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How to teach students about historical research through media literacy and critical thinking


“I think the history class is exactly what we should be talking about in the history class,” said Wineburg. “But instead of teaching them as rules or things that are fixed in time or set in amber, it is precisely such things that are worth discussing.”

Today, most of the people on the internet look for information they do not know, including students. It is even more important that students have tools that they can use to make informed decisions about what is trustworthy online.


Will Colglazier, a US history teacher in the San Mateo Union High School District, takes this call to action at Aragon High School to heart. Like so many teachers, he feels pressured to cover all of his content and stick to the pace guides, but he also believes that students will need basic digital skills to continue learning history in the future.

“Less is more, and you have to trim content to make room to bring in the skills you think are essential,” said Colglazier. “This is not the only time they can access information. It’s not like their ability to learn US history ends in May. “

Colglazier balances the pressures of curriculum coverage with cross-cutting skills by carefully thinking about his course goals. He sets these at the beginning of the year so he can be sure that if he cuts a session to free up time for something else, he will still achieve these goals. Especially in his Advanced Placement classes, he feels the pressure to work through all of the material, to ensure that his students get high scores and are successful with it. But at some point he decided that enough was enough.

“I was always frustrated teaching the course and coordinating my unit tests with the AP test,” said Colglazier. That led to boring exams and boring classes. Instead, he decided to include more historical research in his classes, with plenty of practice also in the AP-style test questions.

He started asking more controversial, open-ended questions and asked students to find information to support their claims on these issues. He wanted students to ask questions and engage in the activities of real historians, so he urged students to use their critical thinking skills, put topics in context, and give them opportunities to read perspective and silence. He thought these historical skills would carry over to digital space – but he was wrong.

“The hypothesis that it would only apply to everyone is not true,” said Colglazier. “It has to be taught explicitly.”

His students did not do well on the Stanford Test for distinguishing advertising from news. But they did a lot of research online in class already, so Colglazier decided to spend some time teaching students explicitly how to fact check websites, side reads, and go beyond fancy looking web design.

“They don’t like to be betrayed,” Colglazier said of his students. “That is an intrinsic wish of everyone. You don’t want to look like an idiot. They want support and are happy to receive it. Some of this isn’t rocket science, it’s just about teaching it explicitly. “

Colglazier now regularly replaces multiple choice or short answer questions with activities that require students to mimic the experience of researching online. He will ask a general question and send it to an article that may not be from a reliable site. Students need to determine if they can trust the information, and if not, find more reliable sources to support their claims.

Colglazier doesn’t think these types of activities are too far off his curriculum. While previously he may have distributed several found documents and asked students to work at their desks to use the documents to secure a claim, he is now sending them online. And he doesn’t curate the resources for them. He expects students to have a better reason to trust a source than “Teacher gave it to me”.

“One thing I found is that it’s messy,” said Colglazier. “And it’s certainly less efficient than if I just gave you the information. But it’s about skill development and content editing to create the space in which the clutter occurs. “

Colglazier also seeks to make it clearer to students how these skills apply to both history and life. Often times, students get nihilistic at first thinking that they will walk down a rabbit hole every time they visit a website. That may be the price to pay for living in a world where so much information is at hand; they have to ask questions about their sources. The textbook itself is ripe for interrogation in Colglazier’s class. Textbooks can be a useful framework for a course, he says, but he wants students to question his stillness and framework as well.

“When students read the textbook, they look for facts without thinking about it,” he said. “And that’s what we want to teach you with all your information. You protect them from “learning” to some extent if you don’t.


Sam Wineburg at Stanford doesn’t blame teachers for not instantly knowing how to teach these crucial digital media skills, but he hopes studies like his will lead to change. In the short term, he wants everyone – adults and children – to learn to use the Internet like fact checkers do. In addition, he would like the social studies class to shift away from covering every unit in a huge textbook to critically examining history. In addition, he believes we need a dramatic change in the way we consume information.

In a Twitter thread that picked up on these ideas, Wineburg wrote, “Of course we need new approaches in our civics classes. But if we think this topic is all about citizenship, we are deceiving ourselves. This is how we teach EVERY subject. “


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