Book Review: How Students Understand the Past

Written for Museum Practices, Fall 2010

For this fifth writing assignment, I chose How Students Understand the Past: From Theory to Practice by Elaine Davis. This book was published in 2005 and is a comprehensive book for all educators who teach the past to any students. This book would be useful for school teachers, museum educators, or docents in museums or historic sites.

This book explains ways that people make meaning of the past. It is helpfully divided into three parts, each with their own focus. The first part is titled “Teaching and Learning History”. Part I is about the importance of history and how it can be used. The author offers her own history as an example. Chapter 2 is about the issues relevant to history education such as cognitive development, construction of knowledge, act of interpretation. Part II is observations and data from a case study of how students learn conducted by the author. The last part includes conclusions and further inspection of the data collected from the case study, as well as ways to apply those lessons learned from the case study.

Chapter one presents a case in which 5th grade students were assigned to come up with events from memory of past events to place on a timeline. The timeline was twelve feet long with each foot representing a thousand years. Students were only able to come up with events in the last six inches, which is basically the time since Columbus “discovered” the Americas. Students stated that they believed that nothing of importance or change had happened in the previous years not represented, or that we did not know anything about that time. However, even as they stated these thoughts, they knew that it was wrong.

This example shows how the study of history has been limited and the study of women, Native Americans, and African Americans is relatively new, only appearing within the past forty or so years. The exercise also shows the need for improving history education. Teachers should use, and are beginning now to use, a critical approach to history. The use of primary sources, oral history and archaeology, are finally seen as integral parts of the education of history.

One quote that seems to be important for educators and instructors that stood out to me is from page 17: “Understanding how the past is constructed in the minds of individuals and how constructions are influenced by variable such as age, culture, ethnicity, and instruction is essential to the improvement of history and archaeology education.”

The second chapter explained the technical terms and psychology of the ways people learn. The author explained that everyone constructs the past differently, and that the cognitive development and concept of time of each individual is different. The section also refers to the several different types of learners such as axiological, empirical, and organizational. Here the author explains that she is not trying to answer the questions of how people learn, but rather to show the complexity which exists and is used in her case study.

The case study by Davis comprises the entire second part of the book. It is a bit long to read, but it is very interesting. All history instructors should read this case study as an introduction to learning how students learn. The study begins with background about the area, school, students, and centers used. There are small sections of information about the individual teachers and students used in the study. The study examines the approaches used in the past to instruct students about history, and explains the new technique that will be used for the study.

The study focuses on how fourth grade students in a Colorado school learn about Pueblo history. For the new way of studying, Davis takes the students on a site tour, simulates an archaeological dig, and guides the students through a Pueblo Heritage center. Following descriptions of these exercises, the author presents all of her data and analysis of what students did and did not learn. She also provides charts of her data for better understanding. Davis uses her data on what changed in the students’ learning to explain to the reader how to teach students about the past.

Some of the most interesting information in this section, for me, was information about the interviews conducted by Davis with various students about how and what they learned. It is remarkable how much students were able to retain after visiting and getting hands on experience.

Part Three is basically conclusions of the study and points for instructors to remember. The author reminds instructors to not be limited by assumptions and to carefully chose what context and text to use when instructing those with different learning styles.

Pages 119-120 contain a list of essential points for history educators to remember that I think is very important:

  • Historical knowledge is constructed 2 ways: narrative understanding and logical-scientific understanding.
  • History should be viewed as all of the human past, not just written past.
  • Knowledge of the past is constructed and learners enter into studies of the past with preconceptions.
  • What educators believe they are teaching may not, in fact, be what students are learning.
  • Educators have their own assumptions.
  • Learning requires active engagement.
  • Several models of instruction are useful for helping students understand the past.
  • Objects (artifacts, replicas, etc.) help a learner understand the past.
  • Learners are more engaged in studies of the past when they are involved in constructing it.


This book has been helpful to me for working as a Social Studies instructor in the museum setting. Many of the things in this book could be considered common sense, but several of these things are important and should stand as reminders. I would recommend this book to any person who teaches or instructs students about history in museum education.



How Students Understand the Past: From Theory to Practice by M. Elaine Davis. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2005.


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