Historical Thinking is Design Thinking

img_9910I have been working on our westward expansion unit for APUSH. This is the era wherein we get to talk about cowboys and the open (and soon-to-be-closed) range, Promontory Point (in my home state!), the Chinese Exclusion Act (a surprise to many a history student), the Mormons (again, my home state!), the establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the devastation wrought by (or the progress brought by, depending on your perspective) the Dawes Act. This is my favorite era to teach. It feels fun. It feels like politics aren’t necessarily at the center of the thing, and that it instead generates conversations about culture and concepts.

I’m working on the unit in conjunction with the Bourn Idea Lab, which is a really fancy maker space at our school, staffed with actual designers and engineers and equipped with things like laser cutters and 3D printers. It’s playful and fun and the people down there are excited and encouraging. I wanted to work in the Lab because I had this instinct that something about studying history fit naturally into this kind of maker space, but I also felt hesitant, because a project like this could so easily devolve into the kind of thing where the student spends way more time on figuring out how to get the ball to rotate on the wire hanger, than on actually understanding that planets rotate around the sun and how gravity works.

Separately, I’ve been working on a lesson on reading and citing scholarly work in history with my librarian friend Tasha. We decided to start the lesson with the question, “What do historians actually do?” Well what historians actually do is try to figure out answers or solutions to historical problems. Why did the American colonies revolt when they did? Why did the Civil War happen? Why did the Puritans accuse so many women of being witches, and go so far as to kill them for it? (Textbooks can be deceptive because they suggest that these historical problems are not problems at all—the answers to them are instead taken-for-granted facts.) Historians then examine the historical record, and use that record to try out various solutions to these problems. And once they’ve come up with a pretty good solution, they publish it and ask other scholars to test it out, tinker with it, and build upon it. This is how our understanding of what happened and why it matters comes into being.

Tasha likened this process to inventing new kinds of paper clips. In the proverbial beginning, we already had metal paper clips. They were an okay solution, but they couldn’t hold much paper, they tore the paper they did hold, and they rusted and were kind of annoying. So, people iterated! How about a plastic paper clip? A big binder clip? Now there are all kinds of better and better solutions to this one single paper clip problem. And in essence, that is indeed what historians do. They identify an historical problem, and they use source material and build upon the answers of other historians, in order to find a more satisfactory solution to that problem.

In the Bourn Lab, I want my students to be historians. They’ll have a central historical problem: What did the “progress” of westward expansion look like across different groups and elements? One group will have a set of source material dealing with water in the west, another with land, another with American Indians, and another with migrants. I want them to come up with an answer to that question based on the sources. The final product will be some kind of natural history museum exhibit and an accompanying plaque, which I’m hoping will engage the more kinesthetic students. I’m also hoping that it will demonstrate the connection between designing and thinking about history. If nothing else, it will get them out of the classroom as the semester winds down and finals approach.

The thing is, historical thinking on its own is design thinking. Teachers don’t need to be literal when it comes to tinkering and making. And students don’t need to literally be making things on a 3D printer (though that should be fun) in order to engage in solving complex historical problems. Design thinking is the work of the historian! I guess my point is that historians are not dusty tweed-jacket-wearing curmudgeons, and that maybe we have more in common with those guys down the road in Mountain View after all.

More to come as the project progresses!


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