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Elementary History Education: A Bridgeless Chasm

In U.S. 5th-grade classrooms, students typically study math, language arts, science, physical education and fine arts, and social studies, which is often focused on history from early Atlantic encounters through the American Revolution. In all of these academic and artistic fields, 5th graders engage new material using knowledge and skills they have developed sequentially since kindergarten—that is, in all the fields except history.

Unlike their experiences in the other disciplines, elementary students do not systematically, year-by-year, learn the heuristics or skills to analyze and interpret historic sources; they are not given the tools to develop historic accounts, grapple with historic causation, or learn historical chronologies; and they are not given opportunities to explore relationships between geography and human experiences over time. The fact that we plunge 5th graders into history without allowing them to develop discipline-specific skills and knowledge in earlier grades suggests that we don’t expect them to study the past with integrity or depth of understanding. Instead of teaching history as an interpretive, evidence-based process that requires discipline-specific skills, we teach it as an exercise in memorizing codified narratives and disembodied dates and facts.

[BHH] has engaged all K-5 teachers in systematically teaching historical thinking skills on U.S. topics sequentially across the grade levels.

Since 2001, Teaching American History grants have funded an alternative to the status quo; the Bringing History Home (BHH) K-5 curriculum and professional development project in Iowa. In participating school districts, the project has engaged all K-5 teachers in systematically teaching historical thinking skills on U.S. topics sequentially across the grade levels. K-5 students in BHH classrooms read trade fiction to gain understanding of historical contexts; analyze original sources using an explicit set of heuristics; construct timelines to develop their knowledge of chronologies; illustrate maps with historic events and geographic trends; and construct historic accounts. Formal external evaluations of 3rd through 5th graders in the project have found highly significant student learning outcomes in both historical analysis skills and knowledge of historic events, figures, and eras.

Case studies of small student groups and individual children in BHH schools have revealed detailed pictures of how 3rd graders can learn and explore history. These studies offer a different picture than does much of the existing research. Previous U.S. research focused on children that had not systematically acquired historical analysis skills, and so researchers concluded either that children cannot accurately infer the meaning of historic images, or will use only material culture cues like clothing or car styles to form inaccurate inferences. In contrast, BHH studies have documented that children can learn historic political and economic concepts and events and use them to interpret unfamiliar history sources. Similarly, in contrast with U.S. and British research that has found students' grasp of historical chronology lacking, BHH studies have documented that children can accurately date and situate unfamiliar events in historic contexts with which they are familiar.

Even in light of the BHH project evidence for young children's abilities to study history, however, I have little hope that our education system will embrace teaching history systematically in K-5. One of the barriers to this change lies in existing research on K-5 history learning. It has largely failed to document the extent of children's abilities because it has been based on studies of children who have not studied history systematically. Because the research does not allow social studies methods faculty to form accurate expectations for student learning, the faculty cannot prepare teachers to help students reach their potential.

Another barrier is that in our high-stakes testing era what is tested usually determines what is taught. Multiple-choice tests that can capture middle-elementary children's historical analysis skills have not been designed, and existing social studies multiple-choice standardized tests for 5th graders do not assess historical analysis skills. An overhaul of existing tests to include the skills could provide an impetus for teaching history as evidence-based and interpretive. History testing faces an even more formidable foe, however, and that is the broad disagreement over what should be tested. Because historical interpretation is individual by its nature, and is vulnerable to political manipulation, it provides little or no common ground on which constituents with conflicting values and perspectives can agree.

...the current movement to teach information literacy may offer the best hope for a wider adoption of history in K-5.

Instead of testing, then, the current movement to teach information literacy may offer the best hope for a wider adoption of history in K-5. The skills we use to study the texts of the past also empower us to critically interpret today's ubiquitous online texts. If history professionals joined the U.S. education fray to emphasize that alignment, they might help make the case for history in K-5 classrooms. Meanwhile, in a handful of Iowa BHH school districts, students already systematically study history throughout the elementary grades. In most of the rest of the nation, the gap between what is and what is possible remains a chasm, with no bridge abutments in sight.


Kearney, J. et al. Evaluation of the Teaching American History Project: Bringing History Home II. Iowa City: University of Iowa Center for Evaluation and Assessment, 2007.

Lee, P.J. "Putting Principles into Practice: Understanding History." In How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom, edited by S. Donovan, S. and J. Bransford, J. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005.

Levstik, L. and Barton, K. Researching History Education: Theory, Method and Context. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis group, 2008.

Levstik, L. & Tyson, C. Handbook of Research in Social Studies Education. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis group, 2008.

Wineburg, S. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.