Building “Houses”: Helping Students Develop Critical Thinking Skills in Undergraduate History Classes
The educational philosophy constructivism supplies the theoretical basis for the house-building metaphor. In a constructivist classroom, students put information into mental schemas based upon their prior knowledge to make sense of the material. The professor tends to lecture less—providing content in short monologues is still necessary—and to ask questions more frequently. These questions and other non-lecture activities prompt students to think critically about the material and to put it into their own understandings—similar to putting lumber together to construct walls of a house with prior knowledge as the building’s foundation. In this model, the concern of lessening content to focus on skills is rendered moot as skill development necessitates content acquisition.
Traditional liberal arts colleges and higher education institutions with characteristics of traditional liberal arts colleges pride themselves on preparing students to think critically in jobs and careers after graduation. General education curricula—nearly always including a freshman-level survey course—provide the strongest experiences for developing overall critical thinking skills and a variety of content faculty deem important to understand for a well-informed life. The United States history survey courses offer students of all majors the opportunity to develop and hone critically thinking skills useful in future courses and occupations.
Activities in U.S. history survey courses require students to think about the context of past events; allow students to evaluate past policy decisions to note positive and flawed leadership examples; and help students to develop understandings of change and continuity as well as cause and effect broadly in American history. With respect to the construction model, lectures and readings provide the lumber. Writing essays, class discussions and role plays, and defending answers to questions compel students to use the “lumber” to build a house. The professor acts as “zoning inspector” providing feedback on student’s answers in class and on essays and exams. Such learning activities work best in smaller classes—forty-five students or fewer—but can be modified for larger classes especially through the implementation of discussion sections.
Lincoln Logs® serve as manipulatives to demonstrate the construction of narratives in undergraduate historical methods courses. Given a set of Lincoln Logs®, each student would likely build something different—arriving at distinctive conclusions or organizing analyses differently using the same evidence. From this hands-on activity, discussions of what history is and how historians develop their writing emerge. Increasingly larger structures show the progression of levels and types of writing from short essay to book review to capstone writing assignment.