Then and Now in Reforming the Teaching of History (Part 2)

A half-century ago, academics led an effort to reform the teaching of history and the social studies in a movement called the New Social Studies (NSS). Since the mid-1990s, again professors, social studies curriculum specialists, and classroom history teachers have focused upon creating usable lessons that introduce students to historical thinking and writing textbooks for novice and career teachers. Similar in ways that the New Social Studies during the 1960s created instructional units, current efforts, however, go well beyond those materials in using teacher-friendly digital lessons and assessments tailored to the age-graded school conditions that teachers face daily, a factor missing in the earlier movement. [i]

One of the leaders of this movement is Professor Sam Wineburg at Stanford University. Trained as an educational psychologist at Stanford in the late-1980s, Wineburg worked under the tutelage of Professor Lee Shulman who, after receiving Carnegie Foundation grants to assess teaching and learning across subject areas, recruited able graduate students. Wineburg’s peers included Suzanne Wilson and Pam Grossman both of whom have gone on to illustrious academic careers. As has Wineburg. [ii]

Appointed assistant professor of educational psychology in 1989 at the University of Washington’s school of education, Wineburg launched a career that garnered teaching awards and research grants. He worked with teachers in the Seattle public schools in various projects including creating materials for students to read and think like historians. He published articles in both psychological and historical journals that generated even more grants.

In 2002, he joined the faculty of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education working with doctoral students, beginning social studies teachers, historians, and psychologists. Wineburg’s previous work with Roy Rosenzweig at George Mason University moved him toward incorporating digital historical sources into units and lessons for teachers to use. [iii]

Wineburg expanded his agenda by starting the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). His doctoral students designed lessons that dipped into primary and secondary sources showing teachers and students how to read and think like historians. One doctoral student developed document-based lessons on the Civil War for middle school teachers in San Francisco and in her dissertation designed an intervention for history teachers in five high schools. These ideas and practices of historians also found a home in the Curriculum and Instruction courses that he and doctoral students taught for entry-level social studies teachers in the Graduate School of Education. Finally, Wineburg created a network of partners and resources (e.g., Library of Congress, American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, National Council for the Social Studies) that covered both the discipline and teachers across the country.[iv]

From the collaborative work with doctoral students and teachers, SHEG increased production of teacher-friendly lessons in U.S. history and world history demonstrating how historians read documents, evaluate sources, and interpret historical events ranging from Pocahontas in 17th century colonial America to the Nanking Incident during Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. Posted on the Internet, these lessons permitted teachers to download them free. In early 2015, the Stanford History Education Group topped 2 million downloads. And they have added coaching services and professional development workshops for social studies teachers in San Francisco, Los Angeles city schools, and Lincoln (NE).[v]

With recognized standing in psychology and history, Wineburg bridges both worlds of research and classroom practice. Moreover, Wineburg is familiar with prior movements in the social studies, one of the New History a century ago led by James Harvey Robinson, the New Social Studies in the 1960s, and the movement to alter history teaching  since the mid-1990s. Rare, indeed, can scholars bridge disciplines and practice while retaining a deep familiarity with past and present social studies reform efforts.

Wineburg’s comparisons and contrasts of current efforts to the New Social Studies a half-century earlier offers glimpses of how he sees the past and present moments in altering how history teachers teach.

As for the relation between Reading like a Historian and the New Social Studies, obviously there’s a great deal of overlap. I cut my teeth on the Amherst history project materials and Charles Seller’s “As It Happened,” a textbook made up of almost exclusively primary sources. The whole issue of inquiry comes from the movement. So, in a sense, we owe a tremendous debt to our predecessors.

Wineburg then pointed out the differences between NSS and his current efforts.

First, all of our materials come with extensive scaffolding. We ‘tamper’ with history … by actually changing primary sources (and still calling them ‘primary’). We built this approach in high schools in San Francisco’s Mission [district] where 99% of the kids are native Spanish speakers and reading at 4th or 5th grade levels in the eleventh grade but often thinking (original italics) at college levels…. So our approach from the start had to deal with the reality of teachers in urban schools. Our lessons don’t go for a week either; each is tailored to a fifty-minute class. And we recognize that teachers simply don’t have the time to surf the net in search of documents or the appropriate graphic organizers to accompany a lesson. We provide everything.

Second, the New Social Studies did little in terms of testing their ideas in any kind of formal research setting. Lots of great stories; not much by way of rigorous evaluation. We field tested this work in San Francisco using a quasi-experimental design. And we continue in on-going field testing.

Third, we focus on explicit teaching of cognitive skills in a way that would have been foreign to the ‘discovery’ ethos of the 60s. I am a Vygotskian by heart and temperament. We provide teachers with guidance in how to explicitly model the cognitive skills they use when they interpret a document. We don’t want classrooms to [be] guessing games. If students don’t know how to ‘source’ a document, their teachers need to model it for them … making their own thoughts and hunches audible so that kids can have an explicit model of what a skilled reader does with a difficult text before trying to decode it themselves.

Fourth, we have taken up the issue of … formative assessment. When I co-directed the DOE’s [U.S. Department of Education] National History Education Clearinghouse, I got into a lot of hot water (original italics) when I basically blew the whistle on Teaching American History grants that were dedicated to ‘critical document analysis’ but then were testing kids with multiple choice items on battles of the Revolutionary War. It seemed like their two only options in the social studies testing world [were] multiple choice tests or 10-12 DBQs [document-based questions]. Neither was a useful tool for quick on-going formative assessment that gave teachers insight into what their kids were thinking and the processes they used. So with Rich [Shavelson] and Ed [Haertel]’s help, I took up the assessment mantle….That, too, is different from the New Social Studies.[vi]

In citing the similarities and differences between Stanford History Education Group and the New Social Studies of the 1960s, Wineburg made certain critical decisions over the past decade in SHEG coaching and materials to extend their use in classrooms beyond the shelf life of earlier NSS.

The first strategic decision Wineburg mentioned is shaping SHEG materials to the urban teacher’s work conditions within age-graded schools, the students they face daily, and the overwhelming demands of meeting standards, accountability and testing requirements. He and his colleagues adapted lessons to workplace conditions. In effect, he acknowledged the deep “grammar of schooling” shaping teacher behavior and worked within its boundaries.[vii]

Designing well scaffolded 50-minute lessons, as he points out, for teachers to use with students reading on different levels diverged from NSS leaders decades earlier who, more often than not, pitched their secondary school materials to “able” students except for Edwin (Ted) Fenton who realized that error in 1965 and launched his “slow learner” project. In addition, Wineburg built in formative assessments and highly interactive digital materials within SHEG lessons adding further appeal of these materials to teachers.[viii]

Another strategic decision was to align the lessons to the Common Core state standards in literacy. Wineburg realized that if these SHEG lessons containing cognitive skills embedded in how historians analyze sources, detect bias, and interpret facts were to last beyond NSS materials, they had to be tightly coupled to the Common Core standards’ focus on literacy skills. The standards in reading embraced most of the skills (e.g., how to “source” a document, how to corroborate the accuracy of a source) contained in SHEG-produced lessons. By fastening these materials to the standards’ literacy requirements and their accompanying tests, chances of a longer life span for this historical approach to teaching increased. [ix]

Beyond strategic decisions, Wineburg made a personal decision in teaching, writing, and scholarship. Over the past few years, he decided to reach beyond the specialized (and small) audiences he had written for in psychology and history journals to the larger audience of social studies teachers. In speeches and articles, Wineburg talked about his “crisis of faith” in academic research, making clear that he no longer believed published research in peer-reviewed journals with readership in the low thousands would improve teaching practices. Working more directly with schools and teachers was a new direction he charted for himself and SHEG.[x]

Now whether all of these strategic and tactical decisions will sustain SHEG lessons for more than a few years I cannot say. Nor can I say anything about the effects of these lessons on students since no studies have yet been done to determine their effectiveness. I can say that Wineburg and his colleagues have digested lessons from an earlier NSS generation of reformers and have made adaptations that have a reasonable chance of continued use among history teachers.


[i] Beginning in the mid-1990s, both academics and teachers completed research studies and described classroom lessons using the historical approach. For academics, see, for example, Peter Sexias, “Parallel Crises: History and the Social Studies Curriculum in USA,” Curriculum Inquiry, 1993, 25(3), pp. 235-250; Terri Epstein, “Makes No Difference If You Are Black or White? African-American and European-American Adolescents’ Perspectives on Historical Significance and Historical Sources,” 1994, Paper Presented at Annual Meeting of American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA; Linda Levstik and Keith Barton, “ ‘It Wasn’t a Good Part of History:’ National Identity and Ambiguity in Students Explanations of Historical Significance,” Teachers College Record, 1998, 99(3), pp. 478-513; Jere Brophy and Bruce VanSledright, Teaching and Learning History in Elementary School (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997); Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001); S. G. Grant, History Lessons: Teaching, Learning, and Testing in U.S. High Schools Classrooms (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003).

Teachers who have written about their work include Bob Bain, “Into the Breach: Using Research and Theory to Shape History,” in Peter Stearns, Peter Sexias, and Sam Wineburg (Eds.), Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History (New York: New York University Press, 2000); Bruce Lesh, ‘Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer’: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011).

Occasionally, an academic became a classroom teacher and studied how students learned history. See, for example, Suzanne Wilson, “Mastodons, Maps, and Michigan: Exploring Uncharted Territory While Teaching Elementary School Social Studies,” Elementary Subjects Center Series, No. 24 (East Lansing, MI: Institute for Research on Teaching, Michigan State University, 1990).

[ii] Wineburg’s dissertation (the committee was Lee Shulman, historian David Tyack, and psychologist Dick Snow) dealt with how students and historians read history texts.

Suzanne Wilson has been the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University since 1991; Pam Grossman began at the University of Washington in 1988 in Teacher Education and became full professor there until 2000 when she went to Stanford University in that year, staying until 2014 when she was appointed Dean of Education at University of Pennsylvania.

I focus on Sam Wineburg for two reasons. First, he is clearly a thought leader in reading and thinking like a historian. Other academics and teachers cite him repeatedly. His early work in the field, awards given by professional associations, and influence as a writer and speaker have been substantial. Second, as I knew Ted Fenton in the early 1960s and his work and mine coincided when I was at Cardozo High School, I also have known Wineburg for over a quarter-century. When he was a graduate student at Stanford University, I was one of the historian-subjects he interviewed for his dissertation. We have stayed in touch over the years and since his return to Stanford in 2002, we have had many conversations about career, the status of history education, writing, and his work in the field. For this chapter, I interviewed Wineburg (January 15, 2015). I also have emails he sent to me (he has given me permission to quote from them), articles he and doctoral students have written, textbooks, and videos of interviews and speeches he has given.

See Wineburg resume at

[iii] In 2008, “Why Historical Thinking Matters,” an interactive presentation on the Battle of Lexington that Wineburg and his colleagues had designed won the American Historical Association’s James Harvey Robinson Prize for an Outstanding Teaching Aid.

[iv] Avishag Reisman, “The Document-Based Lesson: Bringing Disciplinary Inquiry into High School History Classrooms with Adolescent Struggling Readers,” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 2011, 44(2), pp. 233-264 and “Reading Like a Historian: A Document-Based History Curriculum Intervention in an Urban Classroom,” Cognition and Instruction, 2012, 30(1), pp. 86-112. Partners of the Stanford History Education Group are listed and described on website. See:

Wineburg’s Curriculum and Instruction Course taught to social studies teachers in the Secondary Teacher Education Program at Stanford University is at:

[v] On the number of downloads and where they originated, email communication from Joel Breakstone January 23, 2015 (in author’s possession).

[vi] Email from Sam Wineburg to Larry Cuban, June 15, 2013 (in author’s possession). Richard Shavelson and Ed Haertel were colleagues of Wineburg and experts on assessment and tests.

[vii] David Tyack and William Tobin, “The ‘Grammar’ of Schooling: Why Has It Been So Hard To Change?” The American Educational Research Journal, 1994, 31(3), pp. 453-479.

[viii] Without federal funding, Fenton launched the “slow learner” project in 1967, a four-year social studies curriculum for grades eight through eleven. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston published the eighth grade text, The Americans. Fenton papers, Carnegie Mellon University, Box 4, folder 22.

[ix]See 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, 2013). A large yellow circle is stamped on the cover saying “Aligned with Common Core State Standards.”

[x]Sam Wineburg, “Choosing Real-World Impact over Impact Factor,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 26, 2013; Interview with Wineburg, January 15, 2015.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

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