Bruce A. Van Sledright (2014) Assessing Historical Thinking and Understanding Innovative Designs for New Standards. New York and London: Routledge

Cost: $30.95

This book advocates, and offers models for, a revised system for the assessment of history for secondary aged pupils as currently practiced within the US school system. It also intends to promote an approach to historical pedagogy that gives a focus on the methods of the historian and the tentative nature of historical knowledge rather than the recall of a received body of pre interpreted knowledge. At a more profound level it is the author’s intention to contribute to debate towards securing richer outcomes for learners. The book offers arguments to challenge what is viewed as an outdated, test driven system concerned with grading and categorising pupils, which is unresponsive to how learners acquire understanding and which fails to promote depth of understanding and recognition of the richness of cultural diversity.

The book is organised in five chapters which argue the case for change; outline the notion of thinking historically related to a learning domain model; advocate investigative approaches to teaching and learning, and suggest appropriate modes for assessment. With reference to the work of US education bodies concerned with standards and assessment the author critiques the multiple choice format test currently offered to pupils in which a ‘right’ answer is selected from four options, as neither formative or diagnostic and thus ineffective for assessing pupil attainment in historical understanding and ‘thinking historically’. The author asserts that to think historically is to acknowledge the subject as temporally and socioculturally located, to recognise perspective, and to challenge existing present minded assumptions as to epistemology. To think historically is an interpretive and evaluative process. Drawing on evidence drawn from studies into the development of learning in history, the psychology of learning and cognition, and from practitioner working groups, the author argues that understanding is to be promoted by pedagogic practice that fosters ongoing exercise of the syntactic processes of the discipline, driven by questioning modelled by the expert practitioner. According to the author the ability of learners to frame productive historical questions is indicative of their historical understanding and is thus a driver for a pedagogic approach and contingent approaches to assessment. The author lays out with the aid of diagrammatic representations, examples drawn from classroom research into an investigative approach to pedagogy and indicates how these support the cognitive processes and methodological practices, namely the sequencing, comparison, evaluation and interpretation of doing history. Whilst the book is focuses on a critique of secondary pupils assessed outcomes; it would have strengthened the author’s case had progression in learning, been given more attention. The book suggests how the multiple choice test might be made more responsive by providing statements to rank in order of importance. Other strategies for assessment such as the use of belief questionnaires, debate and video recording and writing interpretive essays are suggested. The author provides examples of marking criteria that that address various aspects of communicating historical understanding in writing such as citing and corroborating evidence.

This book very much directed at practitioners and policy makers within the US system for whom it raises questions concerning not only pedagogy but implicitly also a philosophy of learning and cultural knowledge that this short volume does not have room to probe. The author offers extensive practical strategies for implementing change and discussion of the constraints and opportunities in so doing specific to the US education system. Those interested in advocacy for teaching history as an evidence based, investigative discipline will approve of the authors advocacy for ‘doing history. They may also find interest in the articulation of the model set out for learning in history and in the discussion of strategies for assessment that unpick historical thinking and how to recognise it. However the non US practitioner may feel that topical debate on subject practice in their own context has different priorities. The UK reader will already be familiar with an emphasis on ‘doing history’.

Professor Kit Field