Students as Historical Detectives: The Effects of an Inquiry Approach on Middle School Students' Understanding of Historical Ideas and Concepts

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National tests of student achievement in history have been poor for nearly 100 years, yet instructional practices have remained largely static pedantic, teacher-centered, textbook-driven, and dull. This study investigates the use of a student-centered, inquiry approach in the teaching of traditional history content that moves beyond stereotypical portrayals of history teachers. This approach placed the interpretation of historical content in the hands of students through the analysis of primary source documents, images, maps, and statistical data as an alternative manner of learning history. Working in collaborative teams, students presented their interpretations in a variety of products and then compared their ideas to those of historians. In order to collect close-up data and to assess this type of approach, the researcher became the teacher of an 8th grade United States history class in a diverse middle school, examining this approach from both the perspectives of the students and of the teacher. Primarily qualitative in nature, data sources include a researcher's journal, student classroom discourse and assignments, interviews with students and a privileged observer, pre and post think-aloud-protocol readings of historical text, and a survey of student interests and motivations. These data were analyzed using open coding and an analysis of reading primary source text based on a continuum of reading strategies. Key findings suggest that students struggled initially with a shift in the culture of learning from traditional history classes and with reading sophisticated primary source text. The researcher found that by promoting a sense of confidence in his students and shaping the class into a community of learners, the students were able work collaboratively to develop deep understandings of both historical content and of the practices and tools of historians. They were able to negotiate difficult primary source text when the text was carefully selected for interest and direct connection to the learning objective, were analyzed in small chunks, and, when feasible, were analyzed in concert with visual images. The author also discusses the practical applications of such an approach from a teacher's perspective and implications for other stakeholders.