy as supporting the interpretation that Lincoln freed the slaves, the user would get feedback that they have made a “questionable choice.” By the end of the inquiry, the students would have analyzed and classified between 15-20 pieces of evidence and would be prepared to develop their own arguments in written assignments designed by the instructor. Because digital textbooks can be networked, instructors will have access to real-time information that will help them shape their teaching. Rather than waiting until students turn in their papers to find out what they misunderstood, instructors will be able to see how students are classifying evidence and answering questions, identify and address misconceptions, and tailor their teaching to the needs and interests of each class.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The details of the foregoing example are intended to give a sense of what is possible rather than an exact prescription. The challenge, and excitement, of such an enterprise will lie in the many ways that historical thinking skills, methods for structured feedback, data visualization, media, digital design, historiographical debates, and the vast number of rich episodes in U.S. history will interact, intersect, and sometimes collide in the process of creating a genuinely inquiry-based, interactive digital textbook.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 About the author: Ellen Noonan has worked as a historian, media producer, and faculty developer at the American Social History Project at The Graduate Center, City University of New York since 1998. She is Project Director for ASHP’s New York City Teaching American History professional development programs and was supervising editor of Who Built America?: Working People and the Nation’s History, Volume One: To 1877 (3rd edition). She helped to create the websites HERB: Social History for Every ClassroomHistory Matters: The U.S. Survey on the WebThe Lost Museum: Exploring Antebellum American Life and Culture, and September 11 Digital Archive. She received her Ph.D. in U.S. History from New York University and is the author of The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess (under contract with University of North Carolina Press).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Acknowledgements: Thanks to Pennee Bender, Josh Brown, Aaron Knoll, Leah Potter, and Bill Tally for many stimulating conversations on this topic, as well as their helpful suggestions on this essay.

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  2. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001); Historical Thinking Matters (historicalthinkingmatters.org); Stanford History Education Group (sheg.stanford.edu); Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano, Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Press, 2011); Peter N. Sterns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2000); Robert B. Bain, “Rounding Up Unusual Suspects: Facing the Authority Hidden in the History Classroom,” Teachers College Record 108 (October 2006), 2080-2114; Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone, Thinking Like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2008).
  3. American Social History Project, Who Built America?Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, and Society, Vol.1, From Conquest and Colonization through Reconstruction and the Great Uprising of 1877 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989) and Who Built America?Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, and SocietyVol. 2, From the Gilded Age to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992)