Introduction: The Doing of History

For Harry Potter and his compatriots, history lessons at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry took the form of brain-deadening encounters with a subject that appeared devoid of inquiry, imagination, interpretation, and personal meaning. This kind of history teaching, however, is not merely the 'stuff of fiction.' Lamentably, the teaching and learning of history as an officially sanctioned, neatly packaged chronicle of facts, people, and events, too often continues to be the experience of current students.
Teaching students to engage in the doing of history, Levstik (1996) suggests, involves a "shift from an emphasis on a 'story well told' (or, the story as told in the textbook), to an emphasis on 'sources well scrutinized'....[Where students] pose questions, collect and analyze sources, struggle with issues of significance, and ultimately build their own historical interpretations" (p. 394). While Barton (1998) contends that it is important to see a student's abilities to comprehend history and think historically as "a set of skills educators can nurture, not an ability whose development they must wait for or whose absence they must lament" (p. 80), Bain (2000) correctly acknowledges that it is the teacher who, after reading the literature, is the one left to "design activities that engage student in using such thinking in the classroom" (p. 334).
As a result, teachers find themselves struggling with such questions as: (1) How can students be assisted in developing a deep understanding of history? and (2) How do students develop the capacity to contextualize and corroborate historical sources such as texts photographs, audio recordings and even such films as the one on this page in the pursuit of establishing the evidence' significance as part of the process of historical inquiry? Similarly, ongoing research reveals the challenges facing many teachers who want to create a learning environment to support and prepare students to explore the past through inquiry. Stumbling blocks to inquiry in the history classroom include (a) the pressure teachers feel to cover content, often through use of the textbook, in order to have students ready for the end of year assessments (McNeil, 1986); (b) the level of sophisticated disciplinary knowledge required to teach students how to engage in the doing of history (Wineburg, 2001); (c) the perceived reluctance of students to work closely with sources in order to develop evidence based interpretations in favor of making up what they thought happened in the past (VanSledright, 2002); and (d) the difficulty students have in identifying the usefulness and significance of historical sources to answer historical questions and the resulting ease with which they "all too often...discard the source as biased" (Riley, 1999).
The Historical Inquiry Project seeks to bridge the gap between research and practice in terms of preparing teachers and students to engage in the doing of history. The site has grown from our attempt to "broaden our research and development work to encompass many different digitally supported instructional strategies while trusting our colleagues to consider and choose appropriately among them" (Harris, 2005). Historical is designed to serve as a scaffold, while respecting pedagogical plurality and recognizing that teaching requires a creative mind. The site introduces the concept of historical inquiry and provides tutorials, ideas, and resources to help facilitate the teaching and learning of historical inquiry for teachers and students from middle school through to college level.
The focus of this project is to address these questions; specifically, to begin bridge the gap between research and practice in terms of preparing teachers and students to engage in the doing of history.


Bain, R. (2000). Into the breach: Using research and theory to shape history instruction. In P. Stearns, P. Seixas, & S. Wineburg (Eds.), Knowing, teaching, and learning history: National and international perspectives (p. 334). New York: New York University Press.

Barton, K. (1998, April). That's a tricky piece: Children's understanding of historical time in Northern Ireland. Paper to the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.

Harris, J. (2005). Our agenda for technology integration: It's time to choose. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education [Online serial], 5(2). Available:

Levstik, L. (1996). Negotiating the history landscape. Theory and Research in Social Education, 24, 394.

McNeil, L. (1986) Contradictions of control: School structure and school knowledge. New York: Routledge.

Riley, C. (1999). Evidential understanding, Period, knowledge and the development of literacy: A practical approach to 'Layers of Inference' for Key Stage 3. Teaching History, 97, 6

VanSledright, B. (2002). Fifth graders investigating history in the classroom: Results from a researcher-practitioner design experiment. Elementary Education Journal, 103(2), 131-160.

Wineburg, S. (2001) Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. Philadelphia: Temple University.

** Scenes in San Francisco, [no. 1] video courtesy of Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA (Call Number: LC 2180). No active copyright available.

The Historical Inquiry project was funded by an IDDL Research Fellowship and a FIPSE grant.
Copyright © 2004-2005, Peter Doolittle, David Hicks, & Tom Ewing, Virginia Tech