Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.
This ten chapter book is divided into four sections: Why Study History?, Challenges for the Student, Challenges for the Teacher, and History as National Memory. The chapters in this book are grounded in the basic assumption that history learning means learning how to make choices, how to balance opinions, how to tell stories, and how to “become uneasy” about the stories we tell. More specifically, this book examines questions and issues that lie at the center of the process of historical understanding.
In the first section, the first two chapters contextualize the proceeding chapters within general society-wide discussions about how to publicly memorialize the past. Arguing that within this context the more important question of “why teach history” was lost, Wineburg chooses to focus on this question rather than on debates about “which history to teach” in the first two chapters. Specifically, in chapter two he reviews research literature on this matter.
Section two is concerned with the challenges that novice history learners face. Thus in chapters three through five Wineburg draws from his own research to provide some insight on this matter and on how teachers can respond to the difficulties novice history learners experience. In chapter three Wineburg reports on a comparative study he conducted with high school students and professional historians concluding that history learning is more about learning how to think like a historian than learning content. Chapter four is a case study of two college students preparing to become teachers which reveals that the foundational knowledge that the college history curriculum assumes students have acquired in elementary and high school is often non-existent. Finally, chapter five focuses on a study Wineburg conducted with fifth and seventh graders to examine how they “picture the past” by making drawings of pilgrims, western settlers, and hippies.” This study revealed that traditional assumptions about gender have to be actively and explicitly disrupted by history teachers.
Section three takes up history teaching. Here, chapters six through eight draw primarily from Wineburg’s involvement in the “Teacher Assessment Project” at Stanford. These chapters were written with Suzanne Wilson who collaborated with him on this project. Finally, the last two chapters examine questions of history instruction within the context of broader issues of public “memory sites” in society. While the setting of chapter nine is the classroom, it is evident that students bring their knowledge of history from the outside world. Lastly, in chapter ten Wineburg attempts to flesh out the “culture history curriculum” and how this curriculum can inform the classroom history curriculum.