Engaging Students in Historical Reasoning: The Need for Dialogic History Education

Carla van Boxtel and Jannet van Drie

Historical reasoning is nowadays an important aim of history education. Students learn how they can construct or evaluate a historical reasoning, using historical concepts, evidence and argumentation (e.g., Leinhardt, Stainton, Virji, & Odoroff, 1994; Levesque, 2008; Van Drie & Van Boxtel, 2008; VanSledright, 2010). This also implies that students need to learn ‘the language of history’ (cf. Lemke, 1990). In line with social-cultural theory, we consider learning as entering a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In this process ‘language use’ is the medium to participate in such communities. To be able to use the appropriate language and to know when, how, and why to use it, characterizes the language user as a member of the community. In school history, the main aim of engaging students in historical reasoning is to participate in an important cultural practice of societies. The ability to reason and think historically empowers students to understand social life in the past and present and is important for participating in a democratic society (Barton & Levstik, 2004; Kuhn, Weinstock, & Flaton, 1994; Rusen, 2005).

In order to learn the language of history, during history lessons students should be offered opportunities to use this language and practice historical reasoning (Van Drie & Van Boxtel, 2008). A classroom, in which the teacher does most of the talking, presents ‘ready-made’ narratives and funnels students’ responses toward a pre-defined answer, is not suitable to engage students in historical reasoning. It is often suggested that historical reasoning can be enhanced

C. van Boxtel (*)

Research Institute of Child Development and Education/Amsterdam School of Historical Studies, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

J. van Drie

Research Institute of Child Development and Education, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

© The Author(s) 2017

M. Carretero et al. (eds.), Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-52908-4_30

by historical inquiry activities using primary sources (e.g., Nokes, 2013; Voss & Wiley, 2006; Wineburg, 2001). The underlying idea is that students learn history by doing history using the strategies and meta-concepts that are characteristic for the discipline. We agree with these pleas for historical inquiry in the classroom. However, at the same time, we think that engaging students in ‘source work’ is not sufficient to develop students’ historical reasoning ability. All activities in the classroom, individual work, group work and whole-class discussions should be part of a collective endeavor to investigate, to think and to reason in order to reach historical understanding and develop and discuss new questions.

A promising approach to improve historical reasoning is dialogic teaching. Through dialogic teaching, teachers try to create collective and supportive classroom talk and promote higher order contributions of students, including explanations, justifications and hypothesis-generation (Alexander, 2008). Dialogic teaching focuses on learning to think in a context of multiple perspectives and uncertainty. This skill is not only relevant for historical understanding, but also particularly in globalizing and increasingly diverse societies (Grever, 2012; Nordgren & Johansson, 2015; Wegerif, 2013). Research reveals positive effects of dialogic teaching for language and general reasoning skills (Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Nystrand, 2006), but also shows that most classroom- interaction is not dialogic. In addition, in a design-based study, Hilliard (2013) found that history students who were most actively engaged in dialogical peer interaction improved most on argumentative essay writing.

In this contribution, we argue that dialogic history teaching is a powerful approach to engage students in historical reasoning and to develop the ability to reason historically. We will first present our conceptualization of historical reasoning and elaborate on dialogic teaching. We will explain the potential of dialogic education to engage students in and develop the capacity of historical reasoning and illustrate this with some examples.

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