History teachers think that teaching kids to think means teaching them to make arguments. That’s partly true. An argument — a claim, supported by evidence and reasoning — is a species of thinking. But it’s not the only kind of thinking we need to teach students to do. On the contrary: it’s not even the most important kind. Our field, in a way rarely recognized explicitly but always acknowledged in practice, is predicated upon the capacity to tell a story. Narrative, like argument, is historical thinking. It’s the primary kind.
It’s obvious, upon a moment’s reflection, that telling true stories about what humans do with and to each other is the substance of history learning, the predicate upon which all other kinds of thinking — interpreting ideas and motives, explaining patterns and anomalies, making judgments about actors and outcomes — is based. If your students can’t tell you the story of your unit after you’ve taught it, in what sense can you say they’ve learned it? And if you unit has no story to begin with, what exactly was it about?
Narration Is The Hidden Skill
History teachers can be forgiven for overlooking the obvious: that an adept history student will be able to narrate historical events. Most of the official guidance, training, and in-service PD history teachers receive amounts to something like a conspiracy to hide the story. Consider the standards documents that give us our official, state-sanctioned targets for teaching and learning. They refer to lots and lots of stories, but in a form designed to hide their narrative structure and significance. They turn compelling narratives of change over time into lists. They do the same, incidentally, with thinking skills, which are really just the tools curious and skillful people use to satisfy their reasonable curiosity — their genuine questions — about what humans have done and continue to do to and for each other.
Or consider the College Board’s guidelines for AP World and US History. They list thinking skills, none of which is called “narrative” or “storytelling.” And when they themselves narrate, they do what they can to obscure that fact. And so the document that tells the story of world history in digest form, meant to outline the structure of the AP World History class, insists that each chunk of its grand story is a “concept.” It’s not. It’s a chunk of the story, a brief narrative about what happened. (Put the six eras of the overview into a six-box storyboard and you’ll see exactly what they’re actually doing.)
The Essential Question method plays the same game. According to Wiggins and McTighe, the Essential Question for a unit is supposed to capture an enduring understanding. When is it okay to kill? Under what conditions do empires fall apart? Great questions. But there are an indeterminate number of ways to answer them. The fact that in any particular course we choose World War II and the Ottoman Empire as the subject matter for our inquiry is a matter of complete indifference to the Essential Question method.
You might say that the Essential Question method simply takes the standards lists and animates them with interesting questions that can drive kids to think. But what’s missing, of course, is the story. What the Essential Question on killing or empire will miss about World War II or the Ottomans is why World World II or the Ottomans are in the standards, and therefore in our courses, in the first place. The only way to know that is to know the story for which these events matter. And, in fact, what history teachers actually want students to know at the end of their unit is not when it’s okay to kill — history teachers don’t know that anyway, and neither will our students when we’re done with this one unit, or even many like it. (They won’t really have much of interest to say about this question until they take an ethics course.) What we want our students to know is the story of World War II and why it’s important to the larger story in which we ourselves are actors.
Why We Hide The Story
So why do our methods and our practice both conspire to hide the story? I have three conjectures. One is that stories or narratives were babies that were thrown out with the bathwater of “facts,” in the pejorative sense of lists of granular information, including dates and state capitals, that are the alleged opposite of critical or historical thinking. Progressive educators are supposed to be done with all that. Only Mr. Gradgrind would attempt to pour facts into empty vessels.
It’s true that asking young people to memorize lists is bad pedagogical practice. But we all agree, I hope, that they need to know things. You can’t think about history if you don’t know any. The key is to substitute ‘narrative’ for ‘facts.’ When you do, you see that the story is essential to argument, of whatever variety. And if you actually attempt for tell coherent, meaningful stories to students, and then try to teach them to do the same, you’ll see that it’s quite complicated and difficult. It requires not just memory, but skill and technique — and, dare I say, thinking!
My second conjecture is that narrative simply lost out to the more scientific and ‘rigorous’ proposition that we ought to teach kids to argue. If there’s no thesis, there’s no argument, and if there’s no argument, it’s not a real essay. That’s a fallacy, but a potent one. And the fact is, professional historians have been fighting a rear-guard action against modern social science on this ground for most of a century. Most historians tell stories, and good historians tell stories that are distinctive and that mean something — and that, by the way, contain lots of the kinds of judgments that count as thinking in any other context. Social scientists also engage in thinking, but much of theirs is in a form that looks much more like normal science, and so looks and feels less like Hollywood and marketing and, well, storytelling.
My third conjecture is that our methods and our practice hide the story because teaching narrative is in fact quite demanding. It requires of teachers that they actually know the stories they’re going to teach and know how to communicate them effectively — and then teach all that to young people. If you haven’t tried it, you should. No: you must. Whatever you do, don’t hide the story.