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Teaching History to Support Diverse Learners

What is the best way to engage students with learning disabilities in learning history when the curriculum requires them to think like a historian- analyzing multiple sources and evaluating media such as diary entries, images, songs, and political cartoons. This article tells you how to include them in “Doing History” without watering it down. An extensive resource list is included.

Instruction focused on students engaged in historical thinking is fairly new in educational research. This approach — often called Doing History — requires students to develop the skills historians and other social scientists use to construct an interpretation from multiple and conflicting sources. Since these sources often include songs, images, and documents, this approach is also labeled Media Literacy, a skill that applies to disciplines across the humanities and outside the classroom context (e.g., buying a product or voting for a political candidate). The positive effects this approach has on student learning have been observed in elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms; however, too little attention is given to making this rigorous and engaging curriculum accessible to students with learning disabilities (LD), as federally mandated in recent legislation under Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) 1997 and 2004.

Engaging Students with Learning Disabilities

Researchers have documented that students with LD involved in Doing History are often offered a reduced number of written sources — limiting the range of perspectives and types of sources presented (e.g., De La Paz, 2005). This reductive approach limits the opportunity of such students to experience the richness of what real historians encounter, specifically the corroboration of multiple perspectives from sources that encompass media such as diary entries, images, songs, and political cartoons. Limiting exposure to sources does not give students with LD an equal chance to participate in rich elementary and secondary classroom experiences (e.g., Gabella, 1994; VanSledright, 2002).

Think Like a Historian

To address this concern, a team of researchers at CAST(opens in a new window) (Center for Applied Special Technology) developed Think Like a Historian, a multimedia computer program that applies Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to Doing History. This program’s embedded supports — including links to additional background knowledge, options for highlighting critical features, interactive graphic organizers, and choices for format of final presentations, to name a few — allow students the flexibility to navigate a multimedia digital environment as they evaluate, corroborate, and synthesize up to twelve sources that encompass varied media and communicative contexts. Results suggest that this technology-based approach integrating Doing History with UDL — specifically the flexibility of its embedded supports — contribute to the engagement and learning of students with and without LD (Miller & Meyer, 2007).

Supporting Diverse Learners Through UDL: Existing Resources

Think Like a Historian is not available for teachers to use in their own classroom, yet. In the meantime, there are several free digital and print-based resources that apply many of the same scaffolds found helpful for students with LD. The resources described below can be effective ways to scaffold students’ historical thinking through establishing a purpose, evaluating sources, and corroborating multiple perspectives.

Establish a Purpose

All sources are not the same. For that matter, multiple social scientists might look at the same source and draw different conclusions about its reliability or significance. This decision is prompted by the questions, hypotheses, assumptions, or previous experiences social scientists bring to their research.

The same is true for students’ inquiry-based research. It is important to let students guide this inquiry process as much as possible, but some students may require additional scaffolding in the form of a teacher-developed essential question with accompanying background knowledge about its historical significance and present-day relevance. Picturing Modern America(opens in a new window) (by Education Development Center) supports historical thinking for middle and high school students. Many of the activities (e.g. Image Detective) model how an essential question can hone a student’s analysis of a source.

One of the intervention units used in Think Like a Historian concerned Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. To guide students’ exploration of this document and its historical context, essential questions could be: 1) When Abraham Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, why did he compromise his moral position on slavery? and 2) Was his compromise justified? To support students’ access to appropriate background knowledge, multiple sources may be relevant, such as:

  • Excerpts from President Lincoln’s letters that expressed his abhorrence of slavery,
  • Portions of documentaries that illustrated previous compromises on slavery (e.g., Missouri Compromise of 1820),
  • Highlighted “compromises” in the Emancipation Proclamation (e.g., this document did not emancipate slaves in the Border States or Union-occupied territory in the South), and
  • Examples of compromises made by present-day politicians.

This approach engages students from the start because it prepares them for the concepts and perspectives they may later encounter in various sources. To support recognition learning, one of the three principles of UDL, sources can be presented in multiple formats, which allow students to hear, read, observe, or experience these concepts.

Evaluate Sources

All sources have a bias. When social scientists evaluate the reliability or significance of a source, they are not determining if a source is biased but rather what the bias is. With this insight, the researcher is able to determine the significance of a source’s bias — revealing key information about the time and place the source was created. Students — including those with LD — benefit from scaffolds that support their exploration of a source’s context (Miller & Meyer, 2007).

To support strategic learning, the second principle of UDL, students can respond to these essential questions:

  1. Who created the source?
  2. When was it created?
  3. Who was the intended audience?
  4. What impact might this source have on public opinion?

Help students evaluate why a source was created and its potential to persuade others in various societal positions. When they answer these questions, students could rate the sources they deemed more significant than others.

The National Archives offers several printable worksheets(opens in a new window) with similar questions to evaluate sources ranging from photographs to newspaper articles. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery offers a similar approach with flexible hyperlinks via an interactive image in the online activity, George Washington — A National Treasure(opens in a new window).

Not only can digital materials support recognition and strategic learning, they also address affective learning, the final principle of UDL, because they provide students with choices and multiple paths through the sources.

Corroborate Sources

Researchers have found that students in grades 4 through 12 can successfully scrutinize a single source; however, these students often find it challenging to corroborate multiple and conflicting sources (Wineburg, 2001). Embedded scaffolds can help students look across sources to synthesize the multiple perspectives they encounter. An interactive graphic organizer with questions can also help students look at key points in each source and then compare across sources. To help with source comparison, have students respond to the same prompts for each source. In the Emancipation Proclamation example, students can address:

  1. What position on Emancipation is expressed in the source?
  2. How is this position justified?
  3. What issue (e.g., Border State loyalty) does this source exemplify?
  4. If the source had influenced Lincoln, what would it have led him to do?

A completed grid-type organizer (with the questions as column headers and the sources as rows) would enable students to look at highlights from all of the sources at once. The digital environment helps students visualize their thinking because they can highlight cells using bold type or color to emphasize points of importance for them. They can also sort their table of sources by chronology, stance on Emancipation, or the significance rating they gave each source.

Modern Women(opens in a new window) is another activity on EDC’s Picturing Modern America website. This activity models this strategy by prompting students to ask similar questions across sources for corroboration purposes.

History Matters(opens in a new window) is a collection of resources for students to understand how professional historians think and work. See several links in the resources below that could contextualize ‘Doing History’ for students.

Applying UDL to Doing History in a Digital Environment

Applying the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to digital, online tools can help diverse learners engage in rigorous, authentic historical thinking. As opposed to a print environment, an online interactive digital environment is highly flexible and able to adjust to students’ differing needs, skills and interests. With so many historical documents, images, music, and video available on the Internet, it is possible for any classroom to ‘do history’ in ways that allow all students to achieve.

Online Resources Referenced in this Article

A “Tech Works” brief from the National Center for Technology Innovation(opens in a new window) (NCTI) and the Center for Implementing Technology in Education(opens in a new window) (CITEd).
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