Area history teachers learn to “Think Like a Historian”

Stanford University trains local educators on new instructional methods
By: Andrew Westrope,
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In a role-reversing exercise at the Placer Union High School District office, local history teachers became the students at a seminar from Stanford University Thursday to learn a new approach to teaching history in the classroom.

Substitute teachers stood in for close to 30 social science teachers at Placer High, Colfax High, Del Oro, Foresthill, Newcastle and E.V. Cain while the regular faculty attended the all-day event, called “Thinking Like a Historian.” It was the first of two professional development days, the second of which is in March, intended to give history teachers a clearer picture of what the new Common Core educational standards expect of them, and how to meet those expectations.

Brad Fogo, director of digital curriculum at Stanford History Education Group, said this boils down to a new emphasis on investigation over memorization -- skills over content.

“One of the leading researchers on teaching history had done research on the differences between how historians read and how high school students read,” he said. “High school kids tend to read just to summarize and to not question any of the sources they’re working with, whereas historians go through a much more elaborate process of skills we’ve tried to teach – sourcing, contextualization, corroboration.”

Fogo said he and his colleagues have been touring the country with “Thinking Like a Historian” since 2009, before they knew about Common Core standards. Since then the program has been gaining popularity as teachers realized it offered precisely what their future lesson plans will need.

Placer High history teacher Greg Robinson, who recommended the program to the district after seeing a preview in July, said many of the district’s teachers have already begun to employ this more in-depth approach, and he expects colleges will see the benefits in incoming freshmen soon.

“For the last 18 years, it’s been just about the content. It’s been rote memorization and very little opportunity for skill development,” he said. “After a semester in my history class, of using this style of inquiry-based lessons, they’ll be able to read better, they’ll be able to write better and they’ll be able to critically analyze multiple sources and build rebuttals of those sources. They’re being introduced to the real world of social studies, and that is not a textbook.”

Placer Union Assistant Superintendent Jeff Tooker said the teachers spent the day discussing possible lesson plans, how to ask the right questions, how to grade and challenge students on their answers and how to cultivate truly “literate” students. Common Core is being phased into math and English classrooms through 2015, but for this approach in general, there is no official start date.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if some of them (teachers) start tomorrow,” he said. “Some of them have already been using some of this material. We just want to get the formal training for everybody.”